Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

The Aitken Bible: Preventing Fatal Confusion and Alarming Injuries

Aitken Bible. Library of Congress.

The year was 1781. The war between the colonies and the crown had been dragging on for years. America was still six years from adopting a constitution. Robert Aitkin, a Scottish immigrant, sensed a religious need—and a commercial niche. The Revolutionary War had choked off the supply of Bibles to the colonies. He petitioned the “United States in Congress” for permission to publish an authorized edition of the King James Bible to prevent “fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian faith might suffer.” Such evils might occur, he said, because of “Spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation.”

Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado holds a replica of the 1611 King James Bible. A panel version of the Manifold Greatness exhibition will travel to East Library in Colorado Springs in 2012. R. David/ National Endowment for the Humanities.

A year passed before Aitkin’s prayers were answered when Congress’s two chaplains endorsed his undertaking. Within days, the Continental Congress resolved to “recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.” The grateful publisher printed 10,000 copies of the King James translation, placing an abstract of the congressional testimonial in the preface of his Bibles.

Aitkin’s King James Bibles were produced singly and in two volume sets. About fifty remain in existence, including one the Library of Congress has lent to the Folger Shakespeare Library for its exhibition Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible.

Representative Daniel Webster of Florida previews the Manifold Greatness exhibition. R. David/ National Endowment for the Humanities.

The exhibition, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has also been turned into a traveling exhibit to be displayed and discussed in forty libraries across the country over the next two years. The Folger also produced a rich website full of material for a wide range of audiences of all ages.

NEH hosted a preview reception on September 21 for Members of Congress to showcase the results of its 2010 grant. (See photos)

NEH Chairman Jim Leach and Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey discuss the King James Bible. R. David/ National Endowment for the Humanities.

Alas for Aitkin, the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 reopened trade between the new United States and Europe. Aitkin’s version of the King James Bible, despite being the only Bible ever recommended by Congress (the First Amendment to the Constitution, which said that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” wasn’t ratified until 1791), couldn’t compete.

Practicality triumphed over ideology. The Aitkin Bible, with pages only 3 1/8 inches wide, almost no margins, and inferior paper, was undersold by higher-quality foreign imports. Americans bought the English version, whether the product of their colonial overlords or not. No act of any Congress could convince them otherwise.

Judy Havemann is the communications director for the National Endowment for the Humanities and is grateful for the research published on the website of the Houston Baptist University’s Dunham Bible Museum and Paul C. Gutjahr’s An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880.

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