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.

Posts tagged “Aitken Bible

The King James Bible, a New Nation, and Noah Webster

Aitken Bible. 1782. Library of Congress.

A post about the Folger Institute’s recent King James Bible conference by Adrienne Shevchuk, program assistant to the Folger Institute, recently appeared on the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, “The Collation,” and we wanted to share some excerpts here. Adrienne has a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, with particular interest in film adaptation. You can read her full Collation blog post here—including a fascinating anecdote about Ben Franklin’s playful ways with the King James Bible.

As part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, the Folger Institute hosted a conference bringing together scholars from across the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss the effect of this Bible on social, cultural and political societies of early Stuart England and colonial America.

The breadth of discussion in the conference, entitled An Anglo-American History of the KJV, took us far beyond the king’s castle and our New England and Virginia roots, however, demonstrating how the language of the KJV was disseminated throughout the various regions and cultures of the United States, including its translation for the native Cherokee nation as well as its role in the lives of slaves and later emancipated African Americans.

The keynote speaker to kick off the conference was Jill Lepore, novelist, professor of American history at Harvard University, and a contributing writer for The New Yorker. Professing, humbly, to know more about psittacosis, or parrot fever, than the KJV, Professor Lepore nonetheless presented a packed theater with an early American reception of the KJV that was quite different from the one it received on its home turf.

That is, while it could be argued (and was throughout the first day of the conference) that James himself wasn’t zealous about the distribution and use of the 1611 version over all others, allowing for a lukewarm dispersal and reception in Britain, colonial and postcolonial America grappled with the KJV, either accepting it into religious life or expelling it completely. Forbidden by decree to print Bibles, colonists had to bring their Bibles with them, or order them from England. However, in 1775, when British imports were banned, Americans began printing Bibles on their own.

Webster's edited Bible. 1833. Amherst College.

Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, preferred that some of the wording of the KJV be expelled not just from his house, but from all of America. A religious man, Webster would provide America with its very own dictionary—a distinctly Christian dictionary at that. He also felt that America needed its own language (we can thank him for saving us from the likes of the anglicized “favour,” “theatre,” and “mimick”). Webster described some aspects of the language of the KJV as “ungrammatical,” “filthy,” and interestingly enough, “obsolete.”

His edit of the KJV turned out to be a failed endeavor. In spite of that, however, Professor Lepore’s witty and informative lecture described a patriotic man and a young country, desperate to step onto the world’s stage away from the shelter of the British colonial umbrella, on its own terms and with its own language.

Professor Lepore’s talk is now available as a Folger podcast. 

For more about the 1782 Aitken Bible (also called “The Bible of the Revolution”), Noah Webster’s edit of the King James Bible, and more, see the Historic American Bibles image gallery in our Manifold Greatness website.

Adrienne Shevchuk is the program assistant to the Folger Institute.


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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers