During the Revolutionary War it was difficult for people to import Bibles to these shores due to embargoes and blockades. So an enterprising printer from Philadelphia began to print a small King James version Bible at his own expense. This edition was small enough to fit in a coat pocket. The printer was Robert Aitken. Aitken petitioned the Continental Congress, for whom he had done other print jobs, to approve his Bible and later to provide support for it. Congress did give modest recognition to his project, but never gave any monetary support. In the end Mr. Aitken lost a significant sum on this project, but today you can find at least one internet source selling individual pages from that Bible at exorbitant prices. Today Bible printing has become big business, and there are more versions and editions than any one person would ever want. But it is well to remind ourselves that these riches were not always the case in America. Furthermore, Robert Aitken stands as one more example of the type of American entrepreneur that has contributed to the greatness of this country. He saw something that needed doing, and set out at personal expense to get it done.
In an earlier post I explained that the Bible of the Puritans was the Geneva Bible, and that it had extensive marginal notes. Today Bibles with study notes are ubiquitous. Three stand out to this writer. One is the NET Bible. It has over 60,000 translators’ notes. These are non-sectarian and very useful for the person who has at least a basic knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. For the general reader there are two that I would recommend. One is The Archaeological Study Bible in the New International Version. The notes are interesting if you are interested in archaeological research as it pertains to the Bible, especially the Old Testament. There are also footnotes of a general sort, and introductions to the individual books. Perhaps the most thorough conservative study Bible I have encountered is the Holman Christian Standard Bible in the study Bible version. It is a virtual library in one volume with extensive notes, introductions, sidebar articles, timelines and useful indexes. It tries to translate in a completely up-to-date manner with an effort to balance meaning with exactness. There are many more study Bibles in this age of biblical study riches, at least in the English speaking world.
Thomas Jefferson was a scholar as well as a founding father of this country. While he never identified himself as a Evangelical Christian he did consider himself a follower of the one whom he said the world continues to crucify. Details about his own cut and paste Bible are difficult to come by. Chapter six of The Bible and Bibles in America gives about as good a summary as can be found of Jefferson’s book, which was titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It was never published in his own lifetime. It was not until Congress published it in 1904 that it became generally available. Though Jefferson is often labelled a Deist, he called himself a Christian saying in a letter to Benjamin Rush, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” In saying this he affirmed Jesus’ manhood, but of course denied his deity. He was most certainly Unitarian rather than Trinitarian. His version of the Gospels includes all that he thought was the best in Jesus’ moral teachings, but the miracles and anything that seemed to imply his deity are missing.
The Bible is both a cause and a support of American freedoms. It is no accident that totalitarian regimes the world over have made efforts to suppress free access to the Bible. Despite differences of interpretation, and conflicts over its applications to politically charged issues, the Bible continues to undergird American freedoms. To the extent that the people look to the Bible as a source of higher principles, transcendent ideas, and moral guidance; to that extent they will not tolerate political agendas that threaten these beliefs. The Bible has led Americans to insist that human government is not God, and that the Living God of Holy Scriptures will bring all into judgment. Thus the individual conscience before God has been one of the constant refrains of biblical faith, and a major guardian of American principles of freedom. It is an interesting irony that the very conflicts which have historically marked American uses of the Bible, are also the marks of the freedoms derived from it.