Friday, November 11, 2011

The Separation of Church and State Myth: Part 1 – The Aitken Bible


While you are not likely to find accounts of the Aitken Bible in your history books, the very real existence of it provides a little insight into how the founders of the United States viewed the so-called separation of church and state.

In 1782, the Continental Congress of the United States authorized the printing of 10,000 copies of the first English edition of the Bible printed in America.  In authorizing Robert Aitken to print his version of the Holy Bible they also granted him the authority to print the following recommendation from Congress.


THAT the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this Recommendation in the manner he shall think proper [emphasis added].

To understand the origins of the Aitken Bible we have to go back to 1777.  With supplies of Bibles in the US being cut off by the British, the Continental Congress began searching for ways to find alternative sources.  Two motions were presented before the congress to import Bibles from other countries.  Neither motion succeeded.

Sensing an opportunity, a printer by the name of Robert Aitken who was already printing copies of the Journals of Congress produced his own version of the Holy Scripture.  He presented his version to congress in 1781 along with his petition asking them to inspect and authorize his work.

On September 12, 1782, Congress granted Aitken their authorization to print his version of the Bible.  At the same time Congress provided their recommendation of the Aitken Bible to those living in the United States.

Unfortunately for Aitken, his Bible was a commercial failure.  He later petitioned congress to purchase the remaining supply and distribute them to soldiers.  The new petition was denied.


Anonymous said...

Keep in mind this occurred prior to the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 and the convening of the 1st US Congress in 1789. So it definitely reinforces the fact that default mindset back then was that Christianity was part of the fabric of society. But I don't think it proves that point you are trying to make.

Doug Indeap said...

So-called? Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

Congress did not "authorize" the printing of any Bibles. Rather, at a time when the general reputation of local printers was such that they could hardly compete against British printers, Congress simply passed a resolution recommending a Philadelphia printer's recent edition of the Bible based on its chaplain's report of the satisfactory "care and accuracy" of his work. The printer actually asked for much more, i.e., that his Bible be published under the authority of Congress and that he be commissioned to print and vend his editions of the Bible. All he got was the resolution you quote.

Anonymous said...

Doug - I have to admire your ability to play fast a loose with the facts in order to fit an agenda.

Separation of Church and State the bed rock of our nation? Not only was the First Amendment not ratified as part of our constitution until 1788, 6 years after the authorization of the Aitken Bible, but it has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. The only thing the First Amendment does even remotely linked to the issue is prevent the federal government from creating a national religion like that of The Church of England. In fact, at the time of ratification several states had official state churches.

You also claim the Aitken Bible was recommended by Congress to give it a leg up over British Bibles. This again is false. British Bibles had been cut off because of the war. As stated, Congress had been looking for an alternate source for Bibles for its citizens. It considered importing from several other nations. Aitken saw an opportunity and printed a handful of his own version of the bible to present to congress. Congress had it examined and found it acceptable, and as can be clearly read authorized its printing along with the recommendation given by Congress.

Can you provide us with recommendations of Congress for other books from the time? The Koran? How about a non-religious book like a Dictionary?

The Founding Father's believed the United States was the culmination of divine inspiration. Proof of this can be seen in the art of the capital, in the originally purposed great seal of the United States created by Ben Franklin, among other sources.

Doug Indeap said...

Small points: Of course British imports of books, including Bibles, were not available during the Revolutionary War . . . but remained of competitive concern to Colonial printers because the public generally regarded Colonial printing inferior and anticipated renewed importation of higher quality British printing once the war ended--which is largely what happened and why Aitken's venture foundered.

Reread the resolution. It does not, as you assert, authorize the printing of Bibles. It merely endorses the care and accuracy of Aitken's printing , holds it up as "an instance of the progress of arts in this country," and, on that basis, recommends his edition and authorizes him to publish "this Recommendation" as he sees fit.

Large points: That the Constitution separated religion and government is plain as I noted above. To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

It is instructive to recall that the Constitution's separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a "disestablishment" political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term "antidisestablishmentarianism," which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

Anonymous said...

Doug - love how you leave out the key phrase in the recommendation to suit your needs. Don't forget, "the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion subservient to the interest of religion".

Aitken did not go to a full press run of his Bible until he received the authorization from Congress. That is fact. It is also fact Congress was actively seeking alternative sources of Bibles, that was the motivational factor, not concern for the reputation of printers in the US versus England.

Anonymous said...

Doug - you also ignored the use of the Us Capitol by both Jefferson and Madison, the key figures you credit with separation of church and state, as their places of worship.

The simple fact you can not ignore is that their intention was merely to prevent the formation of a national church, nothing more.