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Title page of the Aiken Bible.
The Aitken Bible. Philadelphia, 1782. Copy 1. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

“Bible of the Revolution”: the Aitken Bible in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division

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The following post is by Monica Varner, Collections Manager in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

In September of 1782, a committee of the United States Congress (at that time the Congress of the Confederation) met in the capital city of Philadelphia to discuss the recent production of local printer Robert Aitken. The work, a 1452-page protestant Bible, was advertised on the title page as being a new translation into English from the “original tongues,” as well as having been “diligently” compared to preceding translations. James Duane, committee chairman, noted its political significance in the minutes printed at the end of the work:

“[Aitken] undertook this expensive work at a time when, from the circumstances of the war, an English edition of the Bible could not be imported, nor any opinion formed how long the obstruction might continue.”

The publication of the “Aitken Bible” was a landmark moment in the book history of the United States. As the first complete Bible published in an independent America, the tome represents not only its publisher’s piety, but the country’s burgeoning cultural identity detached from that of Britain’s, as well as an intrepid side-stepping of the embargo affecting the importation of books. By decreeing it not just an American copy of a British publisher’s work, but as a brand new, comprehensive incarnation of the Bible for an American audience, the Aitken Bible became not just a devotional text, but a patriotic one as well. It remains the only edition of the Bible authorized by Congress.

Title page of the Aiken Bible.
The Aitken Bible. Philadelphia, 1782. Copy 1. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The copy of the Aitken Bible in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division was acquired in 1891 at the sale of John R. Baker Sr.’s book collection, held at the auction house of Thomas Birch’s Sons in Philadelphia. The sale, held from February 11th to 12th, was significant for its selection of Washingtoniana, such as George Washington’s hair, a silver plate from his coffin, and books from his personal library like Don Quixote and an essay on rabies. The most expensive items, a first edition of The Federalist owned by Washington and a manuscript journal of Elias Boudinot, sold for $950 and $1,050, respectively.

Image of volume 1 and 2 with green leather binding and gold tooling.
Volume I-II of Copy 1 of the Aitken Bible in the Rare Book and Special collections Division.

The Aitken Bible, lot 209, sold for an impressive $650 (roughly $21,000 in today’s dollars). This was reportedly the first time a copy of the Aitken Bible had been sold at auction. When introducing the lot for bid, the auctioneer described it as “the Bible of Bibles;” a copy recently sold by Christie’s describes it as “the Bible of the Revolution.” Baker’s catalogue states that the two volumes were likely bound by their publisher, Robert Aitken (1734-1802), and are inscribed by “Aitken’s daughter, Mrs. Catherine Campbell.” This attribution is somewhat suspect, as Aitken is not documented as having a daughter named Catherine. However, his daughter, Mary Ann, married Philadelphia watchmaker Charles Campbell, and Catherine may be a granddaughter or more distant relation.

Image of flyleaf containing signature of "Cath Campbell"
Signature on flyleaf of Volume II of the Aitken Bible Copy 1. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

John Remigius Baker Sr. (1818-1892) was a Philadelphia merchant, descended from German immigrants who settled in the city in 1748. In 1880, his home at 1414 Arch Street was less than a block from Philadelphia’s massive, newly-constructed City Hall, the Masonic Temple, and the Academy of Fine Arts in the center of Philadelphia. John’s wife, Anna Robeson Lea, came from a prominent Pennsylvania family that had emigrated from England around 1700. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the American Philosophical Society, Antiquity Society of Pennsylvania, and several other cultural and charitable organizations. John Remigius Baker Sr. was also related by marriage to Marian S. Carson of the Rare Book & Special Collection Division’s Carson Collection, as the maternal grandfather of her husband, Joseph.     

In 1890, the Bakers became embroiled in the publicity surrounding the sudden disappearance of John’s son John Remigius Jr. (1856-1903). John Jr., a stockbroker and former army colonel, lived outside of Philadelphia with his wife (Helen Vaughan Dyer) and two children. John Sr. had given him control over the trust fund he received as part of his grandfather’s extensive estate in 1890, and access to the estate’s offices and safe, which held securities. On November 19th, 1890, according to a report the following week on the front page of the New York Times, John Jr. received a telegraph, fainted, and departed immediately for Philadelphia, after which he disappeared. It was later discovered that John Jr. had illicitly borrowed against securities of the estate and forged transfers in order to invest the funds, totaling around a million dollars (over $30 million today), in stocks which had suddenly crashed precipitously. Several newspapers across the country reported the same story.

Image of article from Evening star. November 25, 1890.
Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 25 Nov. 1890. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.* Library of Congress.

John Sr. died in New Hampshire in 1892, the year after his collection was sold. An announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer states that his passing was “undoubtedly hastened” by his son’s disappearance in 1890. Undoubtedly, it was also hastened by several related court cases in which John Sr. had to argue that he was not responsible for his son’s massive fraud through negligence, and his attempts to regain the estate’s securities that had been lost. Thirteen years after his disappearance, John Jr. was reported deceased in São Paolo, Brazil.

Image of the spines of Volumes I-II of the Aitken Bible.
Aitken Bible. Volumes I-II. Copy 1. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

 

FURTHER READING

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

COL. BAKER IS MISSING. (1890, Nov. 25). Evening Journal. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042354/1890-11-25/ed-1/seq-1/.

IT REMAINS A MYSTERY: DISAPPEARENCE OF JOHN R. BAKER, PHILADELPHIA STOCK OPERATOR. (1890, Nov 25). Evening Star. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1890-11-25/ed-1/seq-5/

PHILADELPHIA BROKER MISSING.: COL. JOHN R. BAKER DISAPPEARS AFTER REPORTED LOSES IN STOCKS. (1890, Nov 25). New York Times (1857-1922) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/philadelphia-broker-missing/docview/94856392/se-2. Please note: this electronic resource and many are others are available to patrons who are researching onsite at the Library of Congress.

 

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