The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Endorsement of an American Bible


A critical lack of Bibles in the states led to the involvement of the Continental Congress in 1777 to solve the problem. No edition of the Bible in the English language had been published in the colonies before Independence. As a result of the war, ministers experienced a lack of Bibles for their services, causing Dr: Patrick Allison, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, and a large number of ministers from diverse faiths to petition Congress to do something to remedy the shortage. The petition prayed that, "unless timely care be used to prevent it, we shall not have Bibles for our Schools, and families, and for the publick Worship of God in our Churches. We therefore think it our Duty to our Country and to the Churches of Christ to lay this design before this honourable house, humbly requesting that under your care, and by your encouragement, a copy of the holy Bible may be printed, so as to be sold nearly as cheap as the Common Bibles, formerly imported from Britain and Ireland, were sold."

On 11 September 1777 Congress appointed a committee of John Adams, Daniel Roberdeau, and Jonathan Bayard Smith to look into the matter. That same day the committee returned this report:

The committee to whom the memorial of Dr. Allison and others was referred, report, "That they have conferred fully with the printers, &c., in this city, and are of opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties, as render any dependence on it altogether improper: that to import types for the purpose of setting up an entire edition of the bible, and to strike off 30,000 copies, with paper, binding &c. will cost 10,272 to, which must be advanced by Congress, to be reimbursed by the sale of the books: that, in the opinion of the committee, considerable difficulties will attend the procuring the types and paper; that afterwards, the risque of importing them will considerably enhance the cost, and that the calculations are subject to such uncertainty in the present state of affairs, that Congress cannot much rely on them: that the use of the Bible is so universal, and its importance so great, that your committee refer the above to the consideration of Congress, and if Congress shall not think it expedient to order the importation of types and paper, the committee recommend that Congress will order the committee of commerce to import 20,ooo Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the states of' the Union."

In voting on this report, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia were in favor of acting on the recommendation to import, at Congress's expense, 20,000 Bibles; New York, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland opposed such action. Despite the affirmative vote, the margin of one vote led Congress to table the matter, and no final action was taken.

[End Excerpt]


In the meantime, Robert Aitken (1734 1802), a patriotic Philadelphia printer and a Presbyterian elder, had proceeded on his own initiative and published an American edition of the Bible. In January 1781 he petitioned Congress for an endorsement of his project and for financial support. He received the former but not the latter." Congress's endorsement of the Bible without allocating funds for the project is indeed a strong evidence that Congress was deeply committed to the importance of religion for the new republic, but equally unwilling, for whatever reason, to become financially involved.

Although Congress gave no financial aid to the project, the Pennsylvania legislature advanced $700 to Aitken to complete the work."

(SOURCE OF INFORMATION: Excerpts from Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Contributions to original Intent. Derek H. Davis. Oxford University Press, (2000) pp 144-146)

James Madison 'pocket" vetoed the following:

"An act for the free importation of Stereotype plates, and to encourage the printing and gratuitous distribution of the Scriptures by the bible societies within the United States." Not approved.

SEE: Some of The First Official Meanings Assigned to The Establishment Clause

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