Collecting American Bibles

by Don Heese
(Bible Collectors’ World – Jan./Mar. 1985)

The Bible publishing heritage of America is unsurpassed by that of any other nation. Forbidden by the British Crown to print their own King James Bibles, it was not until 1782, at the close of the Revolutionary War that Americans felt free to produce these Scriptures. But, from that time until today, diligent efforts have been made to see that anyone in the United States who wanted a Bible could have one.

My own interest in American Bible publishing and distribution began in 1951. I was going to college in Minneapolis where an 1828 New Testament was found. It was published by S. Shaw of Albany, New York. My purchase price was $2.50. That was the oldest Bible I had ever seen up to that time. This New Testament sparked a smoldering fire that finally broke into an open flame in 1959 after my family and I moved to Denver, Colorado. Bill Paul, a good Bible collecting friend, moved to town and was primarily interested in different translations, while my fancy turned to all American Bible publications. There was a lack of interest on the part of the public and collectors in saving the King James editions of the Bible. To me, they were a most vital part of our Bible heritage. Each year more of the so-called Authorized Versions were printed than all others combined. It was the Bible people read, carried to church and placed on the end table for decoration. Whether we like this version or not, it was the Bible people used, a center piece of the American heritage.

Some Bibles, outstanding for their historical interest have gained the attention of collectors. Included among them are: the John Eliot Indian Bibles and Testaments of the 17th century, Christopher Saur German Bibles and Testaments of the 18th century, Robert Aitken’s first American English Bible of 1782, Isaiah Thomas’ folio and first quarto, Isaac Collins’ first New Jersey Bible, Matthew Carey’s first Douay Bible and a few others. But these hardly give us a picture of Bible publishing in America. To get the complete perspective we need specimens of the hundreds of Bibles which are discarded every year. Recently a lady told me of a library in Indiana where they saved the geneology pages out of a number of early American Bibles and condemned the books to be burned. Because of the attitude most people have, the examples of our Bible publishing heritage are rapidly disappearing, never to be reclaimed.

A few of our larger libraries such as the New York Public Library, the American Bible Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, and the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, have made some effort to preserve early Bibles. But most have discarded what they had. A Denver library which is listed in a reference book of libraries as specializing in Bibles has sold items of which they had no duplicate for 25 cents each, simply because they had not been used in recent years. If we want future generations to have a good picture of our heritage, we must begin to act now.

A list of items which I feel should be preserved would include:

1. Bibles, Testaments and Scripture portions in all translations from the 17th century to the present decade. I would save incomplete volumes, which in some cases represent all that remains of that issue. 2. Bible Society reports which tell the story of Bible distribution. 3. Publisher’s Bible advertisements. 4. Publisher’s catalogs listing Bibles. 5. Biographical information on Translators, editors, Bible publishers, printers and stereotypers. 6. Bible and Bible publishing ephemra of every kind. 7. Reference works relative to Bible publishing, distribution and collection.

My own hobby has been an exciting and rewarding 25 years. While the collection includes numerous European volumes dating back to 1581, it is largely centered around American publications, these filling over 300 lineal feet of library shelves.

Every collector enjoys the excitement of finding some really choice item. When you keep looking, it happens. My first was a copy of a Lauritzen New Testament in Hills #37, tells of a 1792 Hodge and Campbell royal folio New Testament as “Not Located.” A Denver antique shop had one for $15.00. The front cover was missing, but the back strip was still there labeled New Testament. An upstate New York used bookstore yielded an incomplete copy of Hills #348, also shown as “Not Located.”

Eighteenth century American Bibles have become very difficult to locate at a price the average collector can afford. And yet, I have come up with nearly twenty of them including three Saur German Bibles, an Aitken 1782 Bible, an Isaiah Thomas folio, two Thomas’ first quarto’s, two Isaac Collins first New Jersey Bibles, etc. Many American printings have been found which are not listed in Margaret Hills, The Bible in America.

It is a great privilege to preserve these items for the benefit of future generations. If your Bible collecting is getting dull, just looking for different translations, try adding American King James for some real excitement.