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Since the mid-nineteenth century, a number of books have been written about the history of the Bible in America. While there appears to be some uncertainty about when and which Bibles were first brought to America, authors generally agree that the first complete Bible printed in America was in 1663 at the Cambridge, Massachusetts printing house of Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson. Often called the “Indian Bible,” this first American-printed Bible was translated into the language of the people of the Algonquin tribes.1
(Source: Printed by Samuel Green & Marmaduke Johnson, Cambridge, MA, accessed at Wikimedia Commons)
Despite the printing of this early Bible, Bible printing in America remained limited in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with most Bibles either being supplied by British and European printers or brought to America by immigrants. With advances in printing techniques and machinery, combined with demand, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Bible publishing took off in America. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York distinguished themselves as primary publishing locations.2
According to Bible historian Paul Gutjahr, for much of the eighteenth century, the Bible had huge popularity and was the “most printed, most distributed, and most read written text in North America.”3 For many families, the Bible not only reflected commitment to their religious and spiritual lives, but it also served as a connection to distant relatives and deceased ancestors as well as a source of pride. Recognizing this latter point, publishers began offering Bibles with ornately carved or embossed covers and elaborate, sometimes colored, illustrations. Where space allowed, families often displayed their Bibles prominently in their homes.
“The Old Fashioned Bible”
“Ye scenes of tranquility, long have we parted,
My friends almost gone and my parents no more;
In sorrow and sadness I live broken hearted,
And wander unknown on a far distant shore.
Yet how can I doubt of a Saviour’s protection,
Forgetful of gifts from his bountiful hand!
Oh, let me with patience, receive his correction,
And think of the Bible that lay on the stand;
The old-fashioned Bible, the dear blessed Bible,
The family Bible, that lay on the stand.”
(Source: Excerpt From “The Old Fashioned Bible, as Sung by the Alleghanians” (Verse 3) c. 1856)
The business of Bible publishing produced several prominent printers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; yet, one—Mathew Carey (1760-1839), a Philadelphia printer—stands out for his contributions to Bible printing in America, as well as his prominent connections.
Carey was an Irish-Catholic, who fled Ireland for political reasons. He worked as a printer for Benjamin Franklin in Paris and, eventually, with the financial support of General Lafayette, established his own newspaper and printing press in Philadelphia. With the encouragement of John Carroll, the first Archbishop of the Catholic Church in America and a prominent figure in Maryland and Montgomery County history, Carey printed the first Catholic Douay Bibles in America. However, he soon found that producing the Protestant King James Bible was more lucrative, as Catholic Bibles were not in high demand until after about 1820.4
“Carey’s sensitivity to the marketplace, exacting attention to detail, quick adoption of standing type, and aggressive marketing practices made his methods both a model and a harbinger for much of the nineteenth-century scripture production. Carey became the largest American producer of Bibles in the first two decades of the nineteenth century.”5
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