Earliest American Bibles

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, painting by Robert W. Weir.

The original of this painting, 12’ x 18’ in size, was commissioned for and placed in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in 1844.  Pilgrims are shown on the deck of the Speedwellbefore their departure to America from Holland in 1620.  William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer.  The inclusion of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community.  At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, symbolizing hope and divine protection.


Bay Psalm Book, 1640.
Bay Psalm Book, 1640.

The first book printed in America and the first book entirely written in the American colonies was The Bay Psalm Book. This was quite an accomplishment, just 20 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and 10 years after the Puritan Migration to Massachusetts. The first printing press in New England was purchased and imported specifically to print this book. The translations were prepared by a group of thirty clergymen. No tunes were printed in the first edition, though later editions included music. The Bay Psalm Book went through numerous editions and continued in use in the churches over 100 years. This is a facsimile of the 1640 edition.

Back-of-NT-Title-PageThis 1581 Geneva Bible was brought to America by Christopher Avery in 1630-1640.  Family tradition says Christopher and his ten year old son James were on the Arbella with John Winthrop.  James Avery became a founder of Groton, Connecticut and was  a prominent government and church leader.  The Bible continued in the possession of James Avery and his descendants until placed on loan at the Dunham Bible Museum in 2013.  Read more about the Avery Bible in a winning essay from the Piece of the Past contest by Emma Perry: Avery Bible: The Hearts of Children to Their Fathers


Eliot Indian Bible, 1663.


The first Bible to be printed in America was John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquian. The first seal of the Massachusetts colony included the picture of a native American speaking the words “Come and help us.” (from Acts 16:9). Sharing the Gospel with the natives was an early aim of the colony. John Eliot, pastor in Roxbury, Massachusetts, especially concentrated on learning Algonquian and developing a written language for the natives. In 1663 he printed the Indian Bible. The actual printing of the Bible took three years, printing one thousands copies of one page a week.

Psalms of David with Musical Notation, 1767.


In many of the colonial churches, the psalms were the only songs sung in church. This volume, which was designed “for the use of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York,” is the earliest American book to contain extensive use of music printed from type. The type for the music was obtained at considerable cost from a press in Amsterdam, and the versification was accomplished by the famous Francis Hopkinson (1737-91), author, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a songwriter generally credited with being the first native of America to have produced a musical composition.

New Testament, Francis Bailey, printer, 1780.


England did not allow the printing of English Bibles in her colonies, and no Bibles were printed in America during the colonial period. All Bibles were imported from England, Holland or Scotland. The War for Independence made importation from England impossible. Several American printers began printing New Testaments, including Francis Bailey of Philadelphia. This is the only known complete copy of Bailey’s New Testament.

“Bible of the Revolution,” Robert Aitken, printer, 1782.



The first entire English Bible printed in America. As early as 1777 in the War for Independence, Congress considered funding the importation of Bibles from Holland or Scotland. Robert Aitken, an immigrant from Scotland, published a New Testament, then asked Congress’ permission to publish the entire Bible. As his petition noted, “in every well regulated Government in Christendom” the Holy Bible was “published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian faith might suffer from the Spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation.” Aitken printed Congress’ authorization and support in the front of his Bible. This was the only Bible ever authorized by an act of Congress.






NEXT: Bibles for a Young Republic