It is the 12th of September 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1782.
It was a heady year for the American colonies. By the end of the year, the peace treaty with the British would be drafted, and most of the skirmishes taking place were in the Atlantic with European allies and enemies taking it out on each other. Back home, what would be known as the founding generation was beginning to establish the iconography of the new country/
These men were obsessed with the Roman Republic. It was more than just neo-classical architecture. The founders infused the republic with images from the ancient republic seen through the eyes of the Enlightenment. It was in 1782 Congress adopted the bald eagle as the national bird. Why an eagle? Because Rome, that’s why. A golden eagle represented the Roman republic. And the Bald Eagle was prevalent in North America. So, it made sense—sort of.
Let’s break down the facts of the Bald Eagle:
- It’s not bald. Its hair changes from brown to white on the top of its head.
- Its cry sounds more like a high-pitched giggle than what you have heard. You have likely listened to the cry of a red tail hawk, which is usually dubbed over the silly call of the bald eagle.
- They can catch their own fish but tend to live by scavenging off others. You may know that this was a deal-breaker for Ben Franklin. He said of this bird:
“For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly ... besides, he is a rank coward.”
The eagle made its appearance on the National Seal of the United States, also established in this year. And while Congress was busy marking the “official” everything in this year, it was on this day, the 12th of September, in 1782, that Congress officially “recommended” the first whole Bible printed in English in America by Robert Aitken as the Bible of the new country. As with all things church/state in America in the late 18th century, we have no shortage of people claiming this to the silver bullet in the “was America a Christian nation” debate.
But as with most things, it’s complicated. Before 1782, British subjects, e.g., the colonists, could only buy certain items as approved by the crown. In the old world, being the printer of the official Bible of the state was a lucrative deal. Aitken, who had played with smaller publications of select books of the Bible, printed the first complete English language Bible in 1782. He petitioned to become the official printer of the official Bible.
However, this rubbed many in the capitol the wrong way. While maybe a third of the new government held traditional Christian views, most agreed that there could be no “official bible” in the country as there was in England. Thus, they decided to “recommend” the work but couch it as both a religious undertaking. But also one showing progress in the arts and useful sciences. By the time this so-called “Bible of the Revolution” was printed, the revolution was nearly over. Aitken suggested that the soldiers be given free copies, but this never took place, and soon Aitken’s Bible became a footnote in the history of American church/state relations. The Bible went into such obscurity that it later took on new significance as one of the rarest books in early American antiquaries.
Despite the grand stories, it was never carried into battle by the troops, and the fact that they literally couldn’t give it away might tell us something of the religious sensibilities of many. It is a monument to early publishing, a decision about whether to have an official Bible and a uniquely rare collectible. The so-called “Aitken Bible” was “recommended” by an act of Congress on this day, the 12th of September, in 1782.
In 1782 William Cowper published his first collection of poems. This is a stanza from a Poem by Cowper entitled “for the poor.”
To Jesus then your trouble bring,
Nor murmur at your lot;
While you are poor and He is King,
You shall not be forgot.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of September 2020, presented by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who it has been falsely reported is “of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly ... besides, he is a rank coward,” Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.