September 12: Presbyterians and the Bible

[excerpted from The Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church, by Alfred Nevin (1884), p. 930:

The First Bible Printed in New Jersey, by George S. Mott, D.D.

As early as the beginning of the last century [i.e., the early 1700s] laws existed in some of the colonies requiring every family to be furnished with a Bible. This supply continued to be kept up by individual exertion until the meeting of the first Congress in 1777. To that body a memorial was presented on the Bible destitution throughout the country. This memorial was answered by the appointment of a committee, to advise as to the printing of an edition of thirty thousand Bibles. The population of the colonies then was about three millions, and all the Bibles in the entire world at that time did not exceed four millions. This committee reported that the necessary materials, such as paper and types, were so difficult to obtain, that to print and bind thirty thousand copies would cost £10,272, 10s., and in their judgment was impracticable. But they recommended the following:

“The use of the Bible being so universal, and its importance so great, to direct the Committee on Commerce to import, at the expense of Congress, twenty thousand English Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the States of the Union.” The report was adopted and the importation was ordered.

In 1781, when the continuance of the war prevented further importation, and there was no telling how long this obstruction might be protracted, the subject of printing the Bible was again urged on Congress, and the matter was referred to a committee of three. On their recommendation the following action was taken:–

Resolved, That the United States, in Congress assembled, highly approve the laudable and pious undertaking of Mr. Robert Aitken, of Philadelphia, as subservient of the interests of religion, and being satisfied of the care and accuracy of the execution of the work, recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”

This was on September 12th, 1782.

In 1788 Isaac Collins, a member of the Society of Friends, and an enterprising printer of Trenton, New Jersey, and who established the first newspaper in that State, issued proposals to print a quarto edition of the Bible in 984 pages, at a price of four Spanish dollars. The [Presbyterian] Synod of New York and New Jersey, the same year, recommended the undertaking. Dr. Witherspoon, of Princeton, Dr. Samuel Stanhope Smith, President of Nassau Hall, and Rev. Mr. Armstrong, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Trenton, were appointed a committee to concur with committees of any other Denominations, or of our own Synods, to revise the sheets, and, if necessary, to assist in selecting a standard edition. This committee was also authorized to agree with Mr. Collins to append Ostervald’s Notes, if not inconsistent with the wishes of other than Calvinistic subscribers.

In the Spring of 1789 the General Assembly, at its meeting, appointed a committee of sixteen (on which was Mr. Armstrong) to lay Mr. Collins’ proposal before their respective Presbyteries, and to recommend that subscriptions be solicited in each congregation. This recommendation was repeated in 1790 and in 1791. Mr. Collins, in 1788, issued an octavo New Testament. The quarto edition of the Bible, thus sustained, was issued in 1791. There were five thousand copies. Ostervald’s “Practical Observations,” of 170 pages, were furnished to special subscribers, and were bound between the Old and New Testaments. This Bible was so carefully revised that it is still a standard. He and his children read all the proofs. In a subsequent edition, 1793-4, he states in the preface, after mentioning several clergymen who assisted the publisher in 1791: “Some of these persons, James F. Armstrong in particular, being near the press, assisted also in reading and correcting the proof-sheets.” The above interesting facts on this Collins Bible are found in The History of the Presbyterian Church, Trenton, N.J., by Dr. John Hall, the pastor.

The copy before me was presented to the Presbyterian Church in Flemington, N. J., which was organized in 1791. It was used as the pulpit Bible for sixty-six years. It was the gift of Jasper Smith, one of the ruling elders and President of the Board of Trustees. He was an ardent patriot of the Revolution, a devoted Christian, and a strong Presbyterian. At the time he was one of the leading lawyers of the county. To his exertions and his generous contributions was mainly due the organization of the church, which is now approaching the close of its first century. About the beginning of this century Mr. Smith removed to Lawrenceville, N. J., where he died. In his will he bequeathed to the Presbyterian church there the large farm of over two hundred acres, that is now the manse farm. This Bible of Collins is not only the first, but so far as I know, the only edition of the Holy Scriptures printed in New Jersey.

[*According to this web page, only two copies of the 1782 Collins Bible are extant (while copies of the 1791 edition seem readily available, even showing up on eBay from time to time!). We also note that the first Bible produced on American soil was in the Algonquin language, produced by the missionary John Elliott.]

Words to Live By:
For the Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even o the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” — (Hebrews 4:12)

“That the Bible is a self-consistent, self-interpretive book has been the belief of Jews (as regards the Old Testament) and Christians alike throughout the centuries. It is clearly set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith in the following significant statement: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture in the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one,) it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” A distinguished theologian, Dr. Charles Hodge, has expressed it as follows: “If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place any thing which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture.”


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