Fact check: Congress didn't print America's first Bible for use in public schools

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The claim: The first Bible printed in America was printed by Congress for use in public schools

Social media users claim Congress shirked separation of church and state by printing America's first Christian Bible.

"Did You Know? The first Bible printed in America was printed by Congress for use in our PUBLIC SCHOOLS," reads a Nov. 24 Facebook post that received more than 700 shares and 100 likes in four days. "On the inside cover is (sic) says, 'this Congress recommends this book to every inhabitant of these United States!'"

But the claim gets most of the facts wrong.

The first Bible printed in America was translated into an Algonquin tribal language in an effort to evangelize indigenous people. While Congress did endorse the first English-language Bible printed in America, it did not print the Bible, pay for it or suggest it be used in public schools.

USA TODAY reached out to the page that shared the post for comment.

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First printed Bibles in America

The first complete Bible printed in America was the "Eliot Indian Bible," which was translated into the Natick dialect of local Algonquin tribes by Puritan clergyman and pastor John Eliot, according to exhibit notes for the Library of Congress' Bible Collection. It was part of an effort to convert indigenous people to Christianity.

About 1,000 copies were printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1660 and 1663. But within one generation of Eliot's missionary work, indigenous speakers of Natick had died from European diseases spread by colonists, according to the University of Illinois' Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Nearly 100 years later, the first European-language Bible was printed in the New World – but the language wasn't English. In 1743, Christoph Saur printed a German-translated copy of the Bible based on Martin Luther's version of the text in Germantown, Pennsylvania, according to the Gruber Rare Books Collection at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

The first full-length English Bible printed in America was printed by Robert Aitken in 1782, according to exhibit notes for the Library of Congress' Bible Collection.

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Congress and the Aitken Bible

Printing English versions of the Bible was forbidden in America's early years, as that was a task reserved for "the King's printers" in England, according to Mark Noll, a religious historian at Notre Dame University.

In 1777, Aitken printed a New Testament at his own expense, and in 1781 he petitioned Congress to publish a Bible "under the Authority" of the new government, said Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer of the Museum of the Bible. Aitken also noted the book could be put to "the use of schools." That petition received no response, soAitken sent a second petition in 1782, which was taken up by a special committee, Kloha said.

Congress approved Aitken's request on Sept. 10, 1782, calling it a "pious and laudable undertaking" and "an instance of the progress of arts in this country," an entry in the Journals of the American Congress shows.

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"Being satisfied from the above report, of (Aitken's) care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper," the entry reads.

Kloha said that while both private individuals and Congress saw benefits to printing American Bibles, Congress' "recommendation" did not foot the bill for Aitken's project nor authorize its printing by Congress.

The legislature's approval also notably does not address Aitken's assertion that the Bibles should be used by schools.

"Aitken, not Congress, described his publication as 'a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools,'" said Catherine Brekus, professor of the history of religion in America at Harvard Divinity School.

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"These matters before Congress had nothing to do with 'public education,' which as such did not exist until decades later when local communities – New York City first – began to set up the structures that would eventually lead to tax-supported education," Noll said.

That doesn't mean the Bible wasn't taught in schools, despite no explicit approval from Congress.

"Most schools at whatever level of instruction in 1781 had a connection to a church or denomination, and they also often received public/tax funding at the state or parish level," Thomas Kidd, a religious historian at Baylor University, said in an email. "But the schools were generally ad hoc operations, and none of the states had a formal 'public school system' like we understand it today. There would have been virtually no objection in the states in 1781 to explicit Christian instruction in schools, or taxpayer support for Bibles."

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the first Bible printed in America was printed by Congress for use in public schools. The first Bible printed in America was translated into an Algonquin tribal language in an effort to evangelize indigenous people. While Congress did endorse the first full English-language Bible printed in America, it did not print the Bible, pay for it or suggest it be used in public schools. Experts say there was no public education system at the time.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Congress didn't print first American Bible

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