NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY SHOWCASES EARLY AMERICAN BIBLES,
MANY ON PUBLIC VIEW FOR THE FIRST TIME
In God We Trust: Early Bible Printings from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection Reveals Unique Aspects of Our Nation’s History
On view April 17 – June 23, 2019
NEW YORK, NY (April 8, 2019)—This spring, the New-York Historical Society welcomes an extraordinary collection of historic Bibles and religious texts, many of which are on public display for the first time. On view April 17 – June 23, 2019, In God We Trust: Early Bible Printings from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection celebrates the linguistic, cultural, and religious differences that have characterized America’s inhabitants for the past 400 years and reveals the connection between Bibles and American identity. The collection was assembled by philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, and among the highlights on view are the first Bible printed in America, the first Bible printed in English in America, the first Bible translated by a woman, and the first book printed in British North America, the “Bay Psalm Book.”
“We are thrilled to display these outstanding examples of early American books, many never before seen by the public and all fruits of Mr. Rubenstein’s passion for collecting American history in the service of the public good,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, New-York Historical president and CEO.“ The story this exhibition tells, of the importance of the printed book—and of scholarship more generally—to our early American forebears, of the diversity already resident in the young United States, and of the audacity of early American settlers who brought a printing press across the ocean to show the world they had the talent and the skills to create something new, will leave a deep and lasting impression on our visitors.”
“I am pleased that the New-York Historical Society will be providing the public with an opportunity to see some of the most significant examples of early American religious publications,” said David M. Rubenstein. “I hope that those interested in learning more about American history will visit this exhibition. I believe they will consider the time well spent.”
Among the highlights on view are:
- First Book Printed in British North America: The Whole Booke of Psalmes, commonly known as the “Bay Psalm Book,” was published in 1640 for religious dissenters who fled England for Massachusetts and featured a new translation of the Psalms by the colonists themselves. It is the only copy that exists today in a private collection.
- First Bible Printed in America: Known as the Eliot Bible in honor of the Christian missionary, John Eliot, who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England, it is written not in the English of the colonists, but in Natick, a Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquian language. This 1,200-page feat of translation represents the first time that the Old and New Testaments were produced on American shores. As a pastor, Eliot began learning Natick in order to preach, and in the eight years it took to create his Bible, he had the help of at least three Native Americans in setting type and transliterating the language into the English alphabet. It was first printed in 1661.
- First American Bible Printed in a European Language: By 1743, when the First Saur Bible was printed, the Philadelphia area had seen 60 years of steady German immigration. Christopher Saur believed that domestically-made Bibles should be sold cheaper or given for free to the devout Lutheran, Mennonite, Reformed, and Anabaptist sects living across tolerant, Quaker Pennsylvania. Accordingly, he printed his Bible entirely in German, using text mostly from the Luther Bible.
- First Book of Music Printed from Type in America: Less than a century after their forebears relinquished New Amsterdam, the churchgoers of the Reformed Dutch Church of New York, located on Fulton and Williams Streets, elected to update their services into English. This meant printing the first English-language edition of their hymnbook. To create The Psalms of David, printed in 1767, the type for the musical notes was obtained from Holland, where John Henry Livingston, the future pastor of the church, did the translation. Setting the hymns to music was the job of Francis Hopkinson, who later would represent New Jersey in signing the Declaration of Independence.
- First Bible in English Printed in America: When the Revolutionary War created a shortage of Bibles from England, religious leaders appealed to the Continental Congress, which in turn decided that the embattled colonies didn’t have enough paper or type to print the King James version. With limited resources, in wartime peril, at great expense, and in violation of royal patents licensing the Church of England’s texts, publisher Robert Aitken—a Scottish immigrant who opposed British rule—completed the first domestically printed Bible in 1781 and 1782. It would become known as the Bible of the Revolution.
- First Catholic Bible Printed in America: Dublin-born Matthew Carey was probably the most important printer in the early American republic. He introduced the first Catholic Bible in a dominant Protestant culture in 1790. He expected that his subscribers would epitomize “the rapid advances that America has made in the divine principle of toleration.”
- First Hebrew Bible Printed in America: In 1812, Jonathan Horwitz, a learned, observant Jew, arrived in New York from Amsterdam during the War of 1812’s blockades carrying a case of Hebrew type. After assembling a subscriber list for the first Hebrew-language Bible in America, he sold his type to William Fry, printer of the National Gazette, and the subscriber list to Thomas Dobson, publisher of the nation’s first encyclopedia, who together then published the Bible in 1814.
- President Grant’s First Inauguration Bible: On March 4, 1869, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase administered the oath of office to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant used a Bible, following a tradition not set by law, but by George Washington 80 years earlier. The next day, Chase wrote to First Lady Julia Grant that she would receive “the Book in which your honored husband took the oath of office yesterday. His lips pressed the 121st Psalm.”
- First Bible Translated by a Woman: The daughter of a minister, Julia Smith knew Latin and taught herself Greek and Hebrew. With these, she rendered both Testaments word-for-word into English. Her Bible remained hidden however, until the women’s suffrage movement coalesced. Smith and her sister protested paying taxes on their farm when they didn’t have the right to vote and launched a court battle that became a cause célèbre in the press. They decided to self-publish the Bible in 1876 to show that “a woman could do more than any man has ever done.”
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation—and one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association—which contains more than three million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.
Ines Aslan, New-York Historical Society
212.485.9263 / Ines.firstname.lastname@example.org
Marybeth Ihle, New-York Historical Society
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Image credit: Stephen Daye, printer. The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, Cambridge, 1640. David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection