Posted by: MTR | January 18, 2010

Biblical Inscriptions on Public Buildings

Public Institutions
Liberty Bell Inscription:
“ Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof” [Leviticus 25:10]

The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774 The Liberty Window
At its initial meeting in September 1774 Congress invited the Reverend Jacob Duché (1738-1798), rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to open its sessions with prayer. Duché ministered to Congress in an unofficial capacity until he was elected the body’s first chaplain on July 9, 1776. He defected to the British the next year. Pictured here in the bottom stained-glass panel is the first prayer in Congress, delivered by Duché. The top part of this extraordinary stained glass window depicts the role of churchmen in compelling King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

Proposed Seal for the United States
On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams “to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” Franklin’s proposal adapted the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea (left). Jefferson first recommended the “Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . .” He then embraced Franklin’s proposal and rewrote it (right). Jefferson’s revision of Franklin’s proposal was presented by the committee to Congress on August 20. Although not accepted these drafts reveal the religious temper of the Revolutionary period. Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.

Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776 [left side][right side]
Holograph notes, Benjamin Franklin (left) and Thomas Jefferson (right)
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104-105)

 

Proposed Great Seal of the United States

Proposed Great Seal of the United States:
“Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Drawing

by Benson Lossing, for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1856.
General Collections, Library of Congress. (106)


Rules and Articles, for the better  Government of the Troops . . .page 4 Rules and Articles, for the better  Government of the Troops. . .page 5 To all brave, healthy, able bodied well disposed young men. . . .
Morality in the Army
Congress was apprehensive about the moral condition of the American army and navy and took steps to see that Christian morality prevailed in both organizations. In the Articles of War, seen below, governing the conduct of the Continental Army (seen above) (adopted, June 30, 1775; revised, September 20, 1776), Congress devoted three of the four articles in the first section to the religious nurture of the troops. Article 2 “earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers to attend divine services.” Punishment was prescribed for those who behaved “indecently or irreverently” in churches, including courts-martial, fines and imprisonments. Chaplains who deserted their troops were to be court-martialed.

Rules and Articles, for the better Government of the Troops . . . of the Twelve united English Colonies of North America [page 4][page 5]
Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775
Rare Book and Special Collections Division,
Library of Congress (111)
To all brave, healthy, able bodied
well disposed young men. . . .

Recruiting poster for the Continental Army.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania (112)

Morality in the Navy
Congress particularly feared the navy as a source of moral corruption and demanded that skippers of American ships make their men behave. The first article in Rules and Regulations of the Navy (below), adopted on November 28, 1775, ordered all commanders “to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices.” The second article required those same commanders “to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays.” Article 3 prescribed punishments for swearers and blasphemers: officers were to be fined and common sailors were to be forced “to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction.”

Extracts from the Journals of Congress, relative to the Capture and Condemnation of Prizes,
and filling out Privateers, together with the Rules and Regulations of the Navy,
and Instructions to Private Ships of War [page 16]
[page 17]

Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (113)

Aitken’s Bible Endorsed by Congress
The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from “Scotland, Holland or elsewhere.” On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress “highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States.” This resolution was a result of Aitken’s successful accomplishment of his project.

Congressional resolution, September 12, 1782, endorsing Robert Aitken’s Bible [page 468][page 469]
Philadelphia: David C. Claypoole, 1782 from the Journals of Congress
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (115)


The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues.  . . . Aitken’s Bible
Aitken published Congress’s recommendation of September 1782 and related documents (Item 115) as an imprimatur on the two pages following his title page. Aitken’s Bible, published under Congressional patronage, was the first English language Bible published on the North American continent.
The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues. . . .
Philadelphia: printed and sold by R. Aitken, 1782
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (116)

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