NOTRE DAME, IN.- The Bible first came to America as a prized possession of the earliest European missionaries and colonists, who then translated it into various indigenous languages and started printing it locally. This exhibit brings together many of the earliest Scriptures produced in the New World: translations into languages such as Massachusetts or Nahuatl, and American editions of the Bible in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. It opens with the Polyglot Bible printed in Antwerp in 1572, a multivolume work that was considered a symbol of Spain's scholarship and international prestige during the reign of Philip II. The last volume of this Polyglot includes a map that integrates America to the biblical world while also suggesting the universal dimension of Philip's empire.
The first Scripture translated in America was the Nahuatl (or Aztec) Lectionary prepared by Bernardino de Sahagún in 1532, just a few years after the arrival of Cortes in Mexico. The manuscript of this work disappeared after the death of its author and was recovered and published only in 1858. In the British colonies of North America, Scripture translation began with the spectacular achievement of John Eliot, who crafted a complete version of the Bible in the language of the Massachusetts Indians and had it printed in Cambridge in 1663. Bible translation in America came to a halt after Eliot's Indian Bible and was resumed only in the nineteenth century by the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society. The BFBS was founded in 1804 and its first publication, issued before the end of the year, was a translation of John's Gospel in Mohawk. For Latin America, the first BFBS Scripture was Luke in Aymara, issued in 1829, while the first ABS Scripture was the book of Acts in Arawak, completed in 1850.
In the last decades of the eighteenth century, the rulers of Spain and Portugal relaxed the ban on reading the Bible in vernacular languages and commissioned Catholic translations of the Bible based on the Latin Vulgate. Local editions of these versions were published in Mexico since 1835 and in Brazil since 1864. The ABS reprinted the Spanish Catholic translation between 1819 and 1824, but later replaced it with the Protestant Reina-Valera version that was unacceptable to the Catholic clergy.
The history of the English Bible in America begins with the modest duodecimo edition of the King James text published by Robert Aitken in Philadelphia, in 1782. The first American edition of the Catholic version known as Rheims-Douay dates from 1790. It was produced by Matthew Carey in Philadelphia and had a press run of about 500 copies. One year later, Isaiah Thomas published the first American folio Bible in Worcester, Mass. Considered to be the most beautiful book printed in America, Isaiah Thomas's Bible included 50 illustrations produced by local engravers. In 1816, the American Bible Society opened a new era in the history of Bible production by consistently using stereotype plates to publish countless editions of affordable Scriptures.