J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 07, 2021

London Imprints on Boston Bibles?


In 1756 the Boston Overseers of the Poor indentured Isaiah Thomas as an apprentice to the printer Zechariah Fowle (1724-1776). He was seven years old and didn’t yet know how to read.

Isaiah’s father had died, and his mother apparently felt she couldn’t support him by herself. The Overseers were used to finding masters for children in that situation.

As he grew up, Isaiah listened to stories from Fowle, from other printers, and from a former printer named Gamaliel Rogers (1685-1775) who ran a nearby bookshop. About Rogers he later wrote:
I went frequently to his shop, when a minor. He knew that I lived with a printer, and for this, or some other reason, was very kind to me; he gave me some books of his printing; and, what was of more value to me, good advice.
Isaiah developed less respect for Fowle, whom he came to see as lazy, not “enterprising” like some earlier printers. Thomas himself was quite enterprising—releasing himself early from his apprenticeship, cajoling his former master into co-publishing the Massachusetts Spy, and finally building a lucrative publishing network in the new republic.

Among the stories young Isaiah heard were tales of the surreptitious printing of a New Testament and of a Bible in Boston just a few years before he entered the profession. In his 1810 History of Printing in America, Thomas wrote:
[Samuel] Kneeland [1696-1769] and [Timothy] Green [1703-1763] printed, principally for Daniel Henchman [1689-1761, bookseller], an edition of the Bible in small 4to. This was the first Bible printed, in the English language, in America.

It was carried through the press as privately as possible, and had the London imprint of the copy from which it was reprinted, viz. “London: Printed by Mark Baskett, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” in order to prevent a prosecution from those, in England and Scotland, who published the Bible by a patent from the crown; or, Cum privilegio, as did the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

When I was an apprentice, I often heard those who had assisted at the case and press in printing this Bible, make mention of the fact. The late governor [John] Hancock was related to Henchman, and knew the particulars of the transaction. He possessed a copy of this impression.

As it has a London imprint, at this day it can be distinguished from an English edition, of the same date, only by those who are acquainted with the niceties of typography. This Bible issued from the press about the time that the partnership of Kneeland and Green expired [which was in 1752]. The edition was not large; I have been informed that it did not exceed seven or eight hundred copies.

Not long after the time that this impression of the Bible came from the press, an edition of the New Testament, in duodecimo, was printed by [Gamaliel] Rogers and [Daniel] Fowle [1715-1787], for those at whose expense it was issued. Both the Bible and the Testament were well executed. These were heavy undertakings for that day, but Henchman was a man of property; and, it is said, that several other principal booksellers, in Boston, were concerned with him in this business.

The credit of this edition of the Testament was, for the reason I have mentioned, transferred to the king’s printer, in London, by the insertion of his imprint. . . .

Zechariah Fowle [brother of Daniel], with whom I served my apprenticeship, as well as several others, repeatedly mentioned to me this edition of the Testament. He was, at the time, a journeyman with Rogers and Fowle, and worked at the press. He informed, that on account of the weakness of his constitution, he greatly injured his health by the performance. Privacy in the business was necessary; and as few hands were intrusted with the secret, the press work was, as he thought, very laborious. I mention these minute circumstances in proof that an edition of the Testament did issue from the office of Rogers and Fowle, because I have heard that the fact has been disputed.
Elsewhere in the same edition Thomas said Rogers and Fowle printed “about two thousand copies” of their New Testament before Kneeland and Green printed their Bible. In the 1874 edition of Thomas’s history, incorporating his notes, the passage above was amended to state that chronology.

Among his papers at the American Antiquarian Society, Thomas also left multiple lists of books published in Boston before the Revolutionary War. Under the date 1749 one of those lists include a “Bible containing the Old and New Testament (this had a London imprint about 1749 or 1750).”

When in 1770 some Boston printers wanted to sell copies of the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre despite the town ordering them not to, they had undoubtedly heard the same stories as Isaiah Thomas. They knew the trick of putting a fake London title page on a book to make it appear aboveboard.

The Bibles that Thomas described being printed in Boston around 1750 went completely undetected. In fact, those books might never have existed.

TOMORROW: The hunt for Boston’s phantom Bibles.

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