The Gun Wad Bible: The Third Edition of Christopher Saur’s Hausbieble and its Role in the Revolutionary War
The Hausbieble, also known as the “House Bible,” was a collection of three German-language Bibles printed in America by the Saur family in the 1740s-1770s. As the first European-language Bibles to be printed in America, the Hausbieble was important in helping German immigrants preserve their cultural heritage in the New World. Additionally, it played a role in the American Revolutionary War, as British soldiers used its pages to make paper cartridges.
Christopher Saur immigrated to America in 1724 and eventually established himself as a printer in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He started by printing and distributing the first newspaper using German type for other German immigrants, and soon expanded his business to include books, pamphlets, hymnals, and more. Saur imported and distributed Bibles printed in Halle and Berleburg, Germany, but ran into problems with the authenticity of some editions and the high cost of others. Additionally, these Bibles were small with fine print. In response, Saur decided to print his own edition of the Bible in German.
In 1740, Saur published a broadside announcing his plan to print the entire Bible in large print, at a lower price, and free from questionable matter. He began printing the first edition of the Saur Bible in 1743, and it was completed in 1747. The Saur Bible was well-received by the German community, and was considered one of the triumphs of the printing business.
Christopher Saur primarily used Luther’s translation of the Catholic Bible but controversially replaced parts of the apocrypha and Ezra with the Berleburg translation, which provided more detail on punishment, Heaven, and Hell – topics not included there in the Catholic Bible. Saur used locally made paper, locally made ink, and type that was made and donated by the H.E. Luther foundry in Frankfurt.
Christopher Saur passed away on September 25, 1758, and his son, Christopher Saur II, took over the business. Shortly after his father’s death, the 1200 copies of the first edition of the Hausbieble sold out, and Saur II began printing a second edition of 2000 copies in 1763. This second edition used higher-quality paper and binding, but the content remained largely the same as the first edition.
In 1776, Christopher Saur II began printing a third edition of their German Bible. The content remained largely unchanged from the previous editions, but this edition used new type and font produced locally at the Saur family’s own foundry. This makes it significant as the first Bible to be completely printed using American-made materials.
The third edition of this Bible also played a role in the Revolutionary War. In the summer of 1777, British soldiers occupied Germantown and ransacked Saur’s shop. They found many unbound copies of the Hausbieble drying in the attic and used them as bedding for their horses, kindling for their campfires, and for making paper cartridges and gun wadding for their muskets.
During the war, soldiers often used whatever paper was readily available to make their cartridges. This included pages from books, newspapers, and other printed materials. The third edition of the Hausbieble, with its sturdy paper, was well-suited for this purpose.
Paper cartridges were a common method of loading firearms during the Revolutionary War. They were made by folding a sheet of paper around the bullet and gunpowder, forming a tube that could be easily inserted into the barrel of the gun. This method was faster and more efficient than the traditional method of pouring gunpowder down the barrel and tamping it with a ramrod.
This black cartridge is one of the earliest known paper cartridges. It is a 17.11mm (.669) caliber cartridge made for early Danish/Norwegian flintlock muskets from the late 1600s to the early 1700s. It can be traced back to the Danish War Museum, where duplicates from their collection were traded to Colonel Berkeley R. Lewis of the United States Ordnance Corps, who helped identify and organize the cartridges in their collection. This cartridge is extra long due to the less powerful powder at the time and the need for extra powder to prime the flintlock’s flash pan.
The above page describes the construction and packaging of a .54 caliber Mississippi rifle cartridge. The information comes from the cartridge collection of General John Pitman and was reproduced in the book The Pitman Notes on US Small Arms and Ammunition. The large piece of paper is unwound from a cartridge and illustrates how these cartridges were rolled up. Herschel C. Logan’s book Cartridges: A Pictorial Digest of Small Arms Ammunition also includes a clear drawing of this.
The cartridges shown above provide insight into the techniques used during the time period. The cartridge wrapped in newspaper shows how existing paper was used to make cartridges. The war had a significant impact on the Saur family and their printing business. Christopher Saur II was a pacifist and refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new state of Pennsylvania. As a result, he was unfairly tried and his property, including the printing shop, was seized and sold at auction. The war also greatly reduced the number of copies of the third edition of the Hausbieble that were distributed, making it the rarest and most valuable of the three editions. It is believed that only a few hundred copies of the third edition were bound and circulated, with the majority of the unbound sheets destroyed by British soldiers.
The scarcity of the Hausbieble, combined with its historical significance as one of the first European-language Bibles printed in America and its role in the Revolutionary War as paper cartridges, make it a valuable and sought-after item for collectors of rare books and historical artifacts.
To conclude, a quote from Isaiah Thomas’s 1810 book The History of Printing in America captures the idea that these pages of the Bible were “used not for the salvation of men’s souls but for the destruction of their bodies.”
- Flory, John Samuel. Literary Activity of the German Baptist Brethren in the Eighteenth Century. 1908.
- Logan, Herschel C. Cartridges: A Pictorial Digest of Small Arms Ammunition. 1959.
- Rumball-Petre, Edwin A. R. America’s First Bibles: With a Census of 555 Extant Bibles. 2000.
- Thomas, Dean S. Round Ball to Rimfire Part One. 1997.
- Hoyem, George A. The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition Volume Four. 1999.
- Brown, Roger. Development of the Paper-Wrapped Musket Cartridge in Colonial American 1640-1841. 2022.
- Thomas, Isaiah. The history of printing in America. 1810