Points of Interest: William Bradford "Father of American Printing"
William Bradford created the first Book of Common Prayer in North America in 1710, a prayer book that is now nestled in just about every pew in every Episcopal Church throughout the country. Bradford is buried in Trinity’s north churchyard, about halfway along the pathway that runs along the north side of the church building.
Bradford was born into a family of printers. As a young man, he apprenticed under a well-known printer, Andrew Sowle, in London. The two became close friends, and Bradford became an official member of the family when he married Sowle’s daughter, Elizabeth.
Bradford’s Story in America Begins
In 1682, Sowle arranged for Bradford to join William Penn in the capital of Penn's new colony, Philadelphia, and once there, Bradford set up Pennsylvania’s first printing press and the first paper mill in America. His printing endeavors led him into political trouble, however, when he took on William Penn’s original charter for the colony, a move that angered the new Pennsylvania governor, John Blackwell. Bradford returned to England briefly and, upon his return, was arrested and jailed for sedition, the first case in the British colonies that raised the issue of the freedom of the press.
Bradford continued to engage in private printing projects and would not be cowed by the threat of imprisonment for his work. Bradford found himself on trial in Philadelphia in 1692 for printing the confessions of faith of George Keith, a Quaker whose beliefs were considered objectionable to many community leaders. Bradford served as his own defense advocate, again arguing for press freedom, and prevailed in the trial when the jury could not agree on a verdict.
These challenges served to make Bradford politically unpopular in Philadelphia and he moved to New York, where he began a new position as the royal printer there in 1693. His accomplishments included printing the colony’s first issue of paper currency in 1709 and starting New York’s first newspaper, the New-York Gazette in 1725. He also served as a Trinity Vestryman from 1703 to 1710.
Bradford lived on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, a short walk from Trinity Church. He published many books in his lifetime, including the first book ever published in New York City, New-England’s Spirit of Persecution Transmitted to Pennsylvania, which was written by the aforementioned George Keith, whose writings remained controversial.
Bradford lived a long life, dying at the age of 89. He worked into old age and didn’t retire from the newspaper until he was 81. Two centuries after his death, Bradford's tombstone landed on the cover of Life Magazine when artist Sari Dienes included it, along with city sidewalks and manhole covers, for a genre called surface printing.
In a final irony set in stone, the grave marker of the man popularly called “the father of American printing” bears a typo in it, erroneously citing that he was born in 1660 and lived to be 92.