Eliot and America's First Bible
Dr. Herbert Samworth
many treasures contained in the Van Kampen Collection at The Scriptorium
is the first Bible printed in America. The New Testament portion
was printed at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1661 and the Old Testament
followed two years later. The printers were Samuel Green, a local
tradesman, and Marmaduke Johnson, who had come from England to assist
in its production. Many people are surprised to learn that it was
not printed in English, but in Algonquin, the Massachusetts Indian
dialect. The translation was the work of a New England Puritan pastor
by the name of John Eliot. The importance of this work is underscored
by T. H. Darlow and F. H. Moule in their encyclopedic work of printed
editions of the Bible in which they state, "This book constitutes
the earliest example in history of the translation and printing
of the entire Bible in a new language as a means of evangelization."
Behind the translation and printing of this quarto Bible bound in
leather lies a fascinating story. In order to place the Eliot Bible
in its historical context, it is necessary to begin in England.
It has been
said of Charles I of England (1625-1649) that while he inherited
all the negative qualities of his father, King James I, he received
none of his positive ones. Charles was obsessed with enforcing religious
uniformity upon the people of his realm. As a means to carry out
his objective, he appointed William Laud to the position of Archbishop
of Canterbury. Laud, who was of the same mind as Charles, enforced
his policy with vigor and severity. This attempt at uniformity evoked
opposition from the Puritan Party and others who had remained dissatisfied
with the 1559 Elizabethan settlement of the English Church. They
were called Puritans because of their desire to purify the Church
of England from what they believed to be the vestiges of Roman Catholic
worship that Elizabeth permitted to continue. Elizabeth and James
were politically astute: both succeeded in enforcing this uniformity
without alienating the people entirely. However, Charles lacked
their acumen and when he ascended to the throne in 1625, these long
standing grievances erupted into overt resistance.
the reign of James I (1603-1625), groups of people had departed
from England to seek freedom of worship in other countries. Many
of them had gone to the Netherlands where they were permitted to
worship according to their consciences. In 1620, a group known as
the Pilgrims emigrated to Plymouth, Massachusetts. During the same
period, plans were underway to begin another colonial expedition
by the Puritans under the leadership of John Winthrop. The first
members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony left for the New World at
the end of the third decade of the seventeenth century. Unlike the
Pilgrims, the Puritans did not consider themselves to be separatists
but remained members of the Church of England who were working for
further reform of the church. They believed their settlement would
be a "city set on a hill" upon which the eyes of the world
would be focused, and this "Holy Commonwealth" would be
an example to those in England of a society built on the foundation
of the Word of God. A church, purified of all elements not expressly
sanctioned by the Scriptures and composed exclusively of those who
had experienced a personal conversion experience, was to be a key
element in this Holy Commonwealth.
By the early
1630s it was nearly impossible for anyone with Puritan convictions
to receive a pastoral position in the Church of England. For that
reason, many left for the New World, including a pastor named John
Eliot. Born in 1604, Eliot had received his education at Jesus College,
Cambridge, and although he had taken orders in the Church of England,
his sympathies were with the Puritan Party. For a period of time
after his graduation from Cambridge, he had assisted Thomas Hooker
(later the founder of Connecticut) at Chelmsford in Essex but even
there the long arm of Laud exerted its influence by threatening
him with suspension.
Eliot decided to emigrate to the New World. He arrived at Massachusetts
Bay Colony in July of that year on the same ship that brought the
family of John Winthrop, the Colony's first governor. He was invited
to preach for several months at the First Church of Boston while
their minister John Wilson was in England. Eliot's preaching was
so well received that he was offered the position of Teacher of
the church, which he declined in favor of a similar offer from the
church at Roxbury. He was settled in Roxbury as Teacher in October
1632 and remained there for fifty-seven years until his death in
why Eliot refused the position at the First Church of Boston are
not immediately clear. The evidence indicates that Eliot was already
contemplating evangelizing the local tribes. When the Puritans came
to the New World they had two goals. One was to form a pure church
by separating themselves from the perceived corruptions of the English
Church. The other was to bring the Gospel to the native inhabitants.
On the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the figure of a
Native American ringed by the words "Come over and help us"
(Acts 16:9). Thus from its very foundation the Massachusetts Bay
Colony articulated the desire to meet the spiritual needs of the
native inhabitants of the New World, and there is no doubt that
Eliot possessed the desire to carry out this objective.
many details of Eliot's life during the following years that have
not survived the passage of time. It is known that he had the custom
of visiting the Algonquin tribe for three or fours days at a time
as he sought to learn the language. Such entries as the following
occur in his journal, "Visited the Indians for the past four
days. The weather was cold and snowy. Was wet for the entire time
but that is a small price to pay for the privilege of taking the
Gospel to them." In the year 1646 the Massachusetts General
Court ordered that "efforts to promote the diffusion of Christianity
among aboriginal inhabitants be made with all diligence." In
October of the same year, Eliot had made sufficient progress in
the language that he was able to preach to them in Algonquin.
was engaged in learning the Algonquin language, important events
were taking place in England that aided his work. Through the efforts
of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's agent in England, Edward Winslow,
progress of the evangelization of the Algonquins was being disseminated.
Eliot kept Winslow informed of his efforts by writing a series of
tracts giving the details of his activities. Finally, on July 27,
1649, the English Parliament enacted an "Ordinance for the
Advancement of Civilization and Christianity Among the Indians."
This act created The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in
New England, the first Protestant missionary society. It was also
in that year that Eliot made the decision to attempt the translation
of the Scriptures into the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquin
language. He wrote, "I do very much desire to translate some
parts of the Scriptures into their language and print some Primer
in their language where to initiate and teach them to read."
was the task to which Eliot had dedicated himself? At that time,
Algonquin was considered to be one of the most difficult languages
in the world. In his book Magnalia Christi Americana (1702),
Cotton Mather expressed his opinion that the demons of the invisible
world who had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were utterly baffled
by the Algonquin language! For the next ten years Eliot dedicated
himself to the task of translating the Bible with the assistance
of John Sassamon, a member of the local tribe, whose ability to
speak and write English proved invaluable to Eliot.
after ten years of intensive labor, the task of translating the
Scriptures was completed. In his correspondence with The Society
for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, Eliot had informed
them of his progress. When the manuscript was ready for publication,
the Society not only provided the funds to print it, but they also
sent an English printer by the name of Marmaduke Johnson, a printing
press, and a supply of paper. Johnson arrived in the New World and
set to work with Samuel Green who had already started to print the
New Testament. By 1661 they had completed the printing of fifteen
hundred copies of the New Testament. One thousand of the New Testaments
were reserved for binding with the Old Testament, when completed,
to form an entire Bible. The remaining copies of the New Testament
were distributed among the Algonquin tribe or sent to England as
task of printing the New Testament was complete, Green and Johnson
began printing one thousand copies of the Old Testament, which included
a translation of the Metrical Psalms. The work proceeded quickly
and by 1663 the printing was finished. The Old Testaments were bound
with the reserved copies of the New Testament to produce one thousand
copies of the entire Bible. For the first time in their history,
the Algonquin tribe had the Scriptures in their own language.
397, The Eliot Bible in Massachuset, Cambridge, MA, 1661-1663
his task of translating the Scriptures, Eliot prepared material
to provide the Indians with the means to understand and apply the
Bible. He translated such Puritan treatises as Richard Baxter's
A Call to the Unconverted and Lewis Bayly's The Practice
of Piety. He also prepared Algonquin editions of The Assemblys
Shorter Catechism and the Psalter.
not be thought that Eliot's work in translating the Scriptures met
with universal approval. In England reports circulated denying that
anything of permanence had been accomplished. These reports charged
that less than a dozen Algonquians had embraced Christianity, and
the appeals for help made by Eliot and others were nothing more
than attempts to extort money.
Eliot and his evangelizing work were to face a greater trial than
the charges made in England. In June 1675, Metacomet of the Wampanoag
tribe, known as King Philip to the English, declared war against
the English colonists. Although Metacomets father, Massasoit,
had befriended the Pilgrims, and Metacomet himself had known the
colonists since his teenage years, he consistently rejected their
religion and society. The conflict proved to be savage. The "Praying
Indians" as they were known, did not join the revolt but remained
loyal to the colonists. However, in November they were forced from
their villages on an hours notice and resettled on Deer Island.
Due to the severe winter, many of them died from malnutrition and
exposure to the cold. Eliot sought to soften the effects of this
enforced relocation by providing supplies of food and clothing.
Perhaps the most crushing blow was the loss of their Bibles as their
homes and villages were pillaged by bands of marauders.
year the overwhelming military and economic power of the colonists
crushed the rebellion. With the end of the war the "Praying
Indians" were able to return safely to their villages. Eliot
requested a second printing of the Algonquin Bible to replace those
lost in the devastation caused by the war. Despite some opposition
a new edition was prepared and printed in 1685. It was the second
and final edition, with no third printing ever undertaken. At the
age of eighty-one, Eliot knew his earthly work was nearly done and
he wrote to people in England that he was "drawing home."
His death in 1690 at age eighty-six essentially ended the attempt
to evangelize the Algonquians in their native tongue. Subsequent
attempts to reprint Eliot's Bible were unsuccessful.
differing opinions by scholars of our day regarding the value of
the Eliot Bible. It is not used for the purposes of textual studies
or for its accuracy of translation. Rather, the Algonquin Bible
demonstrates the passion of the early colonists to provide the indigenous
peoples of the New World the Scriptures in their own language.
Bible can never be separated from the life of the one who translated
it. A memorable saying of Eliot has been preserved, "Prayer
and pains through faith in Christ Jesus will accomplish anything,"
and in his lifetime, Eliot earned the respect and admiration of
his peers. Richard Baxter stated that it was impossible to mention
the name of John Eliot apart from the word "love." In
the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, no admirer of the
Puritans, penned these words in tribute to Eliot and his work, "It
is good for the world that such a man has lived." The Eliot
Bible bears eloquent testimony that one person can indeed make a
difference in the lives of many.
would not have accepted these words of praise spoken about him.
Rather than taking any honor to himself, he would have attributed
everything to the Lord Who had given the Word. The source of Eliots
joy came from the fact that people now possessed the Scriptures
in their language and not from any honors bestowed on him and his
work. There is little doubt that - more than any accolades given
to him - he would have rejoiced in what took place at the end of
the twentieth century: the publication of a new translation of the
Bible into the Algonquin language!