John Eliot and America's First Bible

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

Among the 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.

Even during 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.

In 1631 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 1690.

The reasons 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.

There are 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.

While Eliot 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."

How difficult 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.

In 1659, 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 presentation copies.

When the 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.

VK 397, The Eliot Bible in Massachuset, Cambridge, MA, 1661-1663

After completing 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 Assembly’s Shorter Catechism and the Psalter.

It should 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.

However, 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 Metacomet’s 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 hour’s 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.

Within a 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.

There are 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.

The Eliot 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.

Eliot certainly 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 Eliot’s 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!



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