The Algonquian (Eliot) Bible

A question that elicits a variety of answers is the following: In what language was first Bible printed in America? Responses include English, French, German, Dutch or another European language. All of the above responses are incorrect. The first Bible printed in America was printed in the Algonquian Indian language and it is a thrilling story indeed.

The printing of America’s first Bible cannot be separated from the life of John Eliot (1604-1690). He was the translator and it required nearly thirty years of unwearied toil and determination.
Eliot was born in 1604 in England and graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge University. He was of decided Puritan convictions in that he wanted to see the Church of England purified from any non-Biblical practices. Unfortunately for Eliot, Archbishop William Laud had come to the See of Canterbury and enforced a rigid adherence to the teachings and practices of the Church of England.
Eliot realized that any door of ministry for him was closed and he decided to immigrate to the New World. He arrived in Boston in November 1631 with about sixty other colonists including Margret Winthrop, the wife of the Colony’s governor. He was offered the position of Teacher in the First Church of Boston but after serving six months in the absence of the Pastor, John Wilson, he turned down a permanent position with the First Church of Boston to minister in Roxbury where he would remain for the following fifty-eight years.

Picture3After his settlement in Roxbury Eliot became interested in the spiritual condition of the Indians. In 1636, he set about to learn their language. For the following thirteen years he dedicated himself to acquire fluency in the language. At that time the Algonquian language did not exist in written form. One can imagine the effort required to learn a language that had no grammars, dictionaries or lexicons. But Eliot expressed his determination in the following words, “Prayer and pains through faith in Jesus Christ can accomplish anything.”

In 1649, he determined to translate the Bible in the Algonquian language and have it printed. Supporters in England helped by providing funds and even a printing press and printer. As a result of Eliot’s desire to print the Indian Bible, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was formed in 1649. It was the first Protestant Missionary Society established in England.
The task of translating and printing the Word of God in the Indian language involved an additional labor of not less than twelve years. Eliot carried on the work aided by a faithful Indian co-worker named John Sassamon. Finally in 1661 from the press of Samuel Green in Cambridge came the first copy of the New Testament in the Algonquian language. This New Testament was printed in an edition of fifteen hundred copies.  The printing of the Old Testament followed two years later in 1663 in one thousand copies. These were bound with copies of the New Testament to provide a supply of one thousand complete Indian Bibles.

Not only did Eliot translate the Bible, he also provided tools including grammars and dictionaries to aid the Indians in learning to read. It is scarcely possible to calculate the time and effort required in the production of this Bible. However, one can read in Eliot’s Journal how he was thankful to the Lord for the opportunity to be involved in such a “blessed work.”

In a following article, we will discuss the subsequent history of the Algonquian Bible and its impact.