The first Bible to be printed in America was special for many reasons, but perhaps the most remarkable is this: It was translated into a language that most English colonists couldn’t read. A Geneva Bible, it was printed in Natick, an Algonquin language spoken by the Massachusett people who lived on the land surrounding the Massachusetts Bay when the Puritans were settling the region. Known as the Eliot Indian Bible after John Eliot, the missionary who masterminded it, the book was a true intellectual feat, a nearly 1,200-page transliteration of an oral language into the English alphabet. It’s also an amazing artifact of colonial American history, a representation of all the ambition and improvisation, missionary zeal and assimilation America would come to embody.
The Eliot Bible is just one of the volumes visitors are able to see at the New-York Historical’s special installation In God We Trust: Early Bible Printings from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection that’s running through July 28. The exhibit will feature more than a dozen historic Bibles and religious texts, including the famed “Bay Psalm Book,” the first book printed in British North America in 1640. Also in the exhibit: the first Bible translated by a woman and the Bible on which President Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office.
It’s the Eliot Bible’s connection to Native American language and history though, that gives it particular resonance today. The book’s story begins in the 1630s, when a Puritan minister named John Eliot came to the Massachusetts town of Roxbury. His mission was clear: to convert the Native population to Christianity. Eliot had both the mandate and the money for his task, courtesy of the Act for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England that called for the conversion of the “Heathen Natives of that Countrey” by persuading them to abandon their “Charms and Sorceries, and other Satanical Delusions.” (Indigenous tribes obviously had their own spirituality that involved neither sorcery nor Satan. But the Puritan approach to salvation was all or nothing.) Eliot learned to speak Natick as a preacher and even made an early stab at a Natick-language catechism. But a Natick language Bible was the ultimate challenge.
In Massachusetts Bay Colony, there already were towns of “praying Indians,” Natives who had converted to Christianity. Eliot was a part of the push to encourage the spread of those communities and to urge them to send their sons to English schools, with the hope that those students would one day evangelize better than any Englishman could. The fledgling Harvard College established an Indian School for Native youth in 1640, an institution that also became home to the printing press where the Eliot Bible was published.
Eliot seemed to know that he needed the kind of help that only a native speaker could provide. A student at the Indian College, Wawaus, later known as James Printer, became an apprentice to English printers Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson and one of the key Native figures who aided Eliot in his translation. Another was a Massachusett translator named Job Nesuton. The project took eight years, with the New Testament published in 1661 and the full Bible in 1663. In Our Beloved Kin, historian Lisa Brooks writes: “Working two presses, 12 to 13 hours a day, on the lower floor of the Indian College, printing one sheet at a time after setting out each piece of type by hand, Green, Printer and Johnson were able to produce a full version of the Bible entitled Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God.”
“The firstness of it can’t be overemphasized,” says Mazy Boroujerdi, an antiquarian book expert who advised on the building of the collection. “That it’s the first American Bible, the first time a member of a Native tribe is at a printing press, the first time the Bible is translated from an oral language for evangelizing reasons. That said, we shouldn’t focus on the book’s many firsts without also thinking about the perseverance and gumption that it took to create it.”
The aftermath for the Natives of Massachusetts Bay was a tragic one. The King Philip’s War erupted in 1675 between the colonists and some of the Native tribes, a brutal, destructive conflict that foreshadowed the bloody wars to come and the steady decimation of Native American life and homeland. Despite their allegiance to the English, the praying Indians were viewed with fear and suspicion and exiled to Deer Island off the coast near Boston, where many died from disease and exposure.
James Printer survived the war, but just barely: He landed in a colonial prison for a month under false charges and dodged an English lynch mob. After the war, he returned to work at the Harvard Press and was, as Brooks writes, “a scholar, a teacher, a community leader, a scribe. He, too, was a captive, a prisoner, an advocate, and perhaps, a warrior.”
John Eliot also survived and lived to see a second edition of his Bible printed in 1680, though there were less people alive to read it. He wrote to his benefactor in England, “Our Indian work yet liveth, praised be God; the Bible is come forth, many hundreds bound up, and dispensed to Indians, whose thankfulness I intimate and testify to your honor.”
Visit the New-York Historical Society to see the Eliot Indian Bible and more as part of the installation In God We Trust: Early Bible Printings from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection that’s running through July 28.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, Content Editor