Monday, May 8, 2017

John Eliot's "Indian Bible" by Elijah M Haines 1888

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IT would seem as if no work claiming to encompass the whole Indian subject, for the reader of this day, could be considered complete without some account of the remarkable literary production or missionary effort, styled, "Eliot's Indian Bible." This book consists of the Old and New Testaments, translated by Eliot from the English into the dialects of the New England tribes, prevailing in that portion of the country over which his labors were extended.

Rev. John Eliot, who has been very properly styled the Apostle of the Indians, came from England to New England in 1681. He had been well educated at Cambridge, and in 1632, then twenty-eight
years old, was settled as a preacher at Roxbury near Boston. Although charged with the duties of a pastor, and taking a part in the ecclesiastical government of the New England churches, he at the same time turned his attention, very earnestly, to the conversion of the Indian tribes in the vicinity, to the Christian religion of the sect to which he belonged. To this end he employed native teachers, and himself learned the Indian language; in the study of which he made great proficiency, and soon began to preach to them in their own dialect. Others joined him, and, by their co-operation, native evangelists were raised up, under whose labors, superintended by Eliot, Indian churches were established at various points. Fifteen hundred Indians, it is said, were under religious instruction at Martha's Vineyard alone.

The work of this Indian Bible which, under the circumstances at that day, appears stupendous, we are informed was done at the expense of a society in London, for the propagation of the gospel among the Indians of New England. The New Testament appears to have been first printed in 1661. This was repeated by a new edition in 1680. The work, including the Old and New Testament, was printed in 1685. This translation of the Bible into the Indian language constitutes an era in American philology, and preceded, it is believed, any missionary effort of equal magnitude in the way of translation, in India or any other part of the world; and remains a monument of New England zeal and active labors in the conversion of native tribes.

The following is the title of the book, Natick or Massachusetts dialect:





Nukkone Testament

Kah wonk

Kusku Testament.

Ne Quoshkinnumuk Nashpe wuttinnemoh Christ

Noh Asoowesit

John Eliot,


Printeuoopnashpe Samuel Green kah Marmaduke Johnson,


Translation. — The Bible of God, containing the Old and New Testament, translated by the Reverend John Eliot, Cambridge, printed by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663.

It is stated (Gookin Arch. Amer. Vol. II, p. 44) that Eliot's principal assistant, in the translation of the Scriptures, was a Massachusetts Indian named Job Natsuan, one of the praying Indians, who had been instructed and converted by him — a man who, agreeably to this testimony, was well esteemed for piety and knowledge, both in the Indian and English tongues. But- it is stated in a history of New England, by Chas. AV. Elliott, 1857, Vol. I, p. 325, that one day in October, 1646, Eliot went out into the wilderness to seek and convert heathen Indians. He was met by a grave man (attended by five or six others) whose name was Waban, and to them he preached in a wigwam at Nonantum, near Watertown, on the south side of the Charles river. He preached from the 37th chapter of Ezekiel, "Then said he unto me, prophesy unto the wind (Waban in their dialect, it is said, meant wind) prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon those slain that they may live; so I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came unto them, and they lived and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army." This discourse lasted for an hour, and Waban thought and seriously reflected upon it all, whereupon he became converted. He was one of the principal men in the Indian town of Natick, to which the Nonantum Indians removed. (1651).

Eliot could get but little assistance in his work at the outset, one reason for which seems to have been that the colonists were too poor to aid him. But, in the year 1649, an act of parliament was passed intended to promote the spread of the Christian gospel among the Indians. Large collections were also made in England, stimulated by the action of parliament, yielding a revenue of five or six hundred pounds, which became increased by those made in New England, and a society to aid in the work aforesaid was incorporated in 1662, after which much effort was made with encouraging results.

The Puritan historian remarks, with much satisfaction, in connection with this subject, that during the progress of civilizing the Indians through their conversion to Christianity, they were in some cases made into magistrates and teachers in the towns of "praying Indians."

It is said that the number of "praying Indians," as they were called, amounted to some 3,600, collected in various settlements, mostly in Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Plymouth and Massachusetts; but few of the number, however, were admitted to communion, the strictness of the examination being too great for these ignorant and uncivilized men.

It is understood that the foregoing astonishing progress in Eliot's work of reclaiming the Indians, if such it may be called, was accomplished through the aid of his Indian Bible. The Indians having been taught to read, to a considerable extent, were able to search the Scriptures for themselves, and to read to one another.

In the history of Eliot's progress in missionary work, some curious incidents are related of circumstances which led to conversion in individual cases. It is recorded that the first Indian converted in the new colonies was Hobamock (in the settlement of Plymouth), who was transported with great wonderment of the power the English had with their God, "because," he said, "when they prayed to him for rain, it did rain, and he concluded to join them and their God."

It appears that Eliot found at the outset that he had many, and some apparently insurmountable, difficulties to overcome in his work of reclaiming the Indians, inducing them to accept his religion. The Indians were ignorant and undisciplined; they were accustomed to idleness and a wandering life; they were vitiated with rum, and were despised or feared by the whites. Their chiefs opposed the new religion; and their sachem, Ninegret, resolutely and persistently declined having the white man's God and religion introduced among his people, saying: "For what reason? Let me see that your religion makes you better than us, and then we may try it." Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, went to Hartford, and told the commissioners his extreme dislike to having Christianity introduced among his people. Philip, chief of the Wampanoags, holding the button of one of the commissioners, said: "I care not more for your religion than for this button."

After his work had progressed for considerable time, and had begun to attract the attention of the Indians, he became frequently much annoyed from anxious questioners among them, by whom he was confronted with the repeated inquiry: "If Christianity be necessary, why, for so many years, have you done nothing in proving it to us?" and not only this, but instead of responding favorably and cordially to Eliot's appeal to accept the Christian religion, they would put him subtle questions, which each man finds it hard to answer, to the following effect, being, indeed, but an example in the experience of the early missionaries among the Indians in general:

"Why did not God give all men good hearts, that they might be good?" and "Why did not God kill the devil that made all men so bad — God having all power?" "If an Indian had two wives before he was converted, which should he put away?"

"Whether all the Indians who had died heretofore had gone to hell, and why only a few now at last were put in the way of going to heaven?"

"How can we reconcile the scriptures which say: 'Save yourselves from this untoward generation,' with 'We can do nothing of ourselves?'"

"Why did Judas sin in giving up Jesus, when it was what God had appointed?"

"What is the effect of your religion? We have no contentions about property, and no man envies his neighbor?"

"Whether the good child of a bad man would be punished, because the second commandment says: 'He visits the sins of the father upon the children?'"

"If I do that which is a sin, and do not know that it is a sin, what will God say to that?"

"Why must we be like salt?"

"Why doth God say, 'I am the God of the Hebrews;' why?"

But Eliot's labors never ceased. Although many of his converts were backsliders, yet he continued patiently and worked on. His salary paid by the society was fifty pounds. He continued to preach at Roxbury, at the same time extending his missionary work in all directions. He preached, he taught, catechised, established towns and instituted agriculture. In addition to these, he stirred the ministers of the colony to action, and it was mostly through his efforts that others devoted themselves actively to the work. November 4, 1680, he wrote to his friend, Robert Boyle, saying: "Our praying Indians, both in the islands and on the main, are, considered together, numerous. Thousands of souls, of whom some true believers, some learners and some are still infants, and all of them beg, cry and entreat for Bibles."

As he grew old, and near his end, his urgency to complete the Bible, was so great, that he writes his patron Boyle, to "change the subject of your bountiful charity from their bodies to their souls." "My age makes me unfortunate," says he, "and my heart hath much ado to hold up my head, but both daily drive me to Christ." The sturdy old apostle stood by his darling work; yet he wished Sir Robert to draw a curtain of love over his failures, if he shall have been too urgent. He acknowledged the receipt of 460 pounds, towards the work, and says: "The work goeth on, I praise God." Again he acknowledged (April 22d, 1684), the receipt of 400 pounds "which doth set a diadem of beauty upon all your former acts of pious charity."

Again he says, "The great work that I travail about is in the printing of the Old Testament, that they may have the whole Bible. I desire to see it done before I die, and I am so deep in years that I cannot expect to live long; besides we have but one man (viz., the Indian printer) that is able to compose the sheets, and correct the press, with understanding."

From this, it seems that Eliot's principal assistant and right hand man was an Indian.

Eliot's Indian Bible has well been styled "a wonderful monument of patience, industry and faith." In producing it he labored under every difficulty and overcame all. The first edition consisted of the New Testament of 1661 and the Old Testament of 1685. Of the first edition between one and two thousand copies were printed, and of the second edition, two thousand copies were printed, at the cost of one thousand pounds.

To illustrate the difficulty of making the first translation, it was told that when Eliot read to the Indians, and described the verse, "The Mother of Sisera cried through the lattice," they gave him the word for "lattice;" he afterwards discovered that it read "The Mother of Sisera cried through the Eel-pot," that being as near his description of "lattice," as they could get.

Mr. Eliot did not deem the Indian word for God in the dialect into which his translation was made, sufficiently pure and free from superstitious notions to be introduced into his translation as an equivalent, nor did he employ it in the sense of Lord; but universally rendered it by the term "Jehovah." And there were, apparently, prior to the arrival of Europeans, difficulties in speaking of objects unknown to the Natick vocabulary, such as cow, sheep, oxen, and the like; and yet further difficulties were encountered in speaking of objects known only to the oriental world, in which the Bible abounds, such as camel, dragon, and the like. In all of these he employed the English word in our own version. Neither does ho nor his Indian assistant appear to have been an adept, or well instructed in natural history, which considerably affected his work in this respect; but in all cases of trees, plants, fish or quadrupeds, where a doubt existed, they simply employed the English word, with proper Indian inflections to denote the genitive, or to mark the preposition or pronominal sense to the word employed.

Eliot died peacefully while sitting in his chair. May 20, 1690. His last words were, "Welcome — Joy."

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