A glance back at America’s first bible

Ask most folks what language the first bible in North America was printed in and you’ll likely get a myriad of answers, ranging from English, French or Spanish to Dutch, Latin or Greek.

All would be wrong.

The first bible printed in North America was a translation of the Good Book published in Massachusett, a Native American language, by John Eliot in 1663.

Massachusett is a member of the Algonquian language family and was spoken by the Wampanoag nation, which lived in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Eliot, an English clergyman who emigrated to the Colonies in 1631, settled initially at Boston but a short time later moved to the nearby town of Roxbury, where he became pastor.

Eliot devoted his life to converting the local Native American population to Christianity, and by 1646 had mastered the Massachusett tongue well enough to be able to preach.

Eliot followed his initial translation of the bible with a primer in 1669 and a second edition of the bible in 1685. Largely through his missionary work, the Wampanoags became among the most literate of the New England tribes. Many wills, deeds and other documents that survive today were written in Massachusett using the orthography he introduced.

While the language itself has been extinct since the 1800s, many common English words have their origins in the Massachusett language, including: moose, chipmunk, raccoon, opossum, skunk, squash, succotash, moccasin, tomahawk, powwow, squaw and wigwam, according to a Masters’ thesis submitted by Jessie Little Doe Fermino of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000 titled “An Introduction to Wampanoag Grammar.

Eliot’s translation of the bible was part of a much larger printing effort.

Working out of Harvard University, then barely a generation old, Eliot began the Indian Library, relying on a single printing press to publish religious and grammar tracts in the Massachusett language, according to Jill Lepore in her book “In the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” which considers white-Indian relations before, during and after the 1675-1676 conflict.

“The labor behind the Indian Library was phenomenal, and the output of the Cambridge Press was unparalleled,” according to Lepore, who added that the paper used to print Eliot’s two editions of the bible beginning in 1663 was more than the total amount of paper used at the Cambridge Press since its beginning in 1639.

Eliot’s efforts raise some eyebrows today, however. His print runs were phenomenally large given the circumstances: One bible for every 2.5 Indians, for example. That’s even more perplexing given the relatively small number of Native Americans who could be counted as literate at the time.

As to why English wasn’t the language of choice for the first bibles printed in the New World, the reason is simple: It was far easier to import them from England, where they were being produced in abundance, then go through the laborious process of setting up a printing press run in the spartan environs of the New World.

While few copies of Eliot’s original Massachusett bibles remain, thanks in part to his efforts the Massachusett language has a much richer documentation than many other extinct Native American languages.

For an example of the Massachusett language, here is a translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

Nooshun kesukqut, wunneetupantamuch koowesuounk. Peyamooutch kukkeitasootamounk. Toh anantaman ne n-naj okheit, neane kesukqut. Asekesukokish petukqunnegash assaminnean yeu kesukok. Ahquontamaiinnean nummatcheseongatch, neane matchenehikqueagig nutahquontamanóunonog. Ahque sagkompaguninnean en qutchhuaonganit, webe pohquohwussinnan wutch matchitut. Newutche keitassootamoonk, kutahtauun, menuhkesuonk, sohsumoonk micheme kah micheme. Amen.

Today, members of the Wampanoag nation are attempting to revive the study of the language.

Should they prove successful, perhaps the bible will be read, and printed, in the Massachusett language once again.

(Above: Leaf taken from one of John Eliot’s original 1663 Massachusett bibles.)

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