The Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the founding document for the colonization of New England, describes "the principall ende of this plantation…to wynn and incite the natives of the country, to the knowlege and obedience of the onlie true God and Saviour of Mankinde…"1 Of the clergymen who participated in the attempt to evangelize the Native American population of New England, the chief missionary agent was the Reverend John Eliot (1604-1690), who earned the title of "Apostle to the Indians" through a lifetime of unceasing missionary effort. Eliot emigrated to Massachusetts Bay in 1631 and settled in Roxbury. For almost sixty years he served as minister of the local church and, in addition to his clerical duties there, in 1646 he began preaching to Native Americans in their own language, first locally and in 1651 at Natick, the first permanent "Praying Indian" settlement.2
While Eliot believed that all the indigenous population should be settled in permanent villages on the model of Natick and encouraged to adopt European ways, he thought that they should hear and read scripture in their own language and be served by Native American ministers. To accomplish this goal he embarked on an ambitious publishing plan; first by publishing a basic primer and Bible extracts in the Massachuset language spoken by Native Americans in eastern New England, and later a much larger project to translate and publish the entire Bible in Massachuset. The New Testament was printed separately in 1661, and the combined Old and New Testament published in 1663. The "Eliot Indian Bible" is a landmark of printing history. It is the first Bible printed in any language in North America and the largest single printing venture of the early colonial period.3 Funds for the publication came from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New-England and Adjacent Parts, an English missionary society that raised money for evangelical work in the colonies.4
The actual translation presented many problems as Eliot's knowledge of Massachuset was imperfect, and there were grammatical problems that could only be re-solved by resorting to English words when there were no equivalent Massachuset terms. The scale of the project made it necessary to recruit Marmaduke Johnson, an English printer, to assist Samuel Green, the official printer for the colony, and to secure additional printing equipment. Two Native Americans played important roles in publishing the Bible. John Nesutan, a preacher who had studied at Harvard, assisted Eliot with the translation, and James Printer, a young Nipmuck who had been apprenticed to Green, assisted both with the translation and the printing.5
The "Eliot Indian Bible," however, symbolizes the tragic failure of the Puritan colonists to accomplish their "principall ende" to christianize the New England Native Americans and reshape their lives in the image of the colonists. During King Philip's War (1675-1676), most of the indigenous population of southern New England was killed, enslaved, or driven beyond the reach of the vengeful English colonists. Native American prisoners and Christian converts proved to be the most effective colonial forces, but this did not prevent the "Praying Indians" from suffering harsh treatment at the hands of the colonists. During the course of the conflict they were kept under guard on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, and in the turmoil of the war, most copies of the Eliot Bible were destroyed. James Printer took the side of King Philip against the colonists, although after his capture he returned to his printing craft. John Nesutan was killed while serving in the colonial forces against his own people.6
From the ashes of his life's work, at the age of seventy-two, Eliot began again. He lived long enough to see a corrected second edition of his Bible published in 1685. Some copies of this improved edition still were used by inhabitants of Mashpee, a Native American community on Cape Cod, until the nineteenth century, but the Christian Native American population, never large, did not recover from the effects of King Philip's War.7
The Historical Society's copy of Eliot's Bible lacks the English title pages and dedicatory material to King Charles II, who was sought as a patron for missionary activity; this absence indicates that the copy probably was intended solely for Native American use.
1. Samuel Eliot Morison. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston, 1930, p. 289.
2. Ibid., pp. 291-297.
3. Hugh Amory. First Impressions: Printing in Cambridge, 1639-1989. Cambridge, Mass, 1989, p. 39.
4. James Constantine Pilling. Bibliography of Alogonquin Languages. Washington, 1891, pp. 127-184.
5. George Parker Winship. The Cambridge Press, 1638-1692. Philadelphia, 1945, pp. 208-244.
6. Hugh Amory. First Impressions: Printing in Cambridge, 1639-1989. Cambridge, Mass, 1989, pp. 41-42.
7. Samuel Eliot Morison. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston, 1930, pp. 315-319.