John Eliot Prints America’s First Bible

This is the day that … John Eliot was born, in 1604, at Widford, Hertfordshire, in England (Christian Hero Cards, by Ed Reese).

John was educated at Cambridge and became skilled in Greek and Hebrew.

Under the influence of Rev. Thomas Hooker, young Eliot embraced the doctrines of Puritanism … and was eventually forced to flee to Massachusetts (USA) in 1631.

Pastoring a church in New England, “his pulpit was a new Sinai from which burning lightning bolts hurled down upon all transgressions. Yet he was also a true gospel preacher, his kindness and love won for him many friends” (Early Missionary Endeavours, by J.T. Mueller, page 35).

Eliot set himself to learning the Indian language – quite a task! “Our love”, in the native Algonquin Indian language, was “Nummatschekodtantamuhn-gngannunoash”!

But Eliot persevered for 15 years before he dared to preach to the Indians in their own tongue, and eventually translated the whole Bible for them (1664). This was almost 120 years before the first English language Bible was printed in America by Robert Aitken in 1782.

This was not his first printing landmark. He was, with Richard Mather, one of the editors of the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, which was the first book of any kind ever printed in America.

Eliot also compiled an Indian grammar and dictionary (with the help of his sons), and translated Richard Baxter’s famous volume, A Call to the Unconverted, for them. It was 28 October, 1646, he preached to the Indians, his text being Ezekiel 37:3: “Can these bones live?”

On the third meeting where Eliot preached in their native tongue, several Indians declared themselves converted, and were soon followed by many others.

In the years that followed there were encouraging results, and opposition from the tribal medicine man. On 7 October, 1647, Eliot even buried a famous chief according to Christian ritual. Thus he was known as “the apostle to the Indians”, the first missionary to America’s native people.

Eliot set up Indian towns where effective Christian ministry was achieved. His model was followed by others. By 1674 the unofficial census of the “praying Indians” numbered 4,000.

He died on 20 (or 21) May, 1690, at the age of 86. “The Lord Whom I have served over 80 years will not forsake me,” he said. “O come in Thy great glory! A long time I have waited for Thee. Welcome, Lord, welcome.”

And the Bible he translated, and had printed, is now in an extinct language, and can only be understood by a handful of scholars.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *