St John’s College library has a copy of the first Bible published in America. It is written in the Massachusett dialect of Algonquian, a Native American language which missionary John Eliot learnt in part of his attempt to convert the Massachusett people to Christianity and literacy.
In 1663, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Samuel Green published John Eliot’s Massachusetts Bible, the first Bible ever published in America. Although there had been printing press established much earlier in Mexico City (1539) and Lima (1584), where over 1,000 documents (several in native languages) had been printed before Samuel Green’s press arrived on the scene, they printed no full Bible. John Eliot’s Bible is written entirely in Massachusett, in a manner devised by Eliot using the Latin alphabet. Massachusett is a dialect within the larger sub-family of Algonquian languages– most of which have been extinct now for over 50 years. The Massachusett Bible is a translation of the Geneva Bible and was produced primarily as an evangelistic device by Eliot to convert the Massachusett people to Christianity.
The title page above indicates the following: The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New, translated into the Indian Language and ordered to be printed by the commissioners of the United Colonies in New England.
John Eliot and the Massachusett language
John Eliot (1604-1690) was a driven missionary from England who dedicated himself to converting the Massachusett people. He learnt to speak their language, and by 1646 he was able to preach to his congregation in Massachusett.
Following this, he established a town specifically for the on-going conversion of the people he termed “praying Indians”. It was not long before Eliot was running fourteen such towns. In these towns, there were schools to teach the men to read and write their language in Eliot’s way, and the women to read. Eliot had developed a new written form of the Massachusett dialect using the Latin alphabet, foregoing the existing written form of hieroglyphs. His project of producing a translation of the whole Bible began with shorter translations – the Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew – which were published by Samuel Green as apparent ‘test-runs’ before the full Bible. Fourteen years after beginning the venture, Eliot had translated the entire Bible and had it published by Green.
This was a hugely ambitious work of translation, with Eliot acquainting himself with techniques of linguistics, phonetics and lexicography as he applied the predominantly oral Massachusett language onto a Latin alphabet. It is the first, and one of the only records of the Bible being translated in its entirety for evangelistic purposes, despite how often shorter texts and religious paraphernalia were produced in this way.
An English translation of the Bible would not be printed in the USA until 1782, over a hundred years after Eliot’s Bible was first published.
The first printing press
The publication of Eliot’s Bible relied heavily on Samuel Green’s printing press, the first in North America and the only one in New England until the 1670s. Eliot had worked with the press before, twenty years before the publication of his Bible, as one of the thirty translators working on the Bay Psalm Book (then he was translating from Latin into English), the first booked to be printed in what would become the USA. That book recently set records when it was sold at auction in November 2013 for $14.165 million, the highest auction price for a single printed book.
While there had been a printing press in Mexico since the 1530s, North America’s first printing press arrived on its shores from England in 1638, accompanied by its owner Elizabeth Glover (the widow of Reverend Jose Glover who had died on the journey) and Stephen Daye. The press was set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as Glover later married Henry Dunster, president of the then Harvard College, the press may be considered the forerunner of Harvard University Press since Elizabeth’s property became Dunster’s, and therefore Harvard’s.
By the time the Eliot Bible was sent to print, Samuel Green had taken over the running of the press. Furthermore, as it was the biggest job the press had ever seen, Green sent away for a more experienced English printer, Marmaduke Johnson (who would later set up New England’s second printing press in Boston), to assist with the printing, a job which would take the team a little more than a year.
The printing of the Bible was entirely subsidised by the Corporation of the New England Company, which had come into existence following an ordinance of 27th July 1649: “An act for the promoting and propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England”. This act of parliament directly led to the establishment of the New England Company, and subsequently the production of the Massachusetts Bible.
At St John’s
The copy at St John’s’ was donated to the library in 1666 by Joshua Lasher, an eighteen-year-old student of the college at the time. The book remains in its 17th-century binding with a gift label that reads “Eliot’s Indian Bible. Camb N. E. 1663.” It is not known how Lasher came to possess a copy.
This is one of only 1,000 copies printed of the complete Bible, and most of these were destroyed in the American Indian Wars, particularly King Phillip’s War of the 1670s.
During its time in St John’s, a newspaper cutting has been inserted into the binding which relates to the Chatsworth Sale of July 1958, when an edition of the Massachusetts Bible was sold for £7,200.
Cogley, Richard W., ‘John Eliot and the Origins of the American Indians’, Early American Literature, Volume 21, No. 3 (Winter 1986-7), 210-225
Encyclopaedia Britannica online, entry on ‘Stephen Day, American printer’
Kellaway, William, ‘The Archives of the New England Company’, Archives, Volume 2, No. 12 (January 1954), 175-183
Reece, William S., ‘The First Hundred Years of Printing in British North America: Printers and Collectors’, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Volume 99, No. 2 (January 1990), 337-374
Rumball-Petre, Edwin A. R., America’s First Bibles: with a census of 555 extant Bibles, (Eastford, Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2000)