Crossing Cultures: Algonquin Bible (1663): First Bible Printed in the USA

Hello Lightworkers, and other spiritual non-conformists,

How do cultures and religions mix, so that each party has an equal standing with the other? May such free exchanges occur? Or does religion tend to take hold and spread only through conquest and rank aggression? As I will indicate, certain figures play mediating roles, between cultures, even in times of strife or warfare. Such was the case in colonial America.

Please note before we start that I am not an expert about this complicated and controversial episode in the history of North America. However, I am judiciously concerned to raise some questions about the history of missionary pursuits and intercultural religious exchange.

Throughout  US history, Indian culture and religion came to be curtailed and rudely suppressed by the government. There were massacres. Yet, episodes of equal exchange, mutual curiosity, and reciprocal aid, may have punctuated early Puritan history.  In the 1600’s, in fact, the English colonists in North America to the “new world” were often quite eager to find refuge, welcome, and hospitality among the Indians. In turn, the Indians may have been comparatively reluctant to assimilate to European ways. (See: Crossing the Cultural Divide: New Englander and Indians).

John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan, “apostle to the Indians,” who translated the Bible into Algonquin, an Indian language, undertook his work in collaboration with Indian allies. A biblical scholar, adept in translation and ancient biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek), Eliot had the linguistic ability to translate not only the Bible but also documents, called the Indian Library, which preserve Native culture for later generations and other cultures. Eliot may have served, also, to defend Indians against the more rapacious colonizers, among Eliot’s compatriots, who would seize and plunder their land. Eliot immersed himself in the culture of the Indians and learned Algonquin, a difficult language, so well that he preached in the Algonquin language, for the first time in 1647. He set up towns of Praying Indians, which governed themselves. He advocated for the Indians with the British King.

Many of the colonizers, and missionaries to the Indians, were exiles from their own homelands in England and the continent. They had lost their religious home. They were, themselves, deracinated.  Such was John Eliot. In the process of leading missions to the Indians, he was escaping religious persecution, directed at him as a “non-conformist” in his native England. If the colonizers knew persecution and violence first-hand, some of them – like John Eliot – refrained from inflicting the same on Indians in the new world –while others perpetrated such ills against them.

Indian figures like Squanto (who died in 1622), and Samson Occom (an Indian convert to Christianity and preacher during the Great Awakening), established concord with the Christian white people, although their peace and kindness were later repaid by betrayal–(at the hands of other men). According to the Life of John Eliot, the Apostle of the Indians, by John Wilson (1828), similarly one Indian named John, a Sagamore, requested of a Boston clergyman, on his deathbed, that his son might learn about the God of the English.

Conquest, kidnappings, and the cruel suppression of Native American cultures did occur in US History. Was the Algonquin Bible, however, a counterexample and a testament to amicable relations, across cultures?

Such questions cluster around the first printed Bible, in the Algonquin language, produced by John Eliot. The Indians he met in Massachusetts did not read or write. They relied on their spoken language.  Eliot taught them the English (Latin) alphabet. He then used this alphabet to transcribe, phonetically, the Algonquin spoken language.

Thus, the first translation into a Native American language of the Bible may exhibit a spirit of friendship, between the English and the American Indians, thus modeling a certain parity and amity. Some scholars do regard John Eliot as an inter-cultural mediator of beneficent impact (see: Eliot as Mediator). Eliot may have protected the Indians, and advocated for their rights, with his own more bellicose compatriots.

Below is a leaflet from the first edition of the Algonquin New Testament. Here is a reprint of the Algonquin New Testament: Algonquin NT. Dartmouth holds Eliot’s originals : Eliot Collection. Here is some information about religious persecution in Europe of the period: 17th century religious persecution