ENCOUNTERING THE ELIOT BIBLE

The first printing press in America arrived in 1638 at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was used to publish Puritan religious materials, including the Bay Psalm Book, free from censorship in England.

Perhaps its most remarkable book, though, was its first complete Bible, which appeared not in English but a Native language in a translation by John Eliot, a task that required him not only to translate all 66 books of the English Christian Bible but also to create a new alphabet altogether.

The resulting 1,180-page volume, now known as the Eliot Bible, appeared in 1663, a translation into Algonquin of the Geneva version used by the Puritans.

(At the time, sects found important distinctions in the texts of their translations. For example, before her execution by Massachusetts Puritans in 1656, the Quaker Mary Dyer’s letters challenging her charges quoted the King James, or Authorized, version, something that would not have gone unnoticed by her accusers.)

With our overwhelming abundance of printed materials today, it’s impossible for us to imagine the immensity of this task. I’m still amazed that small typefaces could be cut as cleanly as they were and then be cast into metal. Hand-setting the resulting type is slow and arduous labor, and each sheet of paper would have been printed individually, rather than in the continuous rolls we now use. (I remember the blur of newspapers on the press, measured in the thousands per hour.) In Colonial times, to store, collate, and bind all of those pages into all of those volumes required both strategy and space in a time when most buildings were small, especially by our standards. As for ink and paper itself? These things were precious.

My first encounter with an actual Eliot Bible came at the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, Rhode Island, where Williams’ volume is displayed, along with his notes in the margins, done in his own style of shorthand. Think of that twist: the founder of the first Baptist church in America, banished from Massachusetts by the Puritans, was also concerned enough with spreading the Gospel that he, too, learned the Native language and reflected on ways to open its message.

In these early literary efforts, then, we see glimmers that relations with Native populations in the Northeast could have gone in much more peaceful ways than the violent turns they took in the hands of others.

As we learn in other, more tragic, pages.

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