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Image of The Book of Genesis opening page from Eliot's translation

John Eliot

John Eliot (1604-1690) was an early emigrant to America and translated the Bible into a Native American language.

Early life

John Eliot was born at Widford, Hertfordshire in 1604, and arrived to study at Jesus College in 1618 when he was 14. At that time it was not uncommon for boys of his age to be admitted to the College, so long as they were strong enough in Latin to pursue further studies.

Eliot’s father was a prosperous Essex yeoman who could afford to support his son as a student. He died in 1621, bequeathing the rents and profits of lands in Hertfordshire “quarterly to pay unto my sonne John Elliott the somme of Eaight pownds a year of lawfull mony of Englond for and towards his mayntenance, in the University of Cambridg where he is nowe scoller” (Guildhall Library MS 9172/33, transcribed with permission).

As a student and young cleric

At the time of Eliot's admission, the Master was John Duport, a man of high scholarly reputation and one of the group who prepared King James' 'Authorised Version' of the Bible. Eliot's tutor was William Beale, a young Fellow who was later to become Master of the College and then Master of St John's College.

While in Cambridge, Eliot would have had the opportunity to meet other students and academics with a variety of religious sympathies, including Puritans from Emmanuel College. His mentor in later years, Thomas Hooker, had attended Emmanuel and was influenced by John Dod, the one Fellow of Jesus College with Puritan sympathies.

When Eliot's student days were over, he went to work as an assistant teacher in an unlicensed school founded by Hooker at Little Baddow, Essex. Such ventures were risky, especially after 1628 when William Laud became Bishop of London and began to take a tough line against nonconformists. In 1630 Hooker fled to the Netherlands to avoid prosecution, and three years later he emigrated to America.

Another friend of Hooker's was Francis Higginson, one of the co founders of Salem, Massachusetts. Higginson was also a former student at Jesus College and a few years older than Eliot, who may have read his glowing account of the potential of the new colony, published as New-Englands Plantation, or, A Short and True Description of the Commodities and Discommodities of that Countrey.

Emigration

Eliot set off for America in 1631. He sailed on the ship ‘Lyon’, which also carried the family of John Winthrop, the new Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The ship arrived safely after a ten week voyage, putting its passengers ashore at Boston, New England, on 4 November 1631.

Eliot stayed briefly in Boston as a temporary pastor at the church, but soon moved to Roxbury to join friends and relatives who had travelled after him from Essex. His marriage to Ann (or Hannah) Mumford was the first to be recorded in the Roxbury records, in October 1632.

A few weeks later, Eliot was dismissed by Boston and “accepted the call” of the congregation at Roxbury, teaching and preaching, and serving as sole minister there for a time from 1645. He lived there for the rest of his life, and never returned to England.

Along with other local clergy, Eliot assisted projects to aid and improve the new colony. He was closely involved in the founding of Harvard College, and a letter he wrote in 1633 contains the first known reference to the plan. It was addressed to Sir Simonds D’Ewes back in England, begging him to “imploy but one mite, of that greate welth which God hath given, to erect a schoole of larning, a colledg among us”. A sum of £500 would be sufficient; even £400 or £300 “would doe pretty well”.

This appeal did not succeed, but five years later John Harvard’s bequest enabled the college to be established. Eliot served as one of its Governors from 1645, and a little later in the century some Native American pupils he had taught were amongst its students.

The first complete book to be printed in America was the Bay Psalm Book, which presented the Psalms in English metrical verse, aiming to offer as clear and literal a translation as possible. It was produced in a new printing house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Eliot was among the local authors who contributed translations. A revised edition was produced in 1651 and became known as The New England Psalm Book.

Preaching and teaching

In the mid 1640s Eliot began to learn Algonquin, the language of the surrounding Native American population. He relied a great deal on the help of a young man from Long Island who had been captured in the Pequot war of 1637 and become a servant in an English household. He has now been identified as Cockenoe, who worked for Richard Collicot of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Eliot said that Cockenoe “was the first that I made use of to teach me words, and to be my interpreter”; he could not write, but spoke both his own language and English fluently.

Eliot's first attempt to preach to the native population was a dismal failure, but he persevered and eventually met with some success. He also set about translating the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of scriptural texts into Algonquin, and compiling prayers and exhortations.

He aimed to ensure that as settlements of “praying Indians” were founded they could be provided with their own schools and churches, and become self sustaining. The first such settlement, Natick, was begun in 1650 and 13 others followed, surviving until the rebellions of the 1670s.

Publications

To attract financial support for his missionary work, Eliot wrote letters for publication in London: these appeared from 1643 onwards and became known as the 'Eliot Tracts'. The Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel in New England, founded in 1649, took over the task and successfully raised substantial funds to send across the Atlantic.

Jesus College owns a copy of a broadsheet printed for the Corporation in that year, containing an appeal from “the Heads of severall Colledges in the University of Cambridge” for “Pecuniary helps” to be supplied to “Mr Eliot, and other painfull fishers of man in that Countrey”. Thomas Yonge, Master of Jesus College, was one of the signatories.

Eliot's publications in America began with an Algonquin catechism in 1653. His Indian Primer (1669) collected together a Larger and Shorter Catechism, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 'Indian Covenanting Confession', which set out the principles agreed by members of the church at Natick at its founding in 1660.

A more controversial work was The Christian Commonwealth, or the Civil Policy of the Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, written around 1650 and published in London ten years later. The timing was unfortunate and the authorities in Massachusetts, fearing for their own position under the newly-restored King Charles II, swiftly condemned the book as seditious. Their counterparts in London did the same. Eliot then declared it had been published without his knowledge or consent (contrary to what was said on its title page) and retracted his argument.

Translating the Bible

From an early stage, Eliot planned to produce a complete Bible in Algonquin. He did so by translating from original Hebrew and Greek texts, and where no Algonquin equivalents for particular words were available he inserted English ones from the King James version. Modern scholars have judged that the result was good for a first attempt at translating the Bible into a previously unwritten language.

Eliot finished the work of translation in 1658, and the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel sent over a printing press, fonts of suitable type, a printer, and a workman to bind the copies. The New Testament was completed in 1661 and copies were sent to key English supporters.

Once the Old Testament was ready in 1663, the Old and New were bound up together, along with the Psalms of David in verse form and a catechism. A dedication to Charles II was inserted in presentation copies sent to England, but was omitted from those distributed in America. Amongst these presentation copies a volume with a personal inscription by Eliot was donated to the library of his former College, where it remains a highly prized possession.

Because many of the copies in America were destroyed in the wars of the 1670s, a new edition of the New Testament was printed in 1680 and a new Old Testament in 1685. Although Eliot was by then in his eighties, he was closely involved in funding and supervising the project.

Further reading

Winslow, Ola E. (1968) John Eliot "apostle to the Indians", Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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