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Apostle To The Indians
John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts savages, printed the Bible in their “barbarous Linguo,” and tried to reply to their disquieting questions
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
With his other burdens it is a marvel that he found time to carry on his translating. For in all weathers and all seasons he made his visitations in the towns and friendly settlements, sometimes as far as sixty miles afield. An indomitable figure who could bend to a nor’caster and yet not draw back, who did not hesitate in a pinch to adopt Indian dress, who would stop on a rainy night at any wigwam and wring the water from his socks and be olf the next morning, who when hostile Indians barred his path coidd say: “I fear neither you nor all the sachems in the country. I will go on, and do you touch me if you dare.”
Then there was his Roxbuiy congregation, and the education of his own people. “Lord! For schools everywhere among us!” he prayed. He founded the Indian College at Cambridge. He established the Free School in Roxbury. (Founded in 1645, the Roxbury Latin School, as it was subsequently known, is the oldest endowed school in the United States. It is at present a country day school of 150 students in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.) He made teachers and ministers of his Indian converts. And he wrote reports over the years that were published regularly by the society and came to be known as the Indian Tracts.
When Eliot began his Bible translation there was no assurance it would ever be printed, yet he continued at it through the years, trusting in Providence and in the London society. He did not trust in vain, for—as that unpractical man shrewdly realized—such a project was attuned to the very premises on which the society was founded. Its governors agreed to underwrite the expenses of the Indian Bible.
The Up-Biblum was printed by Samuel Green at the Cambridge Press, housed in the Indian College inside the Harvard Yard. Directly and indirectly this undertaking was worth the then very large sum of £1,000 a year to the Boston commercial community.
Eliot completed his translation in 1659. That same year printing was begun, and almost at once the society shipped an additional press to Cambridge. Special type had to be sent as well, the Indian language requiring a double o logotype and more than the normal proportions of o’s, k’s , and q’s .
The final chapters of Revelation were printed in 1663. Fifteen hundred copies of the Up-Biblum were run off, 200 copies being bound in stout leather for the immediate use of the Indians. This was the first Bible printed in America, the earliest example in history of the translation and printing of the entire Bible as a means of evangelization. It was Eliot’s most durable monument.
King Charles’ acceptance of the sudden and politic dedication of the Up-Biblum was gracious, considering the fact that only three years before Eliot, in a slim volume called The Christian Commonwealth , had applauded Cromwell, denounced Charles I as antiChrist, and anathematized the Lords and Commons.
The following dozen years were to climax Eliot’s labors. Captain Daniel Gookin, a layman of some military and political prominence in the colony, was appointed superintendent of the Praying Indians and became Eliot’s principal colleague. The original settlement at Natick throve mightily, and additional towns were set up at Stoughton, Grafton, Marlboro, Littleton, and Tewksbury. Eliot composed an Indian Primer, an Indian Grammar, and an Indian Psalter and made a translation of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted . In 1674 there were two established Indian churches, fourteen Indian towns, and 1,100 Praying Indians.
An unusual glimpse of Eliot comes to us from a novel source. In the mid-seventeenth century the Jesuit Father Druillette was sent by the governor of Canada to Boston to discuss commercial relations. Although Jesuits were nominally under sentence of death in Massachusetts, Father Druillette was received cordially both by Governor Endicott and by Governor Bradford of Plymouth. On one of his journeys he was an overnight guest of Eliot. That meeting of the priest and the Puritan conversing by the fireside as best they could in church and school Latin became the subject of a number of sentimental Victorian illustrations.
Eliot’s vision of a Christianized Indian fellowship of thriving and expanding towns was shattered in 1675 by the outbreak of King Philip’s War. Philip was the son of Massasoit, the sachem of the Rhode Island Wampanoags, whose early treaty with Plymouth banned any missionaries within his territory. More instinctively hostile to the whites than his politic father, Philip carried this anti-Christian bias even further. Once on a chance meeting with Eliot he had twisted a button of the latter’s coat, telling him he cared no more for the Gospel than he did for that button.
To Philip’s innate hostility was added his resentment at the encroaching whites. The old Pawtucket chieftain Passaconaway had warned him that though he might harm the colonists, they would in the end surely destroy him. That might be true, Philip thought, but only if he failed to strike in time. He planned with much cunning for a federation of tribes from Long Island Sound to the Penobscot that would rise at a given signal and exterminate the English settlements. For four years he made his preparations, formed secret alliances with the other tribes, collected guns and munitions and supplies, and planned his strategy.