Tongues of Flame: The Legacy of John Eliot's Indian Bible
The first Bible produced in North America, in 1663, was printed not in English—or some other European tongue—but in an Algonquian language known as Massachusett (also called Wampanoag). To pull this off, John Eliot, known as the “Apostle to the Indians” in the Algonquian-speaking communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had first to devise a writing system for an exclusively spoken language. This required a command of Massachusett vocabulary as well as its grammar, idioms, and non-cognate elements that might foil easy understanding. Once Eliot produced a comprehensive orthography, he was ready to begin translating the Bible into the Indian language. Far from a simple exercise in word-for-word translation, however, Eliot’s Bible would have to submit to a kind of conceptual translation in order to be put to effective missionary use. The result, according to Scott Manning Stevens, was the “indigenization” of Christianity; while Eliot retained the basic narrative of the Gospels, he assimilated certain concepts into already-existing structures of Indian belief to make them comprehensible for his new audience.