“Genesis is printed, and we are upon Matthew, but our progress is slow, and hands short.”
–John Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood, 16 August 1655.
In 1655, John Eliot (1604-1690), Puritan minister and missionary ‘Apostle to the Indians,’ and Samuel Green (c.1614-1702), pressman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, printed the opening book of the Old Testament, Genesis, in Wôpanâak, an Algonquian language of the native inhabitants of New England. That issue, a quarto-sized gathering of sixty-four leaves, was directly followed by a translation of Matthew, the opening book of the New Testament. The publication of the two Wôpanâak translations had a singular aim–to prove to financial backers in England the viability of translating and publishing the entirety of the Bible in the native language. While no copy of the 1655 Matthew survives, a single extant copy of Genesis housed in the library of King’s College, London, serves as a bibliographic marker for an eight-year endeavor that would produce Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (1663), the first Bible printed in the New World.
John Eliot’s Indian Bible: A Census attempts to locate all extant copies of the 1661 New Testament, the 1663 Holy Bible, and the 1685 second edition of the Holy Bible. The project builds upon the 1880s census conducted by Wilberforce Eames that was subsequently published in James Pilling’s Bibliography of the Algonquian Languages (Washington: G.P.O., 1891). In addition to recording extant copies, the project highlights provenance, marginalia, and the circulation of individual copies over the course of 350 years to reveal both the history of the book’s reception and use, as well as the lives of the various owners. To date, John Eliot’s Indian Bible: A Census records data for nearly 150 copies, though only a third have been physically examined. Once a significant body of work is compiled and verified, the census will be made available online.
About the Author:
Gabriel Swift is Reference Librarian for Special Collections and Selector for Western Americana in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Prior to joining Princeton, he was a Reference Associate in the Public Services Department of the Lilly Library, Indiana University.