Christians who love the word of God and have had their English Bibles for a long time, may know little about early translations of the Bible into Native American languages. One such pioneer was John Eliot (1604-1690), who has been acclaimed as the “apostle to Native Americans.” He worked on the Massachusett Bible for 14 years before it was published in 1663, the first printed in America. In 1680, and when he was 76 years of age, he did a complete revision of the Bible
According to an article on Wikipedia, “Many copies of the first edition (1663) of Eliot’s Indian Bible were destroyed by the British in 1675-76 by a war against Metacomet (war chief of the Wampanoag Indians). In 1685, after some debate, the New England Company decided to publish another edition of Eliot’s Indian Bible.”
In 1709 a special edition of the Massachusett Bible was published, a diglot version, with the Indian words in one column and the English words in the opposite column. The 1709 edition is based on the Geneva Bible, like Eliot’s original translation.
To show the difficulty of the Algonquian language in Eliot's Indian Bible, Cotton Mather gives as an example the word Nummatchekodtantamoonganunnonash (32 characters) which means "our lusts." [from Wikipedia.org] However, Eliot also translated and published a grammar of Massachusett and a copy of it can be found online at repository.library.brown.edu.
Eliot is sometimes accused of confusing American culture with Christianity because he gave haircuts, clothing and assembled villages for the people. This may be true, but in 1689 he also donated 75 acres of land to support a school he founded in 1676. Under conditions contingent with the donation, the school was required to accept both Negros and Indians “without prejudice.” According to Neville B. Cryer (in Five Pioneer Missionaries, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), Eliot received his BA from Cambridge at the age of 18 and was particularly interested in Hebrew and Greek (20 years later he was still reading them daily), as well as philological studies. Eliot died in 1690, aged 85, his last words being "welcome joy!"
At the age of 24 Eliot decided that his life’s work was to preach. He was mentored by Thomas Hooker, the Puritan colonial leader who founded the colony of Connecticut. Eliot ministered among the “Red Indians,” the Algonquins and discovered that they already knew of a life force called Manito. Eliot considered this spirit to be the same as the unknown God that Paul had declared to the Athenians. In 1644 he began to study the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquin language group, which was unwritten. In 1646 he preached the “first sermon ever preached in an Indian tongue by an Englishman,” and it lasted 75 minutes.
He was committed to community development and the establishment of the Indian “praying towns.” At one point there were 14 such towns, the best-known being at Natick, Massachusetts. Eliot also proposed that Indians should go to Harvard to learn English and teach their language to the English (p. 214).
The town of Eliot, Maine, which was in Massachusetts during its incorporation, was named after John Eliot. His name also appears in the alternate history 1632 Series anthology collection 1637: The Coast of Chaos. Eliot’s wife was killed shortly after the birth of their first child by French soldiers invading the Thirteen Colonies.
What Eliot did was an amazing accomplishment, and his linguistics work is still highly regarded. It gives me some hope that the linguistics and literacy work that Joice and I did among two closely related languages of Papua New Guinea will survive. However, there are changes taking place throughout the nation and vernacular languages are being gradually overtaken by the lingua franca, Tok Pisin or the official language of education, English. Just as the Massachusetts language became extinct, many PNG vernacular languages have already succumbed to the influence of Tok Pisin and English.
Joice and I (and many others) learned firsthand how difficult it is to learn to speak a vernacular language that is unrelated to an Indo-European one. It took us several years and required linguistic studies and the compilation of literacy materials. This included an alphabet and teaching people to read and write their own language. I am impressed that Eliot could preach for 75 minutes in the vernacular Massachusett language.
Included during our 15 years of work among the West Kewa was the publication of the New Testament in 1973, then revised and published again in 2004. An adaptation into East Kewa was completed and later dedicated in 2005. Concomitant with translation was linguistic analysis and the literacy work I have mentioned.
There are several mission agencies and church denominations that use the Kewa scriptures in their church services. However, there is no assurance that the languages will survive any longer than Massachusett and, even if they do, revisions in vocabulary, as well as other influences, will necessitate considerable change.
There are over 50 English versions of the complete Bible, with perhaps 6 or so that are commonly read and studied. This is wonderful, but one of my burdens for the many languages of the world that still do not have a word of the Bible—almost 2000 of them!