Algonquin Indian NT - 1661 A.D.

A Collection Exhibit

The Bible that Created a Writing System and Preserved an Unwritten Language 

      On July 3, 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain first encountered Algonquian with the challenge of communicating with people that spoke a different language.  The Algonquian Native Indians that occupied much of the American northwest lacked a phonetic alphabet or known system of the written language.  Their limited writing system consisted of that which is known as petroglyphs, pictures carved on stone.  The Algonquin language is closely associated with the Ojibwe, whose writing was confined to pictographs, images with thought or meaning.  Algonquian language group includes 29 tribal dialects that are mutually intelligible.  For example, Massachuset, Ojibwe, and Algonquin languages are all similar. 

 

      In 1661 A.D., John Eliot, a Puritan missionary, for the first time rendered an interpretation of the New Testament Bible in the Algonquin language using English phonetics.  Its two title pages read once in English, “The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and a second in Algonquin “Wusku Wuttestamentum Nul-lordumun Jesus Christ Nuppoquohwuffuaene[?]mun.”  This Bible is commonly known in English as the Eliot Bible or Algonquin Bible.  This Bible preserved a language that had not been recorded.  In addition, this Bible facilitated communication that enabled religious education between the English and Algonquin people.  It was the first printing on the first printing press in America by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

      “In 1649 the British Parliament passed An Act for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England.  This act was the precursor to Eliot translating the Bible.  Missionaries like Eliot had the full support of the British government.  The act passed by Parliament included the formation of a corporation called 'The President and Society for the propagation of the Gospel in New England.'”  The Bible facsimile exhibited below includes an epistle addressed to “The High and Mighty Prince Charles the Second” that reports, “the Indians being taught, and under[s]ftanding the Doctrine of the Chri[s]ftian Religion… many of their Children are in[s]ftructed to Write and Reade, and [s]fome of them have proceeded further… to attain the knowledge of the Latine and Greek Tongues, and are brought up with our Engli[s]fh youth in Univer[s]fity-learning… can and do reade [s]fome parts of the Scripture.”

Displayed in this exhibit is a Bible facsimile reproduction of the Algonquin Indian New Testament: John Eliot, 1661 published by founder James A. Fowler of Christ in You, ISBN: 9781929541300

      Eliot was educated in England and a prominent local figure in Massachusetts.  Eliot's Puritan ministry focused on the conversion of Massachusett and other Algonquian Indians.  Faced with the language barrier, he thought they should have the Bible in their language that would require their learning English phonetics.  Eliot's associate in work was John Cotton, who served as co-editor.  In addition, "Eliot used the help of Cockenoe, a Native captured and enslaved during the Pequot War, which took place in 1637.  Eliot wrote Cockenoe, who 'was the first that I made use of to teach me words, and to be my interpreter.'"  Thus, among other Indians, "Eliot had the 'help'" of local Native Americans "when translating the Bible into the Algonquian language."  Little is known of the Great Lakes syllabics, but it is based on “a European cursive form of the Roman alphabet.”  The syllabics suggest it has French and Canadian origins with Jesuit influence.

      This Bible played a significant role in Colonial America that enabled the trade of pelt, fish, forest products, and land that Indians had with White Man.  1663 A.D. and later editions included the Old Testament that also exists today; these were known as "Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God Naneeswe Nukkone Testament Kah Wonk Wusku Testament."  The Apostle Paul writes concerning language, 

"So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me." 1 Corinthians 14:9-11

Insights 

      If one considers the linguistic impact, this Bible enabled Indians to be later educated in English and the writing of their own language.  Reciprocally, it impacted the American English language with Indian words, primarily nouns like Pontiac, for example, and educated Americans in Indian languages.  This translation set precedence for additional Bible translations into various other Native American tongues that likewise preserved languages and facilitated communication.  Through religious learning, this Bible also introduced the English language and vice versa that established communicative relationships.  This communication enabled historical negotiations that facilitated alliances, diplomacy, and treaties among the Algonquian, English, French, Spanish, and ensuing American peoples.  Eliot's work is an example of how the Bible has been a kind of Rosetta Stone at preserving languages.  The Algonquin Bible was not translated to a known writing system; instead created a writing system for a different language that previously did not have a writing system.  As a result, the Algonquian also later developed an alphabet or syllabary that resembles the Ojibwe writing system.

The first video on the left above is an excellent narrative of this Bible, but it should be noted that it is an overstatement that the Algonquin "could not read" their Bible; at some point, as noted above, there became educated Algonquins able to read, speak, and write English, bi-lingually, because of this Bible, moreover visa versa.

The second video on the right above is a compilation of the Algonquian (broader group of tribes) language family.  Please pay special attention at 2 minutes and 56 seconds for a sample of the Algonquin dialect and its associated Ojibwe language that follows.  In honor of American Indians, Ron (Muqsahkwat) Corn, Jr. (not Algonquin) provides an outstanding TEDx Talk on the importance of one's language to heritage; here is his video: https://youtu.be/KSYRajT3a0E.