King's College London
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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

A unique survival: the Massachusett Genesis

Opening page of the Book of GenesisThe Massachusett Genesis of 1655The Bible has always been at the centre of the Church’s missionary work, though the different Christian denominations tended to use it in slightly different ways.

While the Catholic Church placed more emphasis on the Bible’s place within the context and structure of the Church and its methods of worship, Protestant missionaries were more likely to see the Bible as a means of evangelism in itself, leading, through individual understanding of its teachings, to the creation of a Church built on those teachings. For both strands of missionary endeavour translation of the Bible into the languages of non-Christian peoples was essential.

One of the fruits of the Counter-Reformation – the reinvigoration of the Catholic Church that followed the Reformation – was the formation in 1540 of the Society of Jesus, which dominated the Christian missionary endeavour for the next hundred years, establishing itself in Latin America, Africa and Asia, its work closely allied to the imperial expansion of Spain, Portugal and France. The Protestant mission took longer to gather pace and, like that of the Catholic Church, tended to reflect in its areas of operation the imperial or mercantile importance of its sponsoring European powers – in this case the maritime nations of Britain, Holland and Scandinavia.

In Massachusetts the missionary John Eliot (160490), the so-called ‘Apostle to the Indians’, produced the first translation of the Bible into one of the native North American languages. Indeed, his translation of the Bible into the Natick dialect of the Massachusett language, published in 1663, was the first complete Bible of any kind to be printed on North American soil.

On display is the only recorded surviving copy of a trial-piece printed eight years earlier by Eliot’sprinter, Samuel Green, of the Book of Genesis. Its survival was unknown until 1937, when American scholar Wilberforce Eames noticed a reference to a copy of Genesis ‘in the Algonkin [sic] language of North America’ in the catalogue compiled by William Marsden (17541836) to his personal library (now held at King’s) and realised that this did not refer to a fragment of the complete 1663 edition but to an earlier trial-piece. Of the Massachusett translation of Matthew, apparently also printed by Green in 1655 as an accompanying trial-piece, no copies are known to survive.

Chapters 1-19 of Eliot’s translation contain an interlinear English verbatim text, probably included to help missionaries reading the Massachusett text aloud. On the last page Eliot and Green trust that God will forgive any errors in the translation ‘for the good of their soules, who are glad to heare the word of God, speaking in their own language to them.’

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