In the Beginning … with Linford Fisher

This spring, I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey. We have 500 students, 8 teaching associates, and a whole bunch of new jokes I can’t wait to use. But before that, I wanted to go back to the beginning – at least of how we usually teach United States history. I asked four colonial historians to share primary documents that they love to teach. I’ll share a few this week, and then a few later in the semester. Today’s discussion comes from Linford Fisher, Brown University historian, author of the tremendous new book The Indian Great Awakening, editor of a new set of historiographical essays on religion in the early Atlantic world, and a code breaker of Robert Langdon proportions. I posed this question to Dr. Fisher and the others: If you had to recommend one primary document (text, image, … anything at all) from your field that exemplified some of the problems your book addresses AND speaks to main themes in American history at the time, what would it be? How would you guide discussion? What questions would you ask for an essay or exam that would incorporate it?” 

Okay, so my “primary source” is a bit odd, perhaps: the Indian Bible (Eliot Bible), or—more properly titled, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (1663). I like to think of it as a piece of material culture, as an object, as much as a printed primary source. On the one hand, it is indeed a conventional primary source. It contains the Algonquian translation of the entire Bible, largely brought into being by the Roxbury, Massachusetts, Congregational minister, John Eliot, who spent many years phoneticizing the oral language of the Massachusett Indians and turning it into a written language. 
But it is more than that. I love Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God because it represents the intense complexity of both the evangelization process and the reception by Natives, which in turn echo the incredible complexity of Native-European relations in the colonial period. On the surface, the “Indian Bible” is a thoroughly colonial document. It is largely the project of white English missionaries who are at the same time forming “praying towns” all across New England in which to corral “praying Indians” to encourage them to give up prime lands in exchange for the “privileges” of English civilization — English clothing, hair cuts, education, churches, houses, agricultural norms, etc. The Indian Bible quickly became an emblem of English missionary activity; of the first 1,000 printed, many were sent to England and dedicated to Charles II (perhaps wisely, in the post-Restoration era). 
And yet, it is more complicated than that. The Bibles weren’t solely the product of Eliot’s labors. Eliot had at least two Indian servants working with him on the translations over the course of a decade — Cockenoe and Job Nesutan (after all, how could Eliot have possibly continued his full-time ministry at Roxbury, set up missionary towns, and produced the Indian Bible?). A Nipmuc Indian, James, operated the press at Harvard College that produced the Bible, while two Wampanoag Indian students who were studying at Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteamuck and Joel Iacoomes, likely aided in the translation, proof-reading, and printing as well. These Indian Bibles were also actually read and used by Natives ministers and laypersons, who struggled through them, memorized passages, and even wrote their thoughts on specific passages in the margins. Dozens of Indian Bibles exist today around the country that still contain the Algonquian (usually Massachusett or Wampanoag) language marginalia scribbled into the tiny margins of the Bible or scrawled across the title pages of the testaments or the Psalter (which was included in the back). (Interested readers can check out my Harvard Theological Review essay:
Perhaps even more interesting to me is that these Bibles get used in surprising ways. During King Philip’s War (1675-1676), Natives sought out and often burned these Bibles. In the post-war years, Eliot informed curious Europeans that all the Bibles had been destroyed in the war (perhaps by colonists, too!), which eventually led to a second printing, in 1685. When King Charles II received copies of the Indian Bible in the 1660s, he turned around and sent a copy to the Mohegan Indians as a sign of diplomacy, perhaps, but also with evangelistic aspirations. The Mohegans—who could not read it—took it seriously, however, and kept that copy safeguarded with the successive sachems over time. The Indian Bible was mentioned by Mohegan leaders in 1725 (when they thanked John Mason for his educational work with their children) and was also brought out in 1743 during a widely-attended land hearing in Norwich, Connecticut, that was part of the much longer Mohegan Land Controversy. In this case, the Mohegan Sachem Ben Uncas II wielded the Bible as a sign of his own Christianization as well as the civilization and allegiance of the Mohegans more generally. 
Although it would take a bit of explanation in lecture, the Bible itself could easily form the basis for a discussion in section or an exam question. I have already taken my classes to see one of Brown’s several copies (the John Hay Library has Roger Williams’ copy), and simply seeing the book in person and paging through the text prompts lots of discussion. Many of the proper names and nouns are untranslated. So Jesus Christ remains Jesus Christ, etc. The translation process itself combined with the various uses of the Bible by Natives over time (for preaching, personal Bible study, marginal reflections, as well as diplomatic power and association) all represent for me that fascinating, intertwining, and complex negotiations by Natives of their colonial worlds in this time period. 
Linford Fisher

4 thoughts on “In the Beginning … with Linford Fisher

  1. These kinds of interviews are an excellent idea. I appreciate the way Lin examines, on the one hand, Eliot’s and Puritans peers to use this Bible as part of a broader Christianization process, but then also looking at how two Indian collaborators assisted him in the act of translating. Then the complicated and unpredictable process of reception and appropriation get put into play. This attention to the complex and multilayered ways in which groups and individuals interact and influence each other strikes me as one of the central imperatives of doing good history. I imagine a work of this sort provokes excellent discussion, Lin.

  2. Hi Linford: Great post. I’m curious though, what do you think students most take away from the experience of seeing the bibles first hand? How is that different from what they get when you only have them read the text from the internet? Is there a difference? I know I get excited when I hold in my hands something old and perhaps famous (Roger Williams!). But I wonder how those endorphins shape my interpretation. Any thoughts?

  3. Thanks, Curtis, for your thoughts, and Kevin, for your question. I agree that much of this can be accomplished without seeing the Eliot Bible (or other books) in person. But I’m a big believer in tactile approaches to history—visits, objects, etc., simply because I think it brings an additional dimension of understanding, historical empathy, and observation. Seeing the Eliot Bible in person, students always are surprised at how thick it is. To own a copy as a Native was also a physical identification with European Christianity (or at least potentially) – whether as a point of pride or something that would have incurred derision. I try to get my students to imagine what it must have been like to have held it for the first time as a Native person, and think through the possible layers of meanings it represented: a tangible representation of the religion of the English (after all, the many laws the English imposed were often based on this book, or so Natives were told); a physical emblem of spiritual power (for “salvation” or otherwise); a symbol of the importance of the written word and literacy (imagine the immense frustration of knowing it was written in your language and yet you potentially could not read it); an instrument of colonialism – the imposing of ideologies and ideas; and yet a means of spiritual reflection, engagement, and reshaping for some Natives, as evidenced in the marginalia of some of the Bibles. Again, you can do much of this while using a PowerPoint slide, but to be there in person, to hold the Bible, to page through it, to see marginalia in Native languages (when present), and to imagine the many layers of meaning for Natives in the seventeenth century, I find is often an experience that leaves an impression for students, especially given the electronic world they have grown up in. Or perhaps I am just a hopeless history romantic when it comes to objects!

  4. Fascinating ideas, Lin. I’m not a history prof, but I can recall how thrilling it was to see the Magna Carta and other treasures in London. The Eliot Bible is, in itself “real history”. I was pretty moved by seeing the 1685 version in the Congregational Library.

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