Welcome to the Eliot Indian Bible Project. The Project is the work of the students in History 370 (Colonial American History) in Spring 2023. Supported by librarians, digital humanities experts, and each other, the students embarked on collaborative research on a single object, a Bible published in colonial Massachusetts in 1663. This amazing object resides today in the collections of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at UIUC. Over the course of a semester-long “object research lab” on the Bible, the students explored different themes and contexts that help appreciate its significance. They looked at the Bible, and they looked through the Bible. They showed remarkable creativity and insight, and here below is an exhibit that represents the result of their labor.

Watch the mini-documentary to learn about our project Scroll down to view the exhibit.

About The Eliot Indian Bible Project

Any artifact… is an historical event. … An artifact is something that happened in the past, but, unlike other historical events, it continues to exist in our own time. Artifacts constitute the only class of historical events that occurred in the past but survive in the present. They can be re-experienced; they are authentic, primary historical material available for first-hand study. Artifacts are historical evidence.”

— Jules David Prown

In Spring 2023, students from University of Illinois began a project to reinterpret the colonial phase of American history by focusing on one specific object: a Bible.

Not just any bible, but rather the first Bible published in North America, a complete edition of old and new testaments created at the printing press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1663.

The John Eliot Bible is one of the most important documents in American history, a massive feat of intellectual and spiritual labor. It is an extraordinary window—one of the best we have – into who these early modern people of colonial American history were.

What makes the John Eliot Bible so special is that it was published not in English, the language of the settler colonists who are frequently the protagonists of our “colonial history.” Rather, it was published in Massachusett, or Wampanoag, the Algonquian language spoken by people who already lived in New England when the so-called Puritans arrived.

It is a rare book, and a rare opportunity for us to reckon with some interesting on the ground realities of colonial history. Even basic questions provoke mystification: How was this book made? Why? Who read it? It is a counterintuitive and improbable and – frankly – quite strange book! What’s going on here?

The answers to these basic questions lead student researchers to important stories. This book, one of about 1500 actually published, is one of only 33 copies that survive today. It was made as a tool for the missionary project, most importantly for John Eliot himself, a Puritan minister of a “praying town” called Natick.  

But the translation was actually largely the work of Indigenous linguists like John Sassamon and a team of Indian translators. Sassamon and his colleagues were unusual for their literacy as well as their interest in this foreign Puritan religion, which is why the book was probably rarely used in its day. But more recently, the book has been one of the most important primary sources for the revitalization of the Wampanoag language. The Wampanoag Nation has rebuilt and reclaimed much cultural knowledge from this book over the past two generations.

For U of I students, this book is a way to approach colonial American history. It helps us understand Puritan theology, and the utopian project for which the Puritans are often known (and misunderstood). It allows us to approach the Wampanoags and their neighbors, not through the filter of colonial sources, but more directly through the almost tactile experience of reading their words. It helps us understand the creativity, misunderstanding, and devastation of this cultural encounter long ago. It helps us understand the Wampanoags—and by extension many colonized peoples— as complex and creative and active shapers of their own story.

But the book is also a window into less remote history. How did this book wind up here, a land grant university in the middle of the continent? How have academic historians valued and interpreted texts like these, ones with such obvious significance to modern communities who have often been excluded from academic practice? Student researchers have studied these questions as well, examining the stories of collecting, preserving, curating, and commemorating that are entangled with cultural objects like these. These stories are not remote, but recent. As one student has observed, colonial American history may be primarily a matter of what happened in the 17th century. But many aspects of colonialism are not in the past.

The Eliot bible project uses one object to examine American origin stories, as well as histories of historical interpretation and practice in an institution where a certain version of professional history has deep roots. Most importantly, it showcases the interpretations and insights of a new generation of historians-in-training. It demonstrates their creativity, their bold experiments in digital humanities, and their critical reflections on this complex period of American history.

The Object

What happens when we consider the Eliot Bible not just as a book, but as an object in its own right? Normally, historians treat sources– including especially books– as windows into the past. But books have histories of their own. One of the big ambitions of our group exhibit has been to try to treat the source as an event– to consider the making of the Eliot bible as a episode in the past. And if the making of the bible was an event, other events followed– collecting, preserving, buying, selling, possessing, curating, and commemorating. The projects in this portion of the exhibit speak to these complex histories of the Eliot Bible, including the very curious question: how did this book wind up here?

Ethics in Provenance and Curation

by Nate Passaro and Quinn Searsmith

The University Library’s “Five Millionth Book” was purchased in 1974: it was an Eliot Bible, originally published in 1663 by John Eliot. John Eliot lived in New England and was a Puritan missionary who intended on converting the indigenous Wampanoag people. Therefore, the Eliot Bible was translated into the language of the Wampanoag, Massachusetts. There are several dozen existing copies, one of which is housed by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The purpose of this project is to lay out the history of the Eliot Bible at the University of Illinois from 1974 to the present. Clarifying the circumstances of its purchase reveals the ethical considerations of the time and how they may have impacted future curation. Curation today is itself a difficult topic, one made harder by the issue of decolonization in the face of the history of the University as a land-grant institution.

View the website here

Production and Collection of the Bible

by Tara Leininger, John Landry, Rylee Smith

The Eliot Indian Bible is significant for its historical use by English Puritans to convert Native Americans to Christianity and its linguistic significance as the first translation of the Bible into a Native American language. In many ways, the Eliot Bible is an important piece of evidence when studying the interactions, both collaborative and conflicting, between indigenous American and English colonizers. However, the physical book itself is hardly a collaborative work — the physical features of the Eliot Bible, especially the more noteworthy ones of significant value, follow a strictly English tradition. This dissonance lays the scene for our examination of the production and collection of the John Eliot Bible.

Through detailed comparative analyses, we will argue that the extensive labor used to physically produce copies of the Eliot Bible, some of which were created with more ornate designs for specifically English audiences rather than missionary field work, mark the Bible’s significance as a physical, rather than just metaphorical, product of colonialism. Even today, this artificially created perceived value has created a rich collections history where prestigious institutions fight to collect rare copies of the Eliot Bible, even when their interest in the historical or linguistic significance of the Bible is unclear. In all, we aim to evaluate the unique physical attributes of different copies of the Eliot Bible and to critically analyze the state of Eliot Bible collecting.

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The Physical Creation of the John Eliot Bible

by Ivan Nordmeyer, Froy Munoz, Noah Yeager

Our project seeks to explore the creation of the Eliot Bible, analyzing its different components, and what they can tell us about the 17th Century Atlantic economy. Through our research, we have uncovered fascinating ties connecting this book and its production to countless laborers on both sides of the Atlantic. An entire economy has thus been indicated in the colonial movement that produced this Bible. Given such, the scale of this project and the coordinated economic effort it took to come to fruition is just as historically significant as the translation or utilization of the work. By focusing on the paper, ink, binding, printing press, and human publishers of the Eliot Bible, we aim to demonstrate the deep rooted ties that connect this book to the world and moment in time it was created.

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Making the Bible

by Luigi Laudando and Matthew Thery

The Eliot Bible is famous amongst historians and rare book collectors for its status as the first Bible printed in America. Beyond just this fact, it is important to fully understand the object to know the full extent of its importance. Our research aims to create the story of how the Eliot Bible was made through analyzing multiple components. These include the historical context surrounding the creation of the Bible, the technology that went into making the Bible, and the physical translation of the Bible. These components combine to show that the Eliot Bible is just one piece of a greater history of Puritans in North America and the Wampanoag people.

View the StoryMap here


What are useful and proper contexts for understanding the significance of the Eliot Bible? This section of the exhibit considers historical contexts such as cross-cultural encounters and linguistic exchange to reveal different ways of interpreting an object like this. It also considers the context of religious missions as a way to understand the significance of this particular Bible in early American history and beyond.

Language As Culture: Language in the Eliot Bible

by Devin Manley, Bridget Ulbert, and James O’Connor

This project explores the translation, or lack thereof, of English ideas of important concepts within the Christian Bible into the Wampanoag language. Some examples include the fact that words such as Testament, Jerusalem, and God are kept in the English spelling despite being in the middle of a sentence in Wampanoag. We want to identify the reasons behind keeping such terminology in English spelling, and how this reflects Eliot’s beliefs as well as his colonial project. By doing so, we also expect to gain insight into the fledgling, ongoing state of cultural assimilation these Wampanoag people were facing at the time of the bible’s production. In addition, we will extend the idea of a “cross-cultural encounter” into the modern day by examining the use of documents such as the Eliot bible in language and culture revitalization projects among various Indigenous groups. We are interested in how these projects relitigate the original encounter, and to what extent they can “reverse” the destruction of that encounter.

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Cultural Compromises: Religious Syncretism in the Eliot Bible

by Jim Gazis and Dylan Rapp

Following the most common narratives of American History, an amateur historian would gain the impression that the supremacy of the United States was inevitable. From Jamestown onward, there was a slow but inescapable advance of English colonists manifesting their destinies from sea to shining sea. Along the way, this unstoppable force of American expansion would occasionally meet resistance, but those who stood in the path of the United States’ God-given mission would either be destroyed or assimilated. These narratives have been challenged since their inception by those being allegedly destroyed or assimilated, the American Indians, but only relatively recently has academia embraced this perspective. In creating this project, we hope to add to the growing discussion on this topic by highlighting the lack of complete erasure of indigenous cultures. We hope to show how, since European arrival, compromise with American Indians has occurred and that American Indians have been key agents in working to shape their own futures. Our main vehicle to explore this will be the compromises made in colonial New England and neighboring regions as the Europeans tried to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity.

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Reconciling Religion: Puritan and Quaker Faiths in Early America

by Nico Divizio, Alina Popatia, and Dan Kane

The colonies of New England and Pennsylvania are two of the most notable of the colonial age. They both possessed distinct religious characteristics, while also having quite different relations with the local American Indians. While the Puritans of New England took a more religiously strict approach in wishing to convert the American Indians to their religion, the Quakers of Pennsylvania held the view of religious freedom. This is what the common narrative says, anyway. A deep examination into these respective colonies and their trajectories reveals two different tales of religious hypocrisy and justification. How could it be that these colonies which violated the principles of their own religions turned out so differently? To answer this question, a close examination into the trajectories of these unique locations must be conducted.

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Puritan Theology and the John Eliot Bible

by Drake Southwell, Jake Poplawski, Andrew Reagan, & Emilio Soto

Puritan theology was varied and constituted a milieu of competing beliefs, but most were strict Calvinists. Calvinism is a branch of Protestant Christianity that originated in Switzerland in the 16th century under the leadership of John Calvin. Calvinism is characterized by the belief in predestination, which means that God has already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned before they are born. This doctrine is based on the idea that humans are born sinful and that they cannot choose to follow God on their own. Therefore, salvation is a gift from God that is given to those whom he has chosen. Puritans were largely influenced by the following Calvinist beliefs.

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The Eliot Bible is a window into many pasts. In this section of the exhibit, student researchers elucidate how the Eliot Bible helps us understand important histories of cultural encounter and conflict in this founding phase of American history. Highlighted in this section are a deeper history of bible translation, as well as a reflection on the importance of a War that was in some important ways caused by the Eliot Bible itself.

The Process of Bible Translation as the Event

by Giulia Pauli, Coralyn Johnson, Olivia Lynch

Our project provides an in-depth comparative analysis of the translation processes of three different biblical texts: The Eliot Indian Bible, The Gaelic Bible, and The Yupik Alaskan Bible. The purpose of our research was to get a deeper understanding of the time and effort put into the translation of the Bible that allows us to really appreciate the hard work that went into making the Eliot Bible. To put it simply, we want to understand how modern translation processes differ from those of older translation efforts. Have the gotten better? More efficient? What parts of each Bible were translated first? What does this tell us about what the translators valued most in the Bible? These are just a few of the questions we will answer in our project, and hopefully this will provide us with a unique understanding of translation relating to biblical texts.

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The John Eliot Indian Bible and King Philip’s War

by Krystos Kanellakis, Blake Soderholm, and Anthony Leylani

Many Americans ignore King Philip’s War, and some don’t remember it even happened. In this series of podcast-style debates Krystos, Blake, and Anthony explore the significance of the War in the formation of American identity. Building on and thinking with Jill Lepore’s important book, the debaters explore how the Eliot Bible represents a kind of path not taken in American frontier history– an inclusive American identity, accommodating of difference and diversity. How does the Bible reflect an expansive “Us” around which Puritans formed their early colonial identities? And how did that “Us” narrow significantly– and divide tragically– into “us” and “them?” Explore this digital humanities experiment to find out. And vote at the end for the winning position!

View the StoryMap here.