Object of the Month

A Ribald Acrostic in the Eliot Indian Bible

Manuscript poem in the `Eliot Indian Bible`

Manuscript poem in the "Eliot Indian Bible"

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Jeremy Dibbell
Library Assistant

"When sturdy storms are gon and past
shall pleasand calmes appare
I oftimes see in ashes deepe
ly hiden coles of fire
with fervent thou"

These five incomplete lines of verse appear on a blank leaf at the back of the Massachusetts Historical Society's copy of John Eliot's Indian Bible (Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, 1663). The handwriting suggests that the poem was added to the page in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but what are we to make of it? The line of text at the top of the page ("for my ... John [illegible word]") doesn't seem to offer any clues, and may be unrelated to the poem. The verse is not mentioned in early bibliographies of Eliot's Bible or in MHS catalogs, and in fact it really doesn't even make all that much sense.

"When Shall I Ly With..."

The poem's message became clear following the discovery of a later version of the poem and its explanation in an article titled "Autograph Albums in the Ozarks" by Vance Randolph and May Kennedy McCord, which appeared in a 1948 issue of The Journal of American Folklore. Randolph and McCord give a full version of the poem as

"When Winter's days are past and gone
May pleasant calms appear,
I know sometimes in ashes deep
Sleep hidden coals of fire,
With these few lines
You will a question find,
Sweet is the answer, mark it well,
Friend, farewell, farewell."

They add, by way of explanation: "The 'question' mentioned in the above text is found in the first word of each line; just read 'em from top to bottom." Although the poem as written in the Indian Bible is only partially complete and the wording differs slightly, we can be confident that the intent was the same. This type of verse, known as an acrostic, was popular in England and America throughout the colonial period, but why someone thought that the blank endleaf of a Bible was an appropriate place to pen these lines remains a mystery.

The Eliot Indian Bible

John Eliot's single-handed translation of the Bible into the Natick dialect of the Massachuset language was the first printed Bible in North America, and the largest single printing project of the colonial era. For a sample of the translation, see the online presentation of the first page of Genesis. Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson produced a first edition of one thousand copies of the complete Bible, of which just a few dozen remain in existence. Most copies of Eliot's 1663 Bible (see the online presentation of the title page) were destroyed during King Philip's War in 1675-1676, but a second, improved, edition was published in 1685. The copy belonging to the Massachusetts Historical Society is signed "Enoch Greenlefe His booke 1672," and was donated to the Society by a Mrs. Coffin in July of 1793. The names John Bennett, Elisha Bennett, and John Brown are also written on the rear endleaves.

Who Was John Eliot?

Known as the "Apostle to the Indians," John Eliot (1604-1690) was a Cambridge-educated Puritan minister who emigrated to Massachusetts in 1631. He settled at Roxbury, and served as pastor of the local church until his death. Eliot became interested in missionary work and by 1646 had learned enough Natick to preach to local Indians in their own language. In 1649 he wrote "I do very much desire to translate some parts of the Scriptures into their language," and soon undertook that arduous task. Supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New-England, a fund-raising organization founded in England, Eliot's efforts bore fruit with the publication of the New Testament in 1661 and the complete Bible in 1663.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Eames, Wilberforce. Bibliographic Notes on Eliot's Indian Bible and on his other translations and works in the Indian language of Massachusetts. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890. Extract from A.C. Pilling, Bibliography of the Algonquian Languages. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Randolph, Vance and May Kennedy McCord, "Autograph Albums in the Ozarks." The Journal of American Folklore 61:240 (April-June, 1948), p. 182-193.

Winship, George Parker. The Cambridge Press 1638-1692: A Reexamination of the Evidence concerning the Bay Psalm Book and the Eliot Indian Bible as well as other contemporary books and people. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1968 reprint.

Winship, George Parker. The First American Bible: A leaf from a Copy of the Bible translated into the Indian language by John Eliot and printed at Cambridge in New England in the Year 1663. With an Account of the Translator and his Labors, and of the two Printers who produced the Book. Boston: Merrymount Press, 1929.

Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, 1991.


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