100-year-long bible translation project

David Luckman

In 1925, the first Crosslinks missionaries set sail for the Canadian Arctic. For these young men and women, the language of the Inuit was difficult to command. 

Known as Inuktitut, it was developed from a syllabic language invented by a Methodist missionary called James Evans. He served some of the native people groups of central Canada in the 1840s. They were nomadic peoples, setting up camp where the hunting was good, and so had no written form for their language. Evans wanted them to be able to read the word of God for themselves, but he found that he didn’t have enough time to teach Roman letters and numbers, due to the roving nature of the indigenous people.

By a combination of circles and triangles, Evans formed 36 characters, each of which represented a syllable. He got thin sheets of lead from tea chests, melted them into small bars and, using a pocket knife, cut out the syllabic type. Then he used soot from the fire to make ink, and birch bark served as paper. Rev Evans had created a printing press and he set to work translating the Bible using the syllabic characters he had created.

A few years later, two Anglican ministers serving in northern Canada, Rev John Horden and Rev E.A. Watkins, used the system created by Evans and adapted it to Inuktitut.

Psalm 23 in the Inuktitut bible

In the late 1800s, missionary Rev Dr. Edmund Peck (pictured above) built on the work started by Horden and Watkins by beginning a translation of the Bible into Inuktitut. Peck developed a mastery of the language by spending five to six hours a day in its study. Eventually he translated parts of the New Testament and, by the end of the nineteenth century, he published the four Gospels. The New Testament in Inuktitut was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1912, and the Psalms in 1917.

Peck’s system was simple and easy for the Inuit to learn; by the 1920’s it had spread widely among the people of the Arctic. When Revs Arthur and Jack Turner arrived in the Arctic in 1928/1929 (sent by Crosslinks), they set about learning the Inuit language using Peck’s material. During his eighteen-year service in the icy mission field, Jack was able to acquire the language to an incredible degree of accuracy and he translated a number of Old Testament books for publication. He was able to revise the Inuit New Testament that existed at that time and he almost completed the translation of the Book of Common Prayer.

Arthur Turner

These pioneer missionaries prayerfully sought every occasion to reach the Inuit with the gospel of salvation, such was their love for Christ and for the Arctic people. The mission station was an open house, so when a missionary was in residence there would be services held in the home each evening and the locals would pack themselves in to hear the word of God. The local children loved the Bible as much as their parents and, in 1940, Jack Turner wrote the following in his diary: '…as usual the children occupy their time (not only on Sundays but often during the week) in memorising Scripture. In just over a fortnight the elder children have practically mastered the first chapter of Romans… I hope to get the children to learn in time the whole Epistle.'

Inuktitut bible

Fast forward to 1970s. In the Nunavut territory of Northern Canada (where the Turner brothers ministered) a group of Inuit Christians began the arduous task of translating the whole bible into Inuktitut. The project was funded by the Anglican Church and the Canadian Bible Society, at a cost of 1.7 million Canadian dollars. It took thirty-four years to complete the Bible translation but in June 2012 it was launched, during a service held in the Anglican Cathedral of St Jude’s in Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory. Soli Deo gloria!

Check out this blog for more on the early Arctic missionaries.

The diocese of the Arctic are seeking new clergy to come and join the team - get in touch if you'd like to find out more.