David Thompson is well-known in western Canada as the mapmaker who explored that part of North America 200 years ago. What is not as well-known is that, as a devout Christian, he carried his Bible and told stories about Jesus and heaven everywhere he went. In 1807, while charting the homelands of the Flathead Salish people who lived in southern Alberta and northern Montana, he found that these people couldn’t get enough of his stories. “Someday, someone will come and bring you the Book of Heaven,” he told them.
In 1832, a whole generation later, the tribe could wait no longer and sent four men on a 5,000 kilometre round trip to St. Louis, Missouri to find the Book and bring it back. Two of the men died before they arrived. The remaining two were received at the fort by General William Clark (Lewis and Clark Expedition) who introduced them to the priest.
The two emissaries, however, were disappointed when no one could give them the Book of Heaven. Just before they started on their return journey, the town put on a farewell feast complete with many speeches. At the end of the feast, one of the Salish envoys gave a speech that had far reaching consequences.
“We came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun beyond the great mountains … we came with an eye partly open for our people who sit in darkness; we go back with our eyes closed.
“We made our way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands, that we might carry back much to them. We go back with our arms empty … Our people sent us to get the white man’s Book of Heaven … You took us where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the Book was not there. You showed us images of the good spirits and pictures of the good land beyond, but the Book was not among them to tell us the way.
“We are going back the long, sad trail to our people of the dark land. You make our feet heavy with gifts, and our moccasins will grow old and our arms tire in carrying them, yet the Book is not among them. When we tell our people in the big council, that we did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken by our elders or our young men. One by one they will go out in silence. Our people will die in darkness … they will have no white man’s Book to make the way plain. I have no more words.”
As news of this speech spread among Christians in England and the north-eastern US, missionaries and Bible translators began to penetrate the west. The Bible was translated into Cree 25 year later, but it would be many generations before the Flathead-Salish finally received the Book of Heaven in their own language.
Currently 6,860 languages are spoken by the world’s 6.9 billion people. An estimated 341 million people speak 2,078 languages in which not even one line of the Bible has ever been translated. Like the Flathead-Salish people of 200 years ago, they wait, and wait.
Translating the Book of Heaven into these 2,078 languages is not a peripheral option—it is the most foundational task left for the Christian Church to accomplish.