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John Eliot: Puritan Missionary to the Indians

August 2004 | by Matthew Vogan

The Puritans were deeply committed to missionary endeavour. All the well-known Puritan and Covenanting ministers subscribed to a petition presented to parliament in 1641 ‘for the propagating of the gospel in America and the West Indies’.

The best example of this spirit was to be found in New England. The Massachusetts Bay Company’s Charter of 1628 stated that one of the chief purposes of establishing the colony was ‘to win and invite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Saviour of mankind’.

The seal of the colony depicted a North American Indian saying, ‘Come over and help us’ (Acts 16:9). The settlers needed the strength of believing resolve – in ‘the Virginia massacre’ of 1622 four hundred colonists had been slaughtered.

The call brought 15,000 individuals to the shores of New England between 1627 and 1640 – among them the most famous of Puritan missionaries, John Eliot.

Early life

Eliot was born 400 years ago in 1604 into a God-fearing home for which he expressed thanksgiving in later life: ‘I do see that it was a great favour of God unto me, to season my first times with the fear of God, the word, and prayer’.

He grew up at Nazeing, Essex, and in 1618 went up to Jesus College Cambridge, graduating in 1622. After being ordained in the Church of England he became assistant at the school of the Puritan Thomas Hooker, at Little Baddow, near Chelmsford.

His stay with Hooker was blessed by the best of blessings: ‘Here the Lord said to my dead soul, live! live! and through the grace of God I do live and shall live forever! When I came to this blessed family I then saw as never before, the power of godliness in its lovely vigour and efficacy’.

When Hooker was forced to seek exile in New England to avoid the persecution of Archbishop Laud, Eliot soon followed in late 1631, as did some of his family and neighbours from Essex, including Hanna Mumford, whom he married in October 1632.

New England

Eliot became Teacher of the Congregationalist Church at Roxbury where his preaching, according to Cotton Mather, displayed ‘a most penetrating liveliness’ and resembled ‘God’s trumpets of wrath against all vice’. While in Roxbury he founded a grammar school.

Eliot was generous to the poor and once received his month’s salary securely knotted in a handkerchief to discourage him from giving it away too quickly.

On his way home Eliot stopped at the home of a poor widow, and attempted to remove a coin for her. Having no success he promptly handed her the whole bundle saying, ‘I think the Lord meant it all for you’.

Missionary beginnings

It is not clear that Eliot intended to engage in missionary work. Many expected native converts to be attracted by interaction with Christian settlers in a gradual way. As Eliot put it: ‘We are at good peace with the … natives … and I trust, in God’s time they shall learn Christ’.

However, in the mid-1640s more direct means were being proposed and Eliot was appointed on a rotation plan ‘for Indian instruction’ devised by the Massachusetts Bay government – following an order by the Massachusetts General Court that ‘efforts to promote the diffusion of Christianity among aboriginal inhabitants be made with all diligence’.

For two years Eliot had been learning the Algonquin language which had no written grammar or dictionary and was utterly unlike any known language. Eliot had proved himself an accomplished linguist in Hebrew and Greek at Cambridge and all his abilities would now be required.

Preaching in Algonquin

In 1646 at Nonantum (now Newton), Eliot preached a sermon to the Indians on Ezekiel 37:3. He had been unsuccessful in a previous attempt and so he first prayed in English, fearing to introduce ‘some unfit or unworthy terms in the solemn office’.

His sermon explained the Ten Commandments, the creation and fall of man, heaven and hell, and salvation through Christ. At the sermon’s close Eliot asked for questions.

Many were forthcoming, most importantly how they might come to know Jesus Christ. Eliot’s answer was that it was through the Bible, the preaching of the Word, prayer and repentance. It was a momentous occasion and it seems that every year on 28 October descendents of the original converts gather to commemorate this sermon.

Eliot returned regularly to preach to the Indians and to catechise the children. A pamphlet called The day-breaking, if not the sun-rising of the gospel with the Indians in New-England (1647) describes these endeavours. By the late 1640s much of the evangelisation was being carried out by converted Indians themselves.

Praying towns

Resources were scarce in Massachusetts to educate and evangelise the Indians. In 1648 an appeal was made to the Puritan British Parliament through the New England minister Thomas Shepard, and in 1649 the ‘Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel among the Indians of New England’ was set up by Parliament.

In 1651, with Corporation funding, Eliot established a native settlement at Natick where housing, work and clothing were provided. Their laws were based on the Bible and their political government on Exodus 18.

Thirteen more of these ‘praying towns’ (as they came to be known) were later established. The Corporation paid salaries to teachers and preachers, established schools, and provided for publication of books in the native language. Eliot himself translated a whole library of Christian literature.

By 1674 there were an estimated 4,000 praying Indians and, in later years, as many as 24 evangelists. Not all the converts were sincere, as Eliot himself recognised: ‘the profession of very many is but a mere paint, and their best graces nothing but mere flashes and pangs, which are suddenly kindled and as soon go out and are extinct again’.

The first Indian church was then founded at Natick in 1660, but Eliot was never able to give himself wholly to the work of Indian mission because of the view then prevailing in New England that a pastor should never leave his congregation.

Eliot’s son, also a minister, was able to assist in preaching to the Indians until his untimely death in 1668, and by 1681 the first Indian minister in New England had been ordained.

Bible translation

Eliot worked diligently for more than ten years to translate the Bible into Algonquin with the Gospel of Matthew printed in 1655. This was for him ‘a sacred and holy work, to be regarded with fear, care, and reverence’.

What Eliot achieved was an accurate, literal translation. It was difficult to match words in the Indian language to those in the Scriptures and sometimes it was necessary to use an English word.

It was perhaps the first time that pioneer missionary endeavour had been promoted through the translation of the Scriptures. It was a triumph, however, to witness the first Bible to be printed in America coming off the press in 1663, bound up with Indian Catechism and Metrical Psalms.

The last was very important to Eliot, who had helped to produce the Bay Psalm Book (1640), a faithful translation of the Psalms from Hebrew into metre for singing. This, the first book to be published in New England, was prompted by the belief that they must sing ‘the Lord’s songs of praise according to his own will’.

Tragedy

The praying Indians came under severe trial in 1675-76 during King Philip’s War, an Indian uprising intended to drive the English out of New England. The Christian natives did not join the revolt and many were killed or driven into exile, while the praying towns were pillaged and many Algonquin Bibles destroyed.

Only 300 praying Indians survived, and in 1677 a mere 162 returned to the four towns that had survived out of the original fourteen. Eliot continued to visit the towns every two weeks while his health remained, and his labours in his own pulpit were only curtailed when he was no longer able to walk.

Even then, Indian and black children came to his home to be taught and he besought his neighbours to send their black servants to him so that he could preach the gospel to them. On his deathbed he prayed that the Lord would revive and prosper the Indian mission, and around fifty years later David Brainerd was witnessing such outpourings amongst other native tribes.

At the age of 85, John Eliot passed into his Lord’s presence on 21 May 1690.

Prayer and effort

John Eliot has become the most noted preacher to the Indians because of what he was able to achieve through the grace of God.

He was undoubtedly a strong individual. Once he was riding alone and met a native wielding a knife. Eliot’s calm response was: ‘I am about the work of the great God, and he is with me, so that I fear not all the [chiefs] of the country. I’ll go on, and do you touch me if you dare’. He went his way unharmed.

Eliot’s motto was, ‘Prayer and pains [effort] through faith in Christ Jesus will accomplish anything’. He did not trumpet or rest upon his own achievements, however, and on his deathbed he lamented: ‘My doings! Alas, they have been poor and small, and lean doings, and I’ll be the man that shall throw the first stone at them all’.

Father of modern missions

Eliot laid a foundation for the modern missionary movement. Together with many at the time he had a bright view of the progress of the gospel. The preface to one of his tracts declared:

‘This little we see is something … in possession, to assure us of the rest in promise, when the ends of the earth shall see his glory, and the kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ, when he shall have dominion from sea to sea, and they that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him (Ps. 22:27; Rev. 11:15; Ps. 72:8-11)’.

In the final paragraph of his Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathens, William Carey recorded perhaps the most fitting reflection upon Eliot’s life and labours.

‘It is true all the reward is of mere grace, but it is nevertheless encouraging; what a treasure, what an harvest must await such characters as Paul, and Eliot, and Brainerd, and others, who have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord. What a heaven will it be to see the many myriads … who by their labours have been brought to the knowledge of God. Surely … it is worth while to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause, and kingdom of Christ.’