John Eliot was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians who some called “the apostle to the Indians” and the founder of Roxbury Latin School in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1645.
John Eliot was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England and lived at Nazeing as a boy. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge. After college, he became assistant to Thomas Hooker at a private school in Little Baddow, Essex. After Hooker was forced to flee to Holland, Eliot emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, arranging passage as chaplain on the ship Lyon and arriving on November 3, 1631. Eliot became minister and “teaching elder” at the First Church in Roxbury.
From 1637 to 1638 Eliot participated in both the civil and church trials of Anne Hutchinson during the Antinomian Controversy. Eliot disapproved of Hutchinson’s views and actions, and was one of the two ministers representing Roxbury in the proceedings which led to her excommunication and exile. In 1645, Eliot founded the Roxbury Latin School. He and fellow ministers Thomas Weld (also of Roxbury), Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard, and Richard Mather of Dorchester, are credited with editing the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British North American colonies (1640). From 1649 to 1674, Samuel Danforth assisted Eliot in his Roxbury ministry.
There are many connections between the towns of Roxbury and Dorchester and John Eliot. After working for a short time as pastor in Boston as the temporary replacement for Mr. John Wilson at Boston’s first church society, John Eliot settled in Roxbury with other Puritans from Essex, England. He was the teacher at The First Church in Roxbury for sixty years and was their sole pastor for forty years.
For the first forty years in Roxbury, Eliot preached in the 20′ by 30′ foot meetinghouse with thatched roof and plastered walls that stood on Meetinghouse Hill. Eliot founded the Roxbury Grammar School and he worked hard to keep it prosperous and relevant. Eliot also preached at times in the Dorchester church, he was given land by Dorchester for use in his missionary efforts. And in 1649 he gave half of a donation he received from a man in London to the schoolmaster of Dorchester.
The chief barrier to preaching to the American Indians was language. Gestures and pidgin English were used for trade but could not be used to convey a sermon. John Eliot began to study the Massachusett or Wampanoag language, which was the language of the local Indians.To help him with this task, Eliot relied on a young Indian named “Cockenoe”. Cockenoe had been captured in the Pequot War of 1637 and became a servant of an Englishman named Richard Collicott. John Eliot said, “he was the first that I made use of to teach me words, and to be my interpreter.” Cockenoe could not write but he could speak Massachusett and English. With his help, Eliot was able to translate the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and other scriptures and prayers.
The first time Eliot attempted to preach to Indians (led by Cutshamekin) in 1646 at Dorchester Mills, he failed and said that they, “gave no heed unto it, but were weary and despised what I said.” The second time he preached to the Indians was at the wigwam of Waban near Watertown Mill which was later called Nonantum, now Newton, MA. John Eliot was not the first Puritan missionary to try to convert the Indians to Christianity but he was the first to produce printed publications for the Algonquian Indians in their own language.
This was important because the settlements of “praying Indians” could be provided with other preachers and teachers to continue the work John Eliot started. By translating sermons to the Massachusett language, John Eliot brought the Indians an understanding of Christianity but also an understanding of written language. They did not have an equivalent written “alphabet” of their own and relied mainly on spoken language and pictorial language.
An important part of Eliot’s ministry focused on the conversion of Massachusett and other Algonquian Indians. Accordingly, Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and published it in 1663 as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. It was the first complete Bible printed in the Western hemisphere; Stephen Daye printed 1,000 copies on the first printing press in the American colonies.
In 1666, Eliot published “The Indian Grammar Begun”, again concerning the Massachusett language. As a missionary, Eliot strove to consolidate the Algonquian Indians in planned towns, thereby encouraging them to recreate a Christian society. At one point, there were 14 towns of so-called “Praying Indians”, the best documented being at Natick, Massachusetts. Other praying Indian towns included: Littleton (Nashoba), Lowell (Wamesit, initially incorporated as part of Chelmsford), Grafton (Hassanamessit), Marlborough (Okommakamesit), a portion of Hopkinton that is now in the Town of Ashland (Makunkokoag), Canton (Punkapoag), and Mendon-Uxbridge (Wacentug).
In 1662, Eliot witnessed the signing of the deed for Mendon with Nipmuck Indians for “Squinshepauk Plantation”. Eliot’s better intentions can be seen in his involvement in the legal case, The Town of Dedham v. The Indians of Natick, which concerned a boundary dispute. Besides answering Dedham’s complaint point by point, Eliot stated that the colony’s purpose was to benefit the Algonquian people.
Praying Indian towns were also established by other missionaries, including the Presbyterian Samson Occom, himself of Mohegan descent. All praying Indian towns suffered disruption during King Philip’s War (1675), and for the most part lost their special status as Indian self-governing communities in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, in some cases being paid to move to Wisconsin and other areas further West.
Eliot also wrote The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, considered the first book on politics written by an American, as well as the first book to be banned by a North American governmental unit. Written in the late 1640s, and published in England in 1659, it proposed a new model of civil government based on the system Eliot instituted among the converted Indians, which was based in turn on the government Moses instituted among the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 18).
Eliot asserted that “Christ is the only right Heir of the Crown of England,” and called for an elected theocracy in England and throughout the world. The accession to the throne of Charles II of England made the book an embarrassment to the Massachusetts colony. In 1661 the General Court forced Eliot to issue a public retraction and apology, banned the book and ordered all copies destroyed.
In 1709 a special edition of the Massachusett Bible was co-authored by Experience Mayhew and Thomas Prince with the Indian words in one column and the English words in the opposite column. The 1709 Massachusett Bible text book is also referred to as the Massachusett Psalter. This 1709 edition is based on the Geneva Bible, like the Eliot Indian Bible.
John Eliot married Hanna Mumford. They had six children, five sons and one daughter. Their daughter Hannah Eliot married Habbakuk Glover . Their son, John Eliot, Jr., was the first pastor of the First Church of Christ in Newton, Another son, Joseph Eliot, became a pastor in Guilford, Connecticut, and later fathered Jared Eliot, a noted agricultural writer and pastor. John Eliot’s sister, Mary Eliot, married Edward Payson, founder of the Payson family in America, and great-great grandfather of the Rev. Edward Payson.
Eliot died in 1690, aged 85, his last words being “welcome joy!”
- Born: 01 January 1604, Widford, Hertfordshire
- Died: 21 May 1690
- Family: Married to Hanna and had six children