August 5, 1604
Widford, Hertfordshire, England
May 20, 1690
It is "absolutely necessary to carry on civility with religion [for] praying Indians."
John Eliot was a Puritan (one who practices strict moral and spiritual codes) missionary known as "the Indian evangelist," or "the Indian Apostle," who devoted his life to converting Native Americans to Christianity. Eliot emigrated from England to the New World (a European term for North America and South America) in 1631. The following year he became a teacher and pastor at the Puritan church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. After learning the Algonquian language, he first preached to Native Americans in 1646. Eliot published many books for his converted or "praying Indians," including a Bible translated into Algonquian in 1663. After Metacom's War (1675–76; also known as King Philip's War), the number of Christian natives dwindled. Eliot's books and achievements still stand, however, as important contributions to colonial American society.
Emigrates to Massachusetts
John Eliot was born in 1604, in Widford, Hertfordshire, England. He was the third of seven children of Bennett and Lettice or Letteye (Aggar) Eliot. His father was a wealthy landowner with property in Eastwick, Hundson, Ware, and Widford. Eliot began attending Jesus College at Cambridge University in 1619. An excellent scholar of the classics (Greek and Roman literature), he received a bachelor's degree in 1622. Eliot then began teaching at a grammar school in Little Baddam, Essex. The school was run by Thomas Hooker, a Puritan minister who eventually became pastor of First Church at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hooker's Puritanism was a major influence on Eliot, who decided to become a preacher.
Native American conversion
During the American colonial period, English settlers made a widespread effort to convert and "civilize" Native Americans in New England and Virginia. Most of the conversions in New England took place in Massachusetts. Missionary John Eliot established fourteen settlements for Christian natives, and published a Bible in the Algonquian language in 1663. One of Eliot's contemporaries, Thomas Mayhew Jr., had converted 283 Native Americans by 1632. Both Eliot and Mayhew were funded by A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel among the Indians of New England, a religious missionary organization established in London, England, in 1649. Native American conversion thrived in Massachusetts until it was stifled by King Philip's War (1675–76). There were almost no missions in Connecticut until 1726, when Cotton Mather (see entry) founded a school on the Mohegan reserve.
In Virginia, the English mission to convert Native Americans began promisingly enough when Reverend Alexander Whitaker converted the Powhatan "princess" Pocahontas (see entry) to Christianity. Her subsequent visit to England led to the establishment of an Indian college at Henrico, a project that collapsed after the massacre of settlers around Jamestown in 1622. The College of William and Mary was established in 1693, with one instructor to teach Native Americans. Although few Native Americans attended the college, it remained open with money from a fund established by scientist Robert Boyle. A statement by Massachusetts governor Robert Dinwiddie reflects the attitude of the settlers toward the education of Native Americans. In 1756 Dinwiddie wrote that they had "no inclination to learning" and "could not be reconciled to their books."
Although Eliot dutifully abided by the laws of the Church of England (or Anglican Church; the official religion in England), his newfound Puritanism came into conflict with the religious beliefs he had been taught as a child. Consequently he decided to leave for the New World, where he was free to become a Puritan. Eliot sailed on board the Lyon, arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1631. He was accompanied by members of the family of colonist John Winthrop (see entry). Three of Eliot's brothers and three of his sisters came along as well. Before leaving England, Eliot had become engaged to Ann (or Hannah) Mumford, who joined him in Massachusetts a year later. They were married on September 4, 1632, and later had six children.
In Boston, Eliot worked as a substitute teacher for John Wilson, who was visiting England. Eliot was asked to continue teaching after Wilson's return. However, when more of Eliot's former countrymen emigrated to Roxbury, Massachusetts, they invited him to come and join them there. According to Winthrop's History (a history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), Eliot was popular in Boston: "though Boston laboured all they could, both with the congregation of Roxbury and with Mr. Eliot himself . . . he could not be diverted from accepting the call of Roxbury." After declining the offer to teach in Boston, Eliot joined the new English emigrants in Roxbury. They made him a teacher and pastor of their church in 1632, and he remained there until the end of his life.
Converts Native Americans
At Roxbury, Eliot began his campaign to convert local Native Americans to Christianity. Adept at learning languages, he spent two years studying Native American dialects with an interpreter. Eliot first preached to Native Americans on October 28, 1646, at a settlement called Nonantum. He delivered the sermon in the local dialect, but prayed in English. Eliot had such success in converting Native Americans that in 1649 A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel among the Indians of New England was established in England to fund his endeavors. The first order for the advancement of Native American learning was passed on March 17,1647.
As part of the education process, Eliot believed that the converted Native Americans should be independent from the American settlers. With money from London, he built settlements where Christianized Native Americans lived in houses, wore European-style clothes, and owned land. Most important, Eliot envisioned that the settlements would be self-governing. Native Americans would be free to manage their own affairs under the jurisdiction of the general laws of Massachusetts. In 1651 the first town of "praying Indians" was established at Natick. The first Native American church was also founded at Natick in 1660 and was active until 1716.
After founding Natick, Eliot frequently traveled back and forth between the new settlement and Roxbury. In addition to fulfilling his responsibilities as pastor of the Roxbury church, Eliot prepared religious materials for the converted Native Americans. He translated works from English into the local dialect so they could be easily read by the converts. His earliest translation was a catechism (a summary or religious doctrine often in the form of questions and answers) published in Native American dialect in 1653. He also provided a book of psalms (sacred songs or poems used in worship) in translation five years later. Eliot's largest project was a translation of the Bible into Algonquian. Funded by the London organization, printing began in 1658. A translation of the New Testament was published in 1661. When a translation of the Old Testament arrived in 1663, Eliot's Algonquian Bible was complete. This was the first Bible to be printed in North America.
Efforts hindered by war
Eliot continued to believe that the Christian natives should lead separate and independent lives. He even trained several Native Americans as preachers, thinking they would be better missionaries for their people. Eliot made progress with this endeavor, and there were twenty-four Native American preachers by the time he died. However, not everyone agreed with Eliot's efforts. For instance, during his travels throughout New England he encountered opposition from Native Americans. Metacom's War further stifled Eliot's progress. This devastating conflict between the colonists and the Wampanoags broke out when a Christian Native American was murdered, possibly on orders from the Wampanoag chief Metacom (see entry). Although many Christian Native Americans fought for the English, they found themselves in a difficult position. Mistrusted by the Puritans, they were also under suspicion from other Native Americans. Eliot himself was held under suspicion for his efforts at segregation (separation of Native Americans from colonists). As a result, the number of Christian natives began to decline. In 1674, before the war, there had been about thiry-six hundred converts, and fourteen settlements. Following the war, the number of settlements dropped to four and the number of Christianized Native Americans significantly decreased.
Gives land for natives and slaves
Although Eliot's conversion work came to a virtual halt, his books seem to have had a lasting impact. In 1659 he published The Christian Commonwealth, which was condemned by the English government because it promoted republicanism (self-government). Ten years later Eliot released The Indian Primer, a grammar book for the Native American dialect. In addition to his effort to create a society of Christian natives, Eliot served as a witness during the trial of religious enthusiast Anne Hutchinson (see entry) in 1637. Eliot is remembered for one of his last deeds, which was to provide land for Native Americans and African Americans in Roxbury. Eliot died in Roxbury on May 20,1690.
For further research
Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, pp. 79–80.
Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1917, pp. 607–12.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. John Eliot: Apostle to the Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
John Eliot (1604-1690), English-born clergyman of the first New England generation and missionary to the Massachusetts Native Americans, translated the Bible and other books into the Algonquian tongue.
John Eliot's baptismal record, dated Aug. 5, 1604, is preserved in the church of St. John the Baptist in Widford, Hertfordshire. His father had extensive land-holdings in Hertford and Essex counties. When John was a child, his parents moved to Nazeing. Just before his fourteenth birthday he matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he prepared for the ministry. He took his bachelor of arts degree in 1622. In 1629-1630 he lived with Thomas Hooker and his family in Little Baddow, Essex. After the Separatist Hooker escaped to Holland, Eliot, who as a Nonconformist minister was also unsafe, decided to emigrate to New England, as many other young ministers were doing.
To the New World
Eliot arrived in Boston on Nov. 3, 1631, when the settlement was barely a year old. While John Wilson, pastor of Boston's first church society, was absent, Eliot was asked to occupy the pulpit. On Wilson's return Eliot was invited to remain as teacher. He refused, having promised Nazeing friends who were intending to emigrate that if he was not permanently engaged when they arrived he would be their pastor. The Nazeing group settled in Roxbury, Mass., and Eliot was ordained immediately as their teacher and later as pastor.
Pastor at Roxbury
Eliot stayed at Roxbury for the remainder of his years. The pleasure of his life was increased by the arrival of two sisters and, later, two brothers. Hanna Mumford, to whom he was engaged, had also come with this group. Their wedding, in October 1632, is the first marriage on the town record.
For his first 40 years in Roxbury, Eliot preached in the 20-by 30-foot meetinghouse with thatched roof and unplastered walls that stood on Meetinghouse Hill. The church grew with the town, and Eliot's long ministry was marked by imaginative leadership both within and without the membership circle. His share in founding the Roxbury Grammar School and his efforts to keep it independent and prosperous were only part of his contribution to the community. In addition to preaching and the care of his people, he also had the traditional share of a first-generation minister in various religious and civil affairs.
"Apostle to the Indians"
These numerous and valuable local services, however, did not give John Eliot the place he holds in American history. That place is described by his unofficial title, "Apostle to the Indians," for whose benefit he gave thought, time, and unstinted energy for over half a century. He was not sent to them as a missionary by church, town, or colony but went voluntarily in fulfillment of his duty to share in Christianizing Native Americans, which, according to the original Massachusetts charter, was expected of every settler and was "the principal end of this plantation." Long before either church or civil leaders realized that Christianization was an English wish rather than a Native American one, they had puzzled over ways of proceeding. Individual ministers had tried unsuccessfully to bring Native Americans to the meetinghouse.
Learning the Native American Language
The chief barrier between European and Native American was communication. Sign language and a jargon of pidgin English and Native American would do for barter but not for sermons. The Algonquian language, spoken by the various tribes of Massachusetts Native Americans, presented a formidable problem to those trained in classical and European languages; further, there were no written texts, dictionaries, or grammars. Eliot learned the language by taking into his home a Native American boy, a captive in the Pequot War, who had learned to speak and understand everyday English and also to read it; he could not write. The boy's pronunciation was very distinct. As Eliot listened, he made word lists which revealed inflexional endings, differentiated nouns from verbs and singulars from plurals, and gave many hints of language behavior to Eliot, who had a distinct gift for such understanding. The process of mastering this strange tongue well enough to use it for expressing his own thought was arduous, but Eliot persisted, and on Oct. 28, 1646, preached his first sermon in Algonquian to a small group of Native Americans gathered at the wigwam of a chieftain at Nonantum (now Newton). The Native Americans understood well enough to question him. They felt his friendliness and invited him to preach again.
First Native American Bible
A detailed report of the first four of these woodland meetings, taken down by another minister, was given to Edward Winslow, newly appointed agent of the colony. It was immediately printed in London under the title "The Day-Breaking, if not the Sun-Rising of the Gospell with the Indians in New England." Winslow drafted a bill which led to Parliament's chartering the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Native Americans of New England. Throughout England and Wales funds were solicited. With this money Eliot bought school supplies, carpenter and farm tools, cloth, spinning wheels, and other articles needed in the work of education and civilization to which, in addition to his Roxbury parish, he devoted the remainder of his life. The first edition of his translation of the Bible into Algonquian (1661-1663) was the first Bible printed in the Colonies.
This story has many chapters. Fourteen self-governing Native American towns were founded, native teachers and preachers trained, and new skills learned and practiced. But King Philip's War (1675-1676) destroyed the Native American towns; only four were rebuilt. The "Praying Indians," exiled to Deer Island, suffered lamentably. John Eliot died in 1690, before restoration of the villages had really begun. But he had lived to see the second edition of his Native American Bible. With this book he had written the beginnings of a pioneering story in race relations for his own day. His feat of translation is still a marvel to scholars.
A full-length study of Eliot is Ola Elizabeth Winslow, John Eliot, "Apostle to the Indians" (1968). He is also discussed in Walter Eliot Thwing, History of the First Church in Roxbury (1908); Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony(1930); and William Kellaway, The New England Company, 1649-1776 (1961).
Tinker, George E., Missionary conquest: the Gospel and Native American cultural genocide, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. □