Eliot, John

Eliot, John

Eliot, John, 1604–90, English missionary in colonial Massachusetts, called the Apostle to the Indians. Educated at Cambridge, he was influenced by Thomas Hooker, became a staunch Puritan, and emigrated from England. Arriving in Boston in 1631, he became pastor at the church in Roxbury in 1632 and held that position the rest of his life. He studied the Native American language spoken around Roxbury and was soon preaching in it. His determination to Christianize the Native Americans led him to establish villages for the converts—the “praying Indians”—with simple civic and religious organization. He won the aid of the colonial authorities and achieved the founding in England of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England under the auspices of Parliament. Funds and workers came to him, and he and his helpers founded some 14 communities on lands granted for the purpose. The most prominent and successful was at Natick. King Philip's War (1675–76) caught the “praying Indians” between the hostile tribes and the native-hating whites and all but wiped them out. White settlements took over most of the villages. The pamphlets by Eliot and, even more, his translation of the Bible into an Algonquian language usually called Natick (1661–63; the first Bible printed in North America) and his Indian Primer (1669) are prime sources of later knowledge of the peoples of Massachusetts. Eliot also helped to write the Bay Psalm Book.


See biographies by C. Francis (1849), repr. 1969), C. Beals (1957), and O. E. Winslow (1968).

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Eliot, John

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The first Christian missionary outreach to the indigenous people of North America came about because John Eliot (1604-1690), "Apostle to the Indians," decided to take seriously the 1628 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. The charter said, in what hindsight simply has to qualify as sanctimonious terms, that part of the reason for coming to New England in the first place was "to win the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the one true God and Savior of mankind." The official seal of the company pictured an Indian reciting the words of Acts 16:9, "Come over and help us." (This quotation comes from what is often called the apostle Paul's "Macedonian vision." Paul had a dream of these words one night that inspired the missionary journey he undertook, during which he met his faithful chronicler, Luke.) The first years the Pilgrims spent in Massachusetts Bay didn't see them spending much time saving Indians. Indeed, as is recounted every year at Thanksgiving time, the Indians spent the bulk of their days saving Pilgrims.

But in 1637 an English trader was killed, involving the Puritan community in an intertribal war between Narragansett and Pequot Indians, one of many that would later culminate in what has since been called King Philip's War. Being thrown together in a war opened the eyes of some Narragansett Indians to the God of the Puritans, who seemed ready and able to bless them with a lot of firepower and superior technology. John Eliot, pastor of the Roxbury church, had been in Massachusetts for six years, working hard to open a dialogue and establish a friendly relationship with local Indians. He had even managed to learn Algonquian, not an easy task by any means. But that was the language of trade spoken by all New England tribes. Although later missionary attempts involved teaching outward change, like wearing shoes and sitting on hard church benches during interminably long sermons, Eliot was more interested in inward change. He really loved his Christian God and he really loved his Indian friends. A true believer, Eliot taught the Indians what, in fact, he really believed— that God loved them and sent his son Jesus to die for their sins.

The Indians had some basic questions.

How, for instance, could God understand Indian prayers? As far as they knew, he spoke English and possibly a little French, not Algonquian. Eliot's answer? Just like the maker of an Indian basket knows straw and the properties of even unknown materials that make it up, God knows Indians and understands their hearts because he made all people.

The Indians also wondered whether even old Indians could convert, or if it was too late for them. Eliot responded that Jesus told a parable once about a man who hired workers even at the eleventh hour and paid them just as much as workers who had been in the field all day long.

But it was when Eliot undertook the translation of the whole Bible into Algonquian that he earned the respect of his Indian friends. To hear the "Holy Book" in their own language proved the key to persuading Indians that God really could communicate with them.

At this point, however, a few considerations have to be remembered. John Eliot was supported in his missionary work by the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Natives of New England, funded from England. But correspondence left behind by early members of this society leaves no doubt they were not interested in converting Indians because they were Indians. They wanted to convert Indians because they thought the Indians were Jews.

Indians had a story similar to the flood story. They recognized Noah right away. They practiced circumcision. They danced. All of this was evidence, according to a popular theory of the time, that they were really descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (see Abominable Snowman; Babylonian Captivity).

In 1660 Eliot wrote:

Truly the Bible says that the Ark landed on the eastward of the land of Eden, and if so, then surely into America, because that is part of the Western World. Hence why ought we not to believe a portion of the ten tribes landed in America?

This popular theory would be repeated in many forms over the next few centuries, culminating in the writing of the Book of Mormon (see Mormons/Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

This convinced some people that Indians were worth saving. As Edward Winslow, governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote in 1646, "Well, if they be Jewes [his spelling], they must not be neglected."

But whether John Eliot thought he was converting Indians or Jews, villages were established that became known as "praying Indian" towns. Eliot even reported, "the Indians have utterly forsaken their pow-wows." But this statement surely indicates more of what he wanted to believe than what was actually going on.

It was no easy task to produce "Um Biblum God," the first New World translation of the Bible. But it had a profound effect. Eliot had to invent words that were not a part of Algonquian dialect. When he needed a word to describe "great chiefs" such as Joshua or Samson, he used the word "mugwump." Much later, New Englanders began to fit the term to egotistic politicians. Still later, around 1884, Republicans called those who left "the party of Lincoln" mugwumps. Now it is sometimes applied to any person not officially affiliated with a political party.

By 1690, the year he died after enduring a long illness, John Eliot had written an Algonquian grammar, a primer, and a hymnbook. For generations, many of the descendants of the Indians so beloved by Eliot—though by now driven, in some cases, halfway across the country—would remember him when they sang and prayed in the manner in which they had been taught. "Singing Indians" and "praying Indians" were taken advantage of, persecuted, imprisoned, and killed along with other Indians in the years that followed his death, but there are still those who remember. In the last decade of the twentieth century, descendants of John Eliot's friends made the trip to New England from Minnesota to return, in his memory, an almost priceless first-edition hymnbook that had been given to them years before. Their thinking was that the man who cared so deeply should be remembered in the state that was his home. The book is now on display in a western Massachusetts museum.

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Eliot, John

(1604–90) missionary; born in Widford, England. He emigrated to Boston in 1631 and settled in Roxbury, Mass. He became deeply interested in the Indians of Massachusetts and learned their language in order to preach to them. He wrote and published numerous books in English and Indian languages. He translated the Bible into the Indian language (1661–63), the first Bible printed in any language in North America. He organized fourteen villages of converted "praying" Indians, but the hatred and fear engendered by King Philip's War (1675–76) reduced the number to four villages, and those eventually dwindled away. He continued his work until his death, in spite of the great setback brought about by the war.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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