John Eliot

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.

Further Reading on John Eliot

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Tinker, George E., Missionary conquest: the Gospel and Native American cultural genocide, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

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