In my previous American history posts about the Puritans we’ve seen the good (city on a hill, establishment of Christian education, the first American bill of rights and constitution) and the not-so-good (treatment of Quakers, the Halfway Covenant that watered down the message of salvation).
What about their relationship with the natives? It was mixed. The Puritans weren’t as missions-oriented as later evangelicals. Yet there were attempts to reach out to the surrounding tribes.
I want to give credit in particular to one man who devoted his life to spreading the Gospel to the natives. His name was John Eliot, and he spent his entire time in the New World seeking to bring them the Word of God.
Born in 1604, he lived until 1690. His arrival in Massachusetts in 1631 was one year after John Winthrop’s initial voyage. He was the pastor at the church in Roxbury, and remained so for the rest of his life. Yet, while pastoring that church, he extended his ministry voluntarily to the native communities.
By all accounts, Eliot’s kindness won him many friends among the natives, who were then open to listening to his message. He undertook this mission from a heart of genuine concern for those who needed to hear about the love of Christ.
Eliot was the first to learn the native language, develop an alphabet for it, teach it to the natives, and then create a translation of the Bible for them in their own language, which was published in stages from 1661-1663. Modern scholars consider this practically a modern marvel, for one man to accomplish this pretty much on his own.
As natives converted to the Christian faith, they also sought to change their tribal ways. They organized themselves into fourteen self-governing towns, and they were given the name “The Praying Indians.”
Eliot’s work among the natives would then go through a severe trial in the event known as King Philip’s War, during which many of the colonists treated these new converts disgracefully. But that’s a story for the next American history post.
For today, let’s pause and honor John Eliot for his exemplary Christian life and witness. This “Apostle to the Indians” fulfilled his calling from God.