John Eliot Prepared Indian Converts

Here’s a post I received from the Christian History Institute that I think is worth passing on.

JOHN ELIOT arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1631. He would become one of the colony’s most famous immigrants. Educated at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained to the ministry before coming to America. In the New World, he temporarily filled a vacant pulpit in Boston before moving on to Roxbury in 1632. That same year he wed Hannah Mumford. They would have six children.

Three years after his arrival in Massachusetts, Eliot’s concern for the  Native Americans got him into trouble with colonial authorities when he protested the manner in which a treaty was made with the Pequods without their consent. But his actual ministry began in 1646. His Algonquin hearers asked thoughtful questions such as whether God would understand them if they prayed in their language, Massachuset (also called Natick). By then he had learned the Natick dialect.

He traveled throughout New England preaching among the tribes who spoke Natick, resulting in many Native Americans converting to Christianity. Some became pastors and missionaries among their own people. Eliot also obtained land for them. To provide for their spiritual welfare, he translated parts of the Bible and other religious works into Massachuset.

On 13 October 1652, after fasting and praying all morning, a number of members of the Massachuset tribe gave their testimonies and made confessions so that they might be admitted to a church of their own. However, the confessions took longer than expected and had to be postponed to a later date. War arose, and it was not until 1660 that the converts got a place of worship at Natick, Massachusetts. At the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675, there were eleven hundred Christian Indians in Natick and other towns, but their church would face impossible odds. Unconverted Indians attacked the “praying Indians” as traitors, and whites attacked them as “red men.” Caught in the middle, many died.

Eliot lived until 1690, doing good to the end. A visitor from England described him as “the best of the ministers who we have yet heard.” Among the work of his last years was instructing African slaves and teaching large passages of scripture to a blind boy. Hannah, his “dear, faithful, pious, prudent, prayerful wife” died three years before him, as did four of his sons. One son and daughter outlived him.

In Honor of John Eliot

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.

John EliotI 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.

John Eliot's BibleEliot 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.