Reverend John Eliot, the so-called “Apostle to the Indians”
In the 1646 to 1674 period, the Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury, the so-called Apostle to the Indians, converted some 1100 Massachusetts natives to the Christian religion and played a central role in establishing fourteen “Praying Indian” communities in the eastern part of Massachusetts.
Though not the first English missionary to attempt the conversion of New England’s natives (that distinction belongs to Roger Williams of Rhode Island and Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard), the Roxbury clergyman had far more success than earlier missionaries, thanks largely to his unrivalled command of the native language, Algonquian.
Nor was Eliot content merely to preach to the natives in their own tongue. A fundamental tenet of the Puritan faith held that anyone seeking to know the will of God had to be able to read and interpret the Bible for himself. The natives had no written language into which holy scripture could be translated. Eliot dealt with this problem, first, by devising an Algonquian grammar (thus giving the language written form), and then by translating both the Old and New Testaments into that complex tongue, a herculean task that he did not finally complete until 1663.
Eliot’s bible in Algonquian, for which he was required to develop a written language, an amazing accomplishment which took him many years to complete
There was also a measure of cultural imperialism in Eliot’s approach to conversion, for the Roxbury minister required his converts to adopt an English style of living—to give up their semi-migratory habits and to settle into English-style villages under the watchful eye and rigid regulations of a Puritan church community.
Eliot also hoped to furnish each of these Praying Indian towns with a native minister. To that end, he helped found the Indian College at Harvard, an institution established specifically to train natives to preside over their own congregations. Another goal was the provision of schools in all the towns to ensure that the residents would be able to read the Bible for themselves.
John Eliot was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England in 1604, the younger son of Bennett Eliot, a wealthy landowner. When he was fifteen, he entered Jesus College at Cambridge University, where he quickly established a reputation as a brilliant linguist and classical scholar.
The early 1630s was a time of trouble for nonconformists, and in 1631 Eliot joined a great migration of Puritans to North America. Settling at first in Boston, he was immediately hired as a substitute for the Reverend John Wilson, who was then absent in England. When Wilson returned, the Boston congregation invited Eliot to remain in the capacity of an associate minister, but he instead opted to become the pastor of the church of neighboring Roxbury, a post he would occupy for nearly sixty years. Eliot also married at this point, his long and happy union with Ann (Mumford) Eliot lasting until his death in 1690 and producing six children.
The Roxbury minister’s crusade to convert the local Indians was not launched until 1646, some fifteen years after his arrival in America, and one historian has suggested that Eliot’s motives for delaying were as much political as religious.
The Reverend John Eliot converting the natives of southern New England to Christianity.
In chartering the Bay Colony in 1628, the English government had extracted a solemn promise that conversion of the natives would be a high priority of the colonial regime (the seal of the Mass Bay Colony, in fact, featured an Indian pleading with the English to Come over and help us!), but a decade and a half after the colony’s foundation very little had been accomplished.
The Bay Colony’s leaders feared that the home government (which had fallen under the control of Presbyterian dictator Oliver Cromwell) might cancel certain of Massachusetts’ charter privileges unless a missionary crusade was soon launched. It was in this context that Eliot began to prepare himself for the task through a close study of the Algonquian language.
By 1646 Eliot was ready. His first attempt at conversion came in mid-1646, when he preached to a native community at Neponset in Dorchester under Sachem Cutshamekin, but this effort ended in embarrassing failure. Not only did the elderly Sachem reject Eliot’s pleas to embrace Christianity, but his braves openly ridiculed and heckled the clergyman.
At this point Eliot turned to another native leader, of somewhat lesser stature. At the urging of the Bay Colony magistrates, Eliot decided to proselytize Waban, son-in-law of the Sachem of Concord, whom he described as one who gives more grounded hope of serious respect for the things of God, than any as yet I have known of that forlorn generation.
A small band under Waban lived on the southwest slope of Nonantum Hill (on the present Brighton-Newton boundary), an area that then formed part of Cambridge. It was in order to be closer to the white settlements that Waban’s extended family had moved from his native Concord to the south side of the Charles River near Cambridge in the early 1630s.
The Nonantum Valley on the present Brighton-Newton boundary, site of the Praying Indian community of Nonantum, as it appeared in the late 19th century, after two ice ponds were excavated in the valley, Chandler’s and Strong’s Pond, only the former of which survives.
Accompanying Eliot to Waban’s encampment were three companions, Thomas Shepard, Minister of Cambridge; Daniel Gookin, afterwards Supervisor of Indian towns for the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and either John Wilson, Minister of Boston, or Elder Heath of Roxbury (on this point the record is unclear). The presence of these notables demonstrated the support that Eliot’s missionary effort enjoyed from the Massachusetts Bay magistrates.
The date was October 18, 1646. This historic sermon initiated the Apostle’s long crusade for the souls of the Massachusetts Bay natives. The three hour lectureship—much of it delivered in the Algonquian tongue—had the anticipated effect. As his guests were leaving, recounted Reverend Shepard, Waban approached and said, We need more ground to build our town on. To this Eliot responded I will speak to the General Court about that.
On November 4, 1646, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to grant the desired land for the good of the Indians and appointed a commission to attend to the matter, which included the Roxbury minister. When the Indians inquired what name to give their Christian village, Eliot recommended that it be called Nonantum, the Algonquian term for rejoicing, because the natives hearing the word, and seeking to know God, the English did rejoice at it.
An early historian of Newton, the Rev. Jonathan Homer, has left us the following description of the Praying Indian village of Nonantum:
Mr. Eliot…furnished them, by the public aid, with shovels, spades, mattocks, and iron crows, and stimulated the most industrious with money…. The houses of the meanest were found to be equal to those of the sachems or chiefs in other places. They surrounded the town with ditches…and with a stone-wall.
The Indians, thus settled, were instructed in husbandry, and were excited to a prudent as well as industrious management of their affairs. Some of them were taught such trades as were most necessary for them, so that they completely built a house for
public worship, 50 feet in length and 25 feet in breadth.
Most of the financial support for Nonantum and for Eliot’s other Praying Indian ventures came from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, based in England. The New England Puritans were much less sanguine of the long-range prospects for Christianizing the natives. Because of their deep distrust of the natives and the insatiable land hunger that marked the early history of the colony, the Praying Indian village of Nonantum soon proved untenable. In 1651, less than five years after its foundation, Eliot was obliged to move the entire population of this first Christian Indian community in British North America some fifteen miles to the southwest, to a 3,000-acre site in the present town of Natick.
All that commemorates the site of Nonantum today is this stone terrace situated at the Newton end of the valley, the Eliot Memorial.
For the next quarter century, the number of Eliot’s Christian Indian communities proliferated until there were a total of fourteen. The Roxbury clergyman kept close watch over the progress of these settlements. The praying Indian experiment was decisively undermined, however, by King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the most severe Indian conflict in Massachusetts history, which led to the abandonment of most of Eliot’s praying Indian communities.
A map showing the locations of the 14 Praying Indian communities that Reverend John Eliot eventually established in southern New England
In the period 1998 to 2001 I wrote regular bi-monthly historical columns for two related Boston newspapers, the Boston Tab and the Allston-Brighton Tab, about a hundred columns in all. Then In 2007 and 2008 collections of these articles were published in book form, under the titles Allston-Brighton in Transition: From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb and Boston Miscellany, An Essential History of the Hub.