John Eliot: The Apostle to the Indians
“Who will go to the Indians?” This question hung for a long moment in the assembly hall in Boston. The magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had decided that they would provide for the annual support of two ministers who would leave their home churches and labor among the Indians of the Massachusetts Bay region. The silence was long and intense. All that had been asked was that two servants of God volunteer. By 1646, dozens of churches dotted the Atlantic seaboard. In fact, there were more ministers than there were churches, the opposite problem to that which now faces the churches of New England. Preachers of the Gospel were readily available, and some churches had several ministers in attendance. Surely, two of them could easily be found who would volunteer to go preach the everlasting Gospel of the Son of God to the poor benighted natives of the region. Rather than another Pequot War, how much better it would be to reach the Indians with the tidings of the Prince of Peace.
In the crowded assembly hall, finally there was a stir of activity. One courageous man stepped forward to offer himself for the mission work among the Indians. He knew nothing of the Indian language. He was the pastor of the church in Roxbury and had a comfortable situation and a steady income. This was not a mere novice. The man who stepped forward was in the prime of his life, 42 years old. His name was John Eliot, and he came from a very prosperous family back in England. He was a graduate of Jesus College in Cambridge University and was recognized as an excellent Hebrew scholar. He had cast his lot with the Puritans and crossed the ocean, arriving in Boston in 1631.
Immediately upon his arrival in New England, Eliot had assumed the pastoral charge of the church of Roxbury southwest of Boston. His pastoral duties had included taking an important part in the debate that arose over the wild and fanatical unrest caused by Anne Hutchinson’s private visions and dreams. Eliot sat on the panel that judged her case and banished her from the colony. Pastor Eliot had already been the chief instrument in translating the book of Psalms from the original Hebrew into English meter. That production was known as the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America. He was one of the most scholarly and influential pastors that New England had to offer. Now, it seemed to some that this man was throwing his life away to work among the Indians. Eliot was offered a meager £10 for his efforts and was promised a yearly income of £20 beginning the following year. This was a very small and pitiful income even in 1646. A common farmer at the time usually could expect £160 for his fall crop.
It is sad that so few Americans today are even aware of the name and history of this first American missionary. Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary to go abroad, has received a good bit of fame, and he is certainly worthy of it. But he would not set sail for Burma for over a century. A famous missionary couple of the 20th century, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, carried a similar last name. Perhaps this is another reason why John Eliot has been largely forgotten.
Eliot’s work was monumental. In assuming his new responsibilities, he did not give up his old one. He resolved that he would continue his work as pastor in Roxbury, but travel on a regular basis into the western woods to minister in the Indian villages. Leaving his comfortable home on a regular basis, John Eliot faithfully served simultaneously as pastor, missionary, husband, father, and medical doctor in the Indian villages. He took civilization with him, for the only civilizing force in all the world is the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ had said in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations . . .” When Jesus said “teach all nations,” the word He used is literally the word for “ethnic groups.” This is a command to give the Gospel to every ethnic group on the face of the globe, teaching them to obey all that God commands.
Eliot, in obedience to this great commission of Jesus, immersed himself in the Indian language. With his background in Hebrew, he had a good understanding of linguistics, and in only a few short months, he had learned the language to the extent that he could preach with difficulty. He also began a translation of the Word of God into the language of the Indians of Massachusetts. Eliot and his wife catechized the Indian children. To each little Indian boy or girl who answered a question correctly, the Eliots would give an apple. Eliot answered questions presented by the sachems (or chiefs) of the surrounding villages. He taught them to know and obey the Ten Commandments.
On one occasion, an old sachem came to him with tears in his eyes and asked him if the English God received old men. With a smile, Eliot assured him that He did and told him of the many old men in the Bible who were accepted by God. This old sachem died in the confidence that God would accept him through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Eliot warned the Indians against the danger of their “pawwawing” (sorcery). He also taught them practical things: how to salt their fish to preserve it and how to use iron tools to their advantage.
John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave this glowing report of John Eliot’s work among the Indians:
God prospered his endeavors. Some of the Indians began to be very seriously affected and to understand the things of God and they were generally ready to reform whatever they were told to be against the word of God.
Eliot continued his labors among the Indians for the rest of his long life. The major work of his life was the completion of the translation of the entire Bible into the Algonquian language, and this book, the first Bible printed in the New World, came off the printing press in 1661.
And what of the Indian converts he made? They were known no longer by their formal tribal names. In fact, the Indians of that region came to be known simply as “the Praying Indians.” But John Eliot knew that praying was not enough. He wanted his converts to be, not only pious, but also obedient. He believed that the Gentile nations ought to obey and submit to the Law of God. He patterned the Christian Indian villages after what he found in the Old Testament, appointing officers and judges in each village to hear cases and administer Biblical law.
Too often, modern mission efforts stop with the Gospel. But Jesus told us to “teach them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.” This demands that we teach our converts not only how to get to heaven, but how to govern a home Biblically, how to farm Biblically, how to punish crime Biblically, how to wage war Biblically, and how to govern a village Biblically. In this, we could learn much from the “Praying Indians,” perhaps more rightly called “Obedient Indians.”
Eliot died in 1690 at the remarkably old age of 86. He was still the pastor in Roxbury, and he was still the missionary to the Indians. By that time, he was assisted by his sons in carrying onward the work of the ministry. When John Eliot died, there were eleven hundred “Praying Indians.” There were fourteen Indian villages that were governed according to the Law of God. Where there was once polygamy and all sorts of uncleanness, there were now Biblical families with husbands, wives, and children seeking to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength and to love their neighbor as God had commanded.
Cotton Mather, who described these Indians before their conversion as “doleful creatures, the veriest ruins of mankind,” whose way of living was “infinitely barbarous,” now had this to say about Eliot’s work:
It is above forty years since that truly Godly man, Mr. John Eliot . . . not without very great labor, translated the whole Bible into the Indian Tongue. He gathered a church of converted Indians in a Town called Natick; these Indians confessed their sins with tears, and professed their faith in Christ, and afterwards they and their children were baptized; and they were solemnly joined together in a Church Covenant. The Pastor of that Church now is an Indian, his Name is Daniel. Of the Indians there are four and twenty who are preachers of the Word of God.
The Cambridge graduate, Hebrew scholar, musician, translator, linguist, and pastor of the “Praying Indians” was a very humble man, a man whose name has been all but forgotten. John Eliot has been given a noble title: “The Apostle to the Indians.”
New England’s Memorial by William Bradford
Magnalia by Cotton Mather
The Journal of John Winthrop