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Apostle To The Indians

July 2024
16min read

John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts savages, printed the Bible in their “barbarous Linguo,” and tried to reply to their disquieting questions

Whenever the Reverend John Eliot walked along the Indian trail from Roxbury to Dorchester Mill in the autumn weather, he tried to put the time to proper use by continuing the metrical version of the Psalms that he and Richard Mather and Thomas Weld were working on. His somber figure pinpointed the brightness of the afternoon as he strode along, heedless of the crickets’ antiphonal shrilling. Late goldenrod and Michaelmas daisies encroached on the way. brushing against his cloak. Slowly, so very slowly, the Old Testament lines formed themselves in his mind:

Like Pelican in wilderness like Owle in desart so am I; I watch, and like a sparrow am on house lop solitarily. Mine enemies daily mee reproach …

But then, as had happened so many times before, he would find himself caught up in the immediacy of the sun-drenched moment, the shout of the crickets drowning out the psalm. And he would become aware again of sweet fern and the salt scent of the marsh and the harbor in the middle distance and the russet patches of oak and blaeberry. Lemon-pale witch hazel filaments, that New World shrub that (lowered so strangely in the autumn, came just on a level with his eye. Nova Anglia —New England. This, he now knew with loving thankfulness, was his world.

According to the 1628 charter of Massachusetts Bay the “royall intention and the adventurer’s free profession, the principal! ende of this Plantation” was “to wynn the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the onlie true God and Saviour of mankinde.” It was not a profession which many of the earlier settlers shared. Fortunately for them, the Indians of the region had been almost exterminated by a plague a few years before, and there was little challenge in the broken remnants of the Massachusetts Bay tribes. For those transplanted Englishmen the Indians were a subhuman nuisance, when they were not devils. “The veriest Ruines of Mankind,” Cotton Mather said of them. And even the gentle Roger Williams called them “wolves witli the brains of men.”

John Eliot was one of the very lew to take the intentions of the charter to heart. Holding the Bible as the literal word of God, the ultimate source of all knowledge, he was drawn to the Indians at least in part by his belief that they were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. But more fundamentally they were to him human beings created by God, souls to be saved. This conviction expanded in his inner self until it dominated his life. As he wrote in later years: “Pity to the poor Indians, and desire to make the name of Christ chief in these dark ends of the earth—and not the rewards of men—were the very first and chief moves, if I know what did first and chiefly move in my heart, when God was pleased to put upon me that work of preaching to them.”

John Eliot, known to after generations as the Apostle to the Indians, was born at Widlord, Hertfordshire, in 1604. At the customary age of fourteen he entered fesus College, Cambridge, taking his H.A. degree in 1622. lie then became an usher in the Reverend Thomas Hooker’s school at Little Baddow, an employment that Cotton Mather in later years tried anxiously to show as not really menial. Hooker, a Puritan of the milder sort and much honored in the countryside, was finally forced by Laud’s high church policies to flee to Holland as the first step on his way to America. Eliot followed him.

Though John Eliot never wavered from the ferocious creed of Calvin, he kept beneath all the doctrines of predestination a warm and loving heart. Children and Indians he cherished with much patience. There was no Barebones self-righteousness about him. When he left England, a “select number of his pious and Christian friends” followed him on the promise that he would be their New World pastor—an indication of this unordained young man’s winning ways. On his arrival he was probably the first New England minister to take orders in the Congregational manner. A year later his bride-to-be, Anne Mumford, came to join him.

At first, he filled in as a substitute in Boston’s First Church, and although the elders would have kept him, he was mindful of his friends. There, in the hilly country beyond Boston Neck with its outcroppings of conglomerate and the broken glimpses of the harbor islands, he and his congregation that had followed him so far made their settlement. So was the church in Roxbury established in 1632, and there Eliot remained through wars and changes of governments and dynasties for over fifty years.

In 1646 the General Court of Massachusetts passed an order to promote the diffusion of Christianity among the natives, and the elders of the churches were requested to consider how it might best be effected. Although John Eliot had spent a dozen years tending the rude and straggling Roxbury settlement, he had long been considering just this. He now took into his house Cockenöe, an Indian made prisoner in the Pequot War of 1637, who had been serviced to a Dorchester planter, and who could speak and even read English. Later, an Indian youth named fob Nesntan replaced Cockenöe as Eliot’s teacher and helper. With him Eliot began his study of the Indian language, tentatively translating the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Alter two years he was able to preach, if haltingly, in this acquired tongue.

The language of the Massachusetts Bay tribes was Algonquian, a Mahican dialect called by Eliot and others the “Massachusetts language.” With the Indian method of compressing complex ideas into extended single words, it was not a facile tool. Eliot did his best to develop grammatical usages. Cotton Mather held that it would have been more effective to teach the Indians English than to translate Scriptures into their “barbarous I.inguo.” Even the demons of Hell could not understand it, he said. Gravely Mather explained that he had tried out some languages on a captive audience of demons (whom he reached through conversing with a “possessed” young woman); during the seance, he went on, his infernal friends did well enough with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but failed miserably to understand his questions in Algonquian.

Eliot’s first mission, when he felt he had mastered the language sufficiently, was at the small Indian settlement near the falls of the Charles River a few miles above Cambridge. Here, on a hill beyond the river’s great S curve, Waban—in Algonquian, “the Wind”—a peaceful Indian, half trader, half sachem, had gathered together a settlement out of the fragmented tribes. Waban’s group had been friendly to the English from the beginning, and Waban would gladly listen to the stocky man in black who spoke, or seemed to speak, the Indian tongue.

It was a fading October day with the hard-rimmed sky beginning to take on tones of winter, when Eliot and three clergymen companions first arrived before Waban’s wigwam. There at the council fire Eliot preached the first Protestant sermon in the Indian tongue on the North American continent. He took as his text Ezekiel 27:9, “Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God.” It was a shrewd and happy choice, appealing both to the pride of Waban the Wind and to the superstition of his listeners. Snake eyes reflected by the firelight, elders with bronze impassive faces, the restless children, the shrill-voiced crones silent for once, all watched the Englishman. He preached to them for an hour and a quarter, moderate by that day’s standard, adapting as he could the Institutes of Calvin to their forest ways.

Alter prayers in English—for he did not as yet feel himself equal to praying in Algonquian—some of the Indians began to ask him questions, and he encouraged them then and for all future meetings.

Why, they would ask him around their smoldering fires and later in the lodges of the praying towns, why does not God who has full power kill the Devil that makes all men so bad? Was the Devil or man made first? Might there be something, it only a little, gained by praying to the Devil? If God made Hell in one of the six days, why did he make it before Adam had sinned? If all the world be burned up, where shall Hell be then? Are all the Indians who have died now in Hell, while only we are in the way of getting to Heaven? Why does not God give all men good hearts that they may be good? Whither do dying little children go, seeing they have not sinned? “This question,” said Eliot, “gave occasion to teach them more fully original sin and the damned state of all men. I could give them no further comfort than that, when God elects the parents, he elects their seed also.”

There were also the curious, the doubting, and the malicious. How is it that sea water is salt and land water fresh? they asked the white man facing them with the clasped book. Or—If a man should be enclosed in iron a foot thick, and thrown into a fire, how would his soul get out? Why do Englishmen kill all snakes?

Waban, however he understood predestination, became a convert to Eliot’s teaching. Under his leadership and with Eliot’s instructions, the Indians of his settlement formed themselves into the Christian village of Nonantum—meaning “Rejoicing”—after the white man’s pattern. From Eliot they received clothing, blankets, spades, axes, and other tools. The squaws were given spinning wheels. For out of these nomad hunters he would make husbandmen, that they should eat bread in the sweat of their dark faces. The Indians laid out streets and fenced and planted their fields. Eliot was understanding, and they trusted him. He knew he could not push the mercurial savages too hard, and he was content at first if they observed the decent minimum of outer forms. One group of Indians, instructed not to do any unnecessary work on Sunday, replied that it would be easy for them since they had little to do on any day.

Nonantum developed into a small trading center where the Indians made brooms, baskets, and eelpots for the colonists and sold fish and venison and berries in season. Yet the Praying Indians, as they were called, were looked on with contemptuous distrust by most whites, and finally Eliot resolved to move them iij) the Charles River to a remote place of hills called Natick, eighteen miles away. On this virgin ground he woidd set up a town according to the principles laid down in the Bible. Eliot would have his Indians “wholly governed by Scriptures in all things, both in church and state.”

Natick was laid out for some 800 inhabitants. Except for the temporary assistance of an English carpenter, all the work was done by Indians. Two streets on one side of the river were joined to one on the far side by a bridge. After the lots were measured they were assigned one to a family. A circular fort was built and alter that a rectangular meetinghouse fifty feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and twelve feet high. The latter was used as a schoolroom during the week, one section of it being partitioned off for Eliot’s particular use and known as the Prophet’s Chamber. There were several other houses of the English kind, but for the most part the Indians preferred their accustomed wigwams.

Once every fortnight, during the summer weather, Eliot visited his Praying Indians at Natick. Summoned by two drums, the congregation assembled in the meetinghouse. There, in the church he had helped build with his own hands, in the smoky, rush-lit room with the noise of running water outside and inside the high-pitched buzz of moscjuitoes, Eliot would deliver one of those massive seventeenth-century sermons, expounding the Scriptures in the tongue he had learned with so much difficulty. The Indians had come to regard him as a father. Beyond the dogma which they scarcely understood they sensed the goodness of the man. So they served him, with only occasional backsliding, and when the times of trouble came most of them held loyally to him.

Natick became a show place, visited frequently by Boston clergymen who were pleased to catechize the congregation through an interpreter and delighted at the answers that were roared back. Men like Governor Endicott and President Dunster of Harvard, who came to Natick and saw the domesticated Indians hoeing, reaping, picking hops, cutting wood, making hay, and building stone fences, were happily convinced. The harder minds among the colonists were not. Most of the settlers looked sourly on Eliot’s Indians, maintaining that their piety was a fable, a device for raising money to support a group of hypocritical and shiftless “foreigners.”

Although Eliot’s biographers do not emphasize the fact, there were tangible advantages in becoming a Praying Indian. The apostle wanted his converts to be prosperous as a mark of election, and he had the means to reward those who listened to the Gospel message. Clothing, food, and implements were on hand for them. Never did he enter a settlement without bringing gifts, for children as well as the others. No Indian was ever turned away empty-handed from the door of the Roxbury parsonage. It has been estimated that the cost of conversion ran to £10 per Indian, a large sum in those days.

Eliot, selfless and austere, had been known to give away his monthly stipend in a fit of absent-minded benevolence; but like many such unworldly men he could be singularly practical in raising money for a cause. The funds for his missionary work came from England, through the middle-aged piety of dowagers of wealthy Puritan families and occasional aristocrats like the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Eliot planned his touches with care. He was the earliest and one of the most successful writers of dunning letters in America, the first transatlantic promoter of a fund-raising campaign. In 1649 a London corporation, the Society for Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England, was established, and on this society Eliot came to depend for much of his later support, including the subsidizing of his Bible translation.

The question of the sincerity of the Indian converts is a complex one. How much they were swayed by religious conviction is impossible to say. Certainly the awe and admiration they felt for the dominant white men was easily transferable to the white men’s peculiar God. Then, too, in their eroded tribal state they were driven to the shelter of the white settlements by fear of the Mohawks. By becoming converts they freed themselves of the oppressive exactions of sachem and medicine man. There were the things of this world—not to be neglected—that were to be had in Christ’s name. Finally there was the influence of the Reverend John Eliot himself, the doughty, paternal figure whose kindliness even Calvin’s creed could not conceal.

Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquian, Mumusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (“The-whole Holy his-Bible God”), was his most cherished achievement, the goal of all his studies. From his first days in New England he had seen it as his sacred task to bring the word of God to the Indians. Only when they could read the Bible could he be assured of the permanence of their faith.

For ten years he labored at his self-appointed task, in the long summer evenings, through the waning autumn days, with winter biting at his study door, testing each sentence, each verse. It was a tremendous effort to adapt the restricted Indian tongue to the subtle and majestic cadences of the King James Version. For so many things there were 110 equivalents. Job Nesutan often did not know. And some Indians with childish malice would deliberately trick him, supplying a wrong or sometimes an obscene word.

With his other burdens it is a marvel that he found time to carry on his translating. For in all weathers and all seasons he made his visitations in the towns and friendly settlements, sometimes as far as sixty miles afield. An indomitable figure who could bend to a nor’caster and yet not draw back, who did not hesitate in a pinch to adopt Indian dress, who would stop on a rainy night at any wigwam and wring the water from his socks and be olf the next morning, who when hostile Indians barred his path coidd say: “I fear neither you nor all the sachems in the country. I will go on, and do you touch me if you dare.”

Then there was his Roxbuiy congregation, and the education of his own people. “Lord! For schools everywhere among us!” he prayed. He founded the Indian College at Cambridge. He established the Free School in Roxbury. (Founded in 1645, the Roxbury Latin School, as it was subsequently known, is the oldest endowed school in the United States. It is at present a country day school of 150 students in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.) He made teachers and ministers of his Indian converts. And he wrote reports over the years that were published regularly by the society and came to be known as the Indian Tracts.

When Eliot began his Bible translation there was no assurance it would ever be printed, yet he continued at it through the years, trusting in Providence and in the London society. He did not trust in vain, for—as that unpractical man shrewdly realized—such a project was attuned to the very premises on which the society was founded. Its governors agreed to underwrite the expenses of the Indian Bible.

The Up-Biblum was printed by Samuel Green at the Cambridge Press, housed in the Indian College inside the Harvard Yard. Directly and indirectly this undertaking was worth the then very large sum of £1,000 a year to the Boston commercial community.

Eliot completed his translation in 1659. That same year printing was begun, and almost at once the society shipped an additional press to Cambridge. Special type had to be sent as well, the Indian language requiring a double o logotype and more than the normal proportions of o’s, k’s , and q’s .

The final chapters of Revelation were printed in 1663. Fifteen hundred copies of the Up-Biblum were run off, 200 copies being bound in stout leather for the immediate use of the Indians. This was the first Bible printed in America, the earliest example in history of the translation and printing of the entire Bible as a means of evangelization. It was Eliot’s most durable monument.

King Charles’ acceptance of the sudden and politic dedication of the Up-Biblum was gracious, considering the fact that only three years before Eliot, in a slim volume called The Christian Commonwealth , had applauded Cromwell, denounced Charles I as antiChrist, and anathematized the Lords and Commons.

The following dozen years were to climax Eliot’s labors. Captain Daniel Gookin, a layman of some military and political prominence in the colony, was appointed superintendent of the Praying Indians and became Eliot’s principal colleague. The original settlement at Natick throve mightily, and additional towns were set up at Stoughton, Grafton, Marlboro, Littleton, and Tewksbury. Eliot composed an Indian Primer, an Indian Grammar, and an Indian Psalter and made a translation of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted . In 1674 there were two established Indian churches, fourteen Indian towns, and 1,100 Praying Indians.

An unusual glimpse of Eliot comes to us from a novel source. In the mid-seventeenth century the Jesuit Father Druillette was sent by the governor of Canada to Boston to discuss commercial relations. Although Jesuits were nominally under sentence of death in Massachusetts, Father Druillette was received cordially both by Governor Endicott and by Governor Bradford of Plymouth. On one of his journeys he was an overnight guest of Eliot. That meeting of the priest and the Puritan conversing by the fireside as best they could in church and school Latin became the subject of a number of sentimental Victorian illustrations.

Eliot’s vision of a Christianized Indian fellowship of thriving and expanding towns was shattered in 1675 by the outbreak of King Philip’s War. Philip was the son of Massasoit, the sachem of the Rhode Island Wampanoags, whose early treaty with Plymouth banned any missionaries within his territory. More instinctively hostile to the whites than his politic father, Philip carried this anti-Christian bias even further. Once on a chance meeting with Eliot he had twisted a button of the latter’s coat, telling him he cared no more for the Gospel than he did for that button.

To Philip’s innate hostility was added his resentment at the encroaching whites. The old Pawtucket chieftain Passaconaway had warned him that though he might harm the colonists, they would in the end surely destroy him. That might be true, Philip thought, but only if he failed to strike in time. He planned with much cunning for a federation of tribes from Long Island Sound to the Penobscot that would rise at a given signal and exterminate the English settlements. For four years he made his preparations, formed secret alliances with the other tribes, collected guns and munitions and supplies, and planned his strategy.

The outbreak, in the middle of June, was sudden, bloody, and disastrous for the colonists. From Springfield east a hundred miles to within sight of Boston the towns went up in flames, and women and children were butchered with malignant savagery. Although Waban had warned the colonists some time before, they were unprepared. Before the militia could muster any effective counterattack the western garrisons were besieged and in some cases annihilated. No small town or isolated farm was safe. Terror of the savages reinforced all the colonists’ earlier prejudices. Praying or not, an Indian was an Indian, better locked up, best dead.

Eliot’s Indians lived in danger of their lives. Sometimes they were murdered out of hand, as at Chelmsford, or, as at Marlboro, seized and marched to the Boston jail. Yet in spite of ill will, suspicion, and harsh treatment which was to grow harsher, the great majority of the Praying Indians remained loyal. There were exceptions. James the Printer, who had helped print Eliot’s Up-Biblum , abandoned his press and his hand-me-downs to put on war paint with Philip, as did Old Jethro, an Indian preacher Eliot had trained, who was later taken prisoner and hanged.

Eliot and Gookin did all they could to protect the lives and substance of their wards; but they were increasingly isolated by the hysterical clamor against the Praying Indians. Gookin’s life was threatened in the streets of Boston. When Eliot’s boat tipped over in the harbor and was nearly run down by another boat, several people said it was a pity he had not drowned.

At the autumn period of Philip’s greatest successes, the colonists packed off the Praying Indians from Natick and the other towns just before the harvest and shipped them down Boston Harbor to Deer Island. There they were left, women and children and old men indifferently, to shift for themselves on that bleak drumlin lying open to the Atlantic. Eliot went to the water front to see the miserable converts embark, his most faithful among them—his ministers, his teachers, his interpreters. Whenever he could he visited them that winter, bringing small amounts of corn, provisions, and odds and ends of clothes. Those who survived did so for the most part by grubbing for clams and shellfish, threatened even there by some of the more hotheaded colonists, who as a reprisal for burnt villages were for going to Deer Island to kill the lot.

Yet through all their wretchedness the Indians still remained firm in their affection for Eliot. And when some of the less fanatical and more practical-minded colonists decided to try to raise an Indian scouting company from among them, sixty volunteered. In the end, Indian aid to the English was substantial. The Praying Indians, resuming their forest ways, killed over 400 of the enemy, and Gookin maintained that they “turned y e balance to y e English side, so that y e enemy went down y e wind amain.”

The war lasted until the middle of the following year. Philip was finally surrounded and brought to bay in Mount Hope Swamp in Rhode Island, a Praying Indian firing the shot that finished him. The militiamen found him lying in the mud, “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast.” They cut off his head and brought it to Plymouth, where it stood impaled for the next quarter of a century.

With the end of this threat the Praying Indians were allowed to leave Deer Island for their old homes, but only a poor minority survived. Whatever creative spark Eliot had managed to kindle in them had gone out. The end of Philip was the knell of the Massachusetts Indians. Over Eliot’s distressed protests the war captives, including Philip’s wife and young children, were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Where fourteen thriving Indian towns had existed, there were now only four listless and dwindling settlements.

The London society, however, continued its help. Most of the Indian Bibles had been burnt or destroyed during the war, and Eliot prepared a revised edition with the help of his friend John Cotton of Plymouth, who knew the language even better than he did. He still visited his remaining Indians when he could, although less frequently now that old age was on him.

John Eliot was to live another fifteen years, a patriarchal figure, revered now in the harmlessness of his broken dream, one of the last thin links with that first generation from across the ocean. His Praying Indians were no longer a problem in the expanding colony, and the bitterness was glossed over now. From Roxbury to Boston he had become such a time-accustomed figure over half a century that he seemed almost beyond time, and a saying grew up that Massachusetts could not come to an end as long as the Reverend John Eliot lived.

He himself knew that his time was almost out and how vain most of it had been. “There is a cloud,” he wrote finally, “a dark cloud upon the work of the Gospel among the poor Indians.”

He lived to see his wife Anne and four of his six children with Christ, his Cromwell with Christ, Charles with the Devil, God’s Commonwealth pilloried, and every hand against his copper-colored children. And he remembered his Up-Biblum . Cotton Mather, pursuing a fancy of which he was fond, discovered that the anagram of his name was Toile.

John Eliot waited for the end with desire. For him the Great Perhaps was a certainty. When he was very old he liked to say that John Cotton and Richard Mather and the friends of his youth would suspect him of having gone the wrong way because he remained so long behind them. At the last, when he was dying, he dismissed the young clergymen who had come to pray superfluously over him. “Welcome Joy!” were his last words.

Francis Russell became interested in John Eliot while a student at Roxbury Latin School, America’s oldest private school, which Eliot founded in 1645. Now a resident of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, Mr. Russell contributed “Lost Elegance” to the June, 1957, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE .

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