John Eliot (1604-1690): Missionary to the American Indians

The work of missions is difficult. There is opposition, hardship, disappointment, and tremendous sacrifices that are required of the missionaries and their families. Then there are times when before their own eyes they see everything for which they labored slip away.

John Eliot was a pioneer missionary to the American Indians. He learned firsthand the struggles of mission work. Three things served to strengthen and encourage him. First, his unbending optimism regarding God’s counsel and plan. Second, his ability to delegate work. And, finally, his confession regarding God’s sovereignty in all things, particularly the salvation of souls.

The story of missions to the American Indians is intriguing. The work was characterized by much zeal, dedication, and courage, but ultimately it came to include also extensive failure in terms of any lasting fruit. There are many political and religious reasons for the failures, but one of the most serious was the fact that the majority of the white men, sadly even the Christian white men and women, were not able to view the Indians as equal human beings. They considered them inferior, even after they became Christians. The image of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal at the first Thanksgiving is one of the most memorable images we have of American Indians, but that was not characteristic of most of the interaction between the colonists and the red man.

The native American Indians faced tremendous pres­sure as settlers arrived from Europe and began to push them out of the lands they and their ancestors had occu­pied in the Americas for years. Though they were feared and despised as poor savages from the beginning of the civilization of the Americas, the Indians were a target of Christian evangelism. Strikingly, the evangelization of the Indians was incorporated into the original charters of the colonies. One example is the charter of the Mas­sachusetts Bay colony, which pledged: “To win and incite the natives of the Country to the Knowledge and obedi­ence of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith.” The seal that the Massachusetts Bay colony embraced as its emblem was a picture of an Indian crying out: “Come over and help us.”

As the settlers went about staking their land claims, however, the aforementioned charters were mostly hol­low verbiage. The Indians were viewed as an annoying nuisance that slowed the progress of civilization. When some Indians contracted diseases brought from England, many of the colonists, and especially the pastors, looked at the growing death rate among the Indians as God’s means of clearing the land for His people. Understandably, most of the energy and efforts of the early settlers were focused on their own survival. Massachusetts, however, stood out in their attempts to fulfill the obligations of their charter. Ministers of the gospel were highly respected throughout the colony and were charged with the responsibility both to minister to the settlers and to seek the conversion of the Indians. Frequently, the ministers were so busy with the labors of their own local congregations that they did not have time to devote to the evangelization of the Indian tribes. John Eliot is one outstanding example of a pastor who gave himself to this mission work.

John Eliot is often called the “Apostle to the Indians,” even though he was never formally called a missionary. As his congregation grew and expanded its witness, there was opportunity to minister to the native Americans who lived nearby. His primary calling was to the congregation that he served at Roxbury, Massachusetts, a small frontier settlement just two miles South of Boston. Early on in his ministry at Roxbury, Eliot started studying the lan­guage of the Indians, with the help of a young native who spoke English. By 1646, Eliot started preaching to the Indians, first in English, and within a year he attempted to preach to them in their complicated native language of Algonquin. Making great strides in their language, he published a catechism for the Indians in 1654 and by 1658 translated the Bible into Algonquin, making it the first Bible to be printed in North America.

Initially there was not much interest in the gospel, but Eliot was not deterred. After a seventy-five minute sermon on Ezekiel 37:3 (“Can These [dry] Bones Live?”), in which he outlined the Ten Commandments, God’s an­ger at those who broke those commandments, and Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Eliot started receiving feedback. He decided to focus on the Ten Commandments and the work of Jesus Christ in fulfilling the law and forgiving sinners. That message began to strike home. There were tears, and some responded, “Why has no white man ever told us these things before?”

Eliot persisted with bi-weekly meetings, traveling to their wigwams and carefully preparing his lessons and sermons and practicing them in the Algonquin language. As the weeks and months passed, some Indians were converted. There became noticeable changes in their lives in terms of interest in spiritual things and a desire to live as Christians. Lengthy question and answer ses­sions followed the preaching, and Eliot and his fellow pastors heard questions like: “Were Englishmen ever so ignorant of God and Jesus Christ as we were?” “How could there be an image of God when the making of im­ages was forbidden by the 2nd commandment?” “How did the world get so full of people if all were drowned in the great flood?” “Why did God not kill the devil who made all men to be bad, seeing as God had the power to do so?” “How can we know when our faith and prayers are good?”

Eliot gave the children apples and the men tobacco, which was criticized by some as encouraging a sort of “rice Christian” mentality. But Eliot resisted such sugges­tions, claiming they were simple expressions of Christian friendship, which he considered necessary to show to these simple people. Eliot published regular reports, not­ing in one: “The Indians have utterly forsaken their pow­wows. They have set up morning and evening prayers in their wigwams. They not only keep the Sabbath themselves, but have made a law to punish those who do not. Whoever profanes must pay twenty shillings. They begin to grow industrious and are making articles to sell all the year long.”

To his credit, Eliot never rushed the process of their discipleship. He purposefully delayed baptism and church membership until he was convinced the converts were committed to their new faith. The first baptisms did not take place until 1651, which was five years after the first conversions. Eliot did not establish churches until he was confident that there were well-prepared officebearers. He wanted to see spiritual maturity in that they were reading and studying the Bible themselves on their own. This required of them having spiritual literature to read in their own language, so Eliot poured himself into that work despite the criticism of many that he should have been spending his time teaching the Indians English instead.

Eliot desired to keep the Christians separate from the heathens. He did much work with the government get­ting approval for land and attaining funding for various programs that allowed the establishment of 14 distinct cities in which 1,100 Christian Indians established their residence. These towns were called “praying towns.” He established a biblical form of government based on Exo­dus 18:21, with mature men set over groups of ten, fifty, and hundreds in each city.

From the beginning, Eliot started training pastors from among the Indians, so that by 1660 twenty-four Indians were trained as pastors to minister to their own people. Schools were established for the children in all the towns, and the future looked bright. His attempt to Christianize the Indians by forcing them into a biblical form of civil government and a European-type culture became a pattern for future missions.

Although the future looked bright, the bloody war that broke out in the summer of 1675, called King Phil­ip’s War, named after the Wampanoag chief who initiated the fighting, ravaged the work. The war was so intense between the Indians and the settlers that thirteen Euro­pean towns and many settlements were entirely wiped out by the Indians. Entire families were killed and their names removed from the register of the colonial record books. Even though the Christian Indians stood loyal with the settlers, aiding and assisting them, all Indians became suspect, and hundreds of Christian Indians were exiled. Others were murdered by settlers who were seeking vengeance on anyone who fit the description of a redskin.

Although so much of Eliot’s work seemed destroyed, Eliot pressed on, believing that God was perfectly execut­ing His counsel. The Christian Indians who died did so embracing the comfort of the gospel. Seventy years after his death, there was only one Indian family left in the area. In 1846, the two hundredth anniversary of Eliot’s first service to the Indians, there was in that town only one girl as the surviving Indian representative.

Taking into account the nature of Eliot’s life, his lit­erary activity was remarkable. He was instrumental in the publishing of The Bay Psalm Book, translating the Hebrew Psalms into singable English. He daily read the Old and New Testaments in their original languages. He translated the entire Bible from the original languages into the Algonquin language. In 1688 the Dutch scholar Leusden dedicated his Hebrew-English Psalter to John Eliot, speaking of the man’s piety and learning, his love of the Bible, and his zeal for languages. John Eliot remained faithful in the work until his death in 1690 at the age of 85 years. His example and methods not only were but continue to be an inspiration to many in the work of mis­sions.