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Apostle To The Indians
John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts savages, printed the Bible in their “barbarous Linguo,” and tried to reply to their disquieting questions
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
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.