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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
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.”