- Historic Sites
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
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.