Apostle to the Indians
It is interesting to note that from the very beginning of English exploration in the New World, there was a very strong emphasis to win the native population to Christianity. The charters of many of the colonies had very specific instructions stating their goal to evangelize the Indian population. For instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony 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 official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony shows, among other things, an Indian holding in one hand a bow and in the other an arrow. Proceeding from his mouth are the words, "Come over and help us." Although it was the official goal to evangelize the native population, very few took that seriously. The subject of our meditation today is one who did indeed take this challenge most seriously.
John Eliot was born in England in 1604 into a godly home. We do not know the exact date of his birth, but, from the local parish church records, it must have been in early August of 1604. Undoubtedly, his father was his first teacher; however, there are some indications that he went to the village school. He was born in a small village called Widford, about 25 miles from London. His family did not always live in this village but were within a few miles of that community. In 1618, when he was just a month short of fourteen, he was enrolled at Cambridge University in the Jesus College. He apparently took a liberal arts program that was strong in Latin, logic, etc. He was aiming toward the ministry. The building that housed the Jesus College was a little distance from the main campus of Cambridge and had been a Catholic convent. There were still some trappings that would indicate that had been the case. He spent his four years of undergraduate study there, graduating in the year 1622 at the age of 18. During his years at Cambridge, he came under the influence of the well-known Puritan Thomas Hooker, who was a nonconformist. Sometime following his graduation (the exact date has not been ascertained), he was ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Church. Because of his nonconformist leanings, he was never given a parish.
There is some evidence that he was working on a master's degree during the time following his graduation in 1622. During this period of time, the great plagues swept across Europe, over the English Channel, and into England. Many of the students fled to their homes, but apparently Eliot remained in Cambridge during those years. It is thought that he spent part of those years following his graduation teaching school in some village near his hometown.
When he was 27 years of age, in the year 1631, he immigrated to the New World. On his arrival in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the city of Boston was without a pastor. The pastor had returned to England in a vain attempt to persuade his wife to return with him to the New World. Since Eliot was ordained, he was asked on arrival to pastor the First Church of Boston, which he did for six months until the regular pastor returned. In that half year, he became greatly loved by his parishioners, who pled with him to remain as an associate to the senior pastor. He declined the invitation and became the minister of a new church at Roxbury, which is only a few miles south of Boston. The main reason he chose that parish was that so many from his own area of England had settled in that small community. He pastored that church for the next 58 years.
Within a year of his arrival in the New World, he was joined by three of his brothers, three sisters, and his fiancée, Hannah Mumford, whom he married very shortly after her arrival. They had a very long and happy marriage.
John Eliot was one of the gentlest of men and was beloved by hundreds. At the same time, he was a man of superb courage. At a time when much of the preaching concentrated on the wrath of God, he spoke of the love of God and viewed his role as one of planting churches and establishing Christian villages among the praying Indians, establishing schools for their children, and championing the cause of the Indians before the colonies' courts.
John Eliot was 27 on his arrival in the New World and gave himself to the ministry at Roxbury for the first decade or more he was there. It wasn't until the 1640s that he began to turn his eyes toward the Indian population.
In that area there were the encampments of the Algonquian Indians. These Indians were very peaceful and frequently came into the Roxbury community. The colonists paid little attention to them. They apparently did some trading, but not much effort was made to approach or become friendly with the Indian population. It wasn't until 1640 that Eliot became involved in reaching out to these Native American peoples. He began to study their language, which was an unwritten language with no grammar, no dictionary, and no language helps. He had to prepare and develop his own grammar of the language. He began to collect words for a dictionary and tried to understand the guttural sounds of that tongue. He had an Indian helper who had apparently lived with English speakers for some time, knew the English reasonably well, and was a tremendous help to him both as teacher and as interpreter.
In 1644 Eliot, at the age of 40, seriously began his missionary endeavor. He ministered to his parishioners in Roxbury on Sunday, and the rest of the week he walked or rode a horse out to the Indian encampments, through the forest, over very rough terrain, often soaked by rain, and diligently studied this very difficult language. It was two years before he felt confident enough to try to preach a sermon in the Algonquian tongue. It was the fall of 1646. He delivered his first sermon to a group of Indians who lived nearby. This was a very first, crucial test of his ability to communicate effectively, but, despite his very best efforts, the people paid little attention, and most of them seemed to be very bored. He was discouraged by this initial response, but it did not deter him from continuing long hours of study with his teacher as well as listening and attempting to communicate with them in their encampments. A month later, Eliot preached again. This time he preached to a larger group of Indians who congregated at the wigwam of one of the leaders, whose name was Waban. The Indians listened for more than an hour; and when the sermon was over, they asked questions, questions Eliot later described as curious, wonderful, and interesting. Eliot was very perceptive; and although they wanted to ask more questions, he stopped and told them to wait till the next time, allowing an appetite to develop for the Word of God. It was this method that he used in instructing the Indians. As have I, Eliot was asked why no one had ever told them the good news of the Gospel before.
All the time, he was becoming more proficient in the language. As weeks and months passed by, some Indians were converted, and a very noticeable change took place in their lives. During his learning phase and while he was beginning to teach and preach among the Indians, he discipled those who responded to the message. He taught them to read and to write and also instructed them in the Word of God. His first translation was of a catechism, which he used in discipling. He progressed to the New Testament and, after many years, translated the whole Bible into the Algonquian tongue, a task that demanded many long treks into the forest to be with the Indians and many late nights by candlelight. The great legacy Eliot left was the completed Bible in the Indians' own language.
He was a very cautious man, and it was five years after the first profession of faith was made before he baptized any of the new believers. As time passed, on there were sizeable numbers of converted Indians. Largely at their initiation, he encouraged them to move to an area that had been allocated by the government as a Christian village. It was some fifteen or sixteen miles west of Boston and was referred to as the village of the praying Indians. Over the ensuing years, some fourteen of these villages were established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was not a typical Indian settlement. The streets were laid out, and each family was given a lot. Most of the dwellings were wigwams of Indian style. A few were more of European style. The government was set up on the basis of Scripture as outlined in Exodus 18 where there were those men who were responsible for ten households, some for fifty, and some for a hundred. Matters that could not be dealt with were then taken to the government court in Boston, where Eliot frequently championed the Indians. Eliot spent time and effort with temporal matters, but his primary concern was the spiritual welfare of the Indians.
The Algonquian Bible was the first Bible published in the New World. Although there are still copies extant, it is one of the most valuable books on the market. The first book published in the New World was a hymnbook of which John Eliot was a coeditor and translator.
The settlers were commonly confiscating land from the Indians, and the Indians' hunting grounds and fishing streams were taken from them. Many of them were forced to go to other areas, oftentimes to some of the offshore islands where there was no good soil in which to plant. Life was made very difficult for the Indians. Eliot was their champion and frequently went to court with them and for them before the government. He tried to prevent the confiscation of land and promote its restoration to the original inhabitants, but the greedy settlers kept taking more and more of the Indians' land until an uprising took place and a very bloody, brief war ensued. It caused great disruption among his Indian congregations, and after the settlement of the war the ministry was never quite the same. Seeing his people so treated and then scattered far afield by the very greedy and unchristian action of the colonial settlers was a very real disappointment to Eliot. He continued his ministry among the Indians and in the Roxbury church for a total of 58 years. Finally, at the age of 85 he departed this life.
John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians, was one of the great missionaries in the New World to the native Americans.
Dr. John A. Dreisbach