John Eliot: Apostle to the Algonquins

by Sandra Harber

Twentieth-century Christians usually look with awe upon missionaries who leave comfortable America to serve the Lord in remote jungles among primitive tribes. "What fine Christian courage!" they remark. But one of North America's first missionaries was called foolhardy when he went to minister to people only a few miles from his home.

John Eliot was a Roxbury, Massachusetts, pastor who ventured from his secure Bay Colony settlement into the surrounding hostile forests in the mid-seventeenth century to evangelize the Indians. Many of his fellow Puritan settlers regarded their Indian neighbors with terror: they feared death-dealing raids on frontier families and looked with horror on the pagan powwows. The bravery of the "Apostle to the Indians," however, sprang from his sure faith in his heavenly Father's protection. Once, while on a solitary ride to an Indian village, the daring preacher was confronted by a knife-wielding savage. His dark eyes meeting those of the warrior, Eliot stated simply, "I am about the work of the great God, and he is with me, so that I fear not all the sachems [chiefs] of the country. I'll go on, and do you touch me if you dare." John Eliot continued on his journey unmolested.


The character of a man who could calmly defy an Indian's threat to his life was forged in a time of great religious turmoil. John Eliot was born the third of seven children on July 31, 1604, in Essex County, England. Bennett Eliot, a fairly well-to-do landholder, taught his children a deep reverence for God and His Word. His missionary son later testified to the Eliots' Christian homelife: "I do see that it was a great favour of God unto me, to season my first times with the fear of God, the word, and prayer."

From 1618 to 1622 Eliot studied for the ministry at Cambridge University, the intellectual center of the Presbyterian and Congregational Puritans. Eliot s professors emphasized the final authority of the Scriptures and the need for a personal relationship with Christ. This was contradictory to the Anglican creed that the Articles of Faith of the Church of England were also the inspired words of God. So when the talented young theologian graduated he did not seek a pastorate in an Anglican assembly. Instead he accepted a teaching position in a small school in the obscure village of Little Baddow. Here Eliot lived and taught under Thomas Hooker, a Puritan clergyman (and later the founder of Connecticut) who firmly believed that people should be allowed to worship as they pleased. The brief period Eliot spent with the Hooker family seemed to mark a turning point in his relationship to Jesus Christ. Eliot wrote of his stay with Thomas and his wife Susanna: "Here the Lord said to my dead soul, live! live! and through the grace of God I do live and shall live forever! When I came to this blessed family I then saw as never before, the power of godliness in its lovely vigor and efficacy."

The situation for those who did not conform to the Anglican Church grew worse, and men who stood up for what they believed were accused of heresy. Hooker was finally forced to flee to Holland in 1630, from where he later sailed to Massachusetts. The sudden departure of his good friend left Eliot at a crossroads. He saw a future of teaching and preaching in the New World, while the Old seemed to offer only exile from the ministry or a jail cell. So in the late summer of 1631 Eliot boarded the ship Lyon, bound for Boston.

Pastor in a new world

John Eliot began his ministry in America as substitute pastor of the church in Boston. His parishioners were pleased with his preaching, but when part of Eliot's family and friends settled two miles away in Roxbury, he moved to their village and became pastor and teacher (the Puritan conception of a minister) of the First Church of Roxbury. In 1632 his fiance, Hanna Mumford, whom he was said to have met in Little Baddow, sailed to America. Their marriage in October of that year was, according to Roxbury records, the first in the new settlement.

John Eliot became a powerful minister and a compassionate pastor to the New Englanders in Roxbury. His sermons, according to Boston minister Cotton Mather, displayed "a most penetrating liveliness" and resembled "God's trumpets of wrath against all vice." Eliot's generous nature became so notorious that he was once handed a month's salary securely knotted in a handkerchief, with the hope that he would be able to hold on to it a little longer. However, on his way home, Eliot stopped at the home of a poor widow, for whom he vainly attempted to extract a coin from his bundle. Abandoning the struggle, he gave her the handkerchief, declaring, "I think the Lord meant it all for you." This incident was typical of Eliot's 58 years in the Roxbury pastorate—years when he and his people peacefully served the Lord together.

Learning Algonquin

When the New Englanders were granted their charters for land in the New World, they promised to take the Gospel to the Indians. But most of the first colonists did not meet their glowing pledges to evangelize the natives. The Indians appeared to find any talk of God "burdensome" and their lives seemed dominated by Satanic rituals. And the new settlers found their lives too filled with plowing the land, building homes, and caring for the sick to take the time to preach to their neighbors in the forest villages.

But John Eliot's compassion extended to the Indians. During his first year at Roxbury he saw them as lost, needy souls. At this time he wrote: "We are at good peace with the . . . natives . . . and I trust, in God's time they shall learn Christ." Eliot's single-minded sense of mission to the Indians helped him overcome the barrier of the Algonquin language. He had shown a flair for languages at Cambridge, where he had been especially interested in Greek, Hebrew, and linguistics. In talking with Indians in Roxbury and the surrounding countryside, Eliot had picked up numerous "everyday words" of the Algonquin language. But Eliot's goal was not mere conversation; he wanted to explain God's Word to the natives. And the language the preacher wanted to learn was totally different from any European or classical tongue. Algonquin had no written grammar, no written dictionary. Cockenoe, Eliot's young Indian teacher, could speak English fluently but could not write. Only Eliot's dedication kept him going for the two grueling years he studied Algonquin.

On October 28, 1646, at Nonantum, Eliot preached his first sermon to the Indians, using Ezekiel 37:9 as his text. He opened the service with a prayer in English, not wanting to use "some unfit or unworthy terms in the solemn office." Then, for the first time in an Indian tongue, he explained the Ten Commandments, the creation and fall of man, and the life and character of Christ. At the close of his sermon, Eliot asked his intent listeners for questions. Almost immediately he was asked, "How may we come to know Jesus Christ?" Eliot's answer was clear: repent, pray, and receive Christ as Saviour.

In this meeting, as in later ones, Eliot assured his concerned listeners that God heard prayers in Algonquin just as he heard those offered in English. He encouraged his converts to trust God instead of consorting with the tribal sorcerers who held a reign of terror over the natives. Because of his emphasis on prayer, Eliot's converts became known as "praying Indians."

The Praying Villages

The Indians invited Eliot to return and preach to them again, and they also requested land on which to build a town. It was this request which brought Eliot both his greatest success and his greatest hardship in his missionary work. Eliot had already encountered opposition from some Indian chiefs—who feared they were losing the loyalty of the converted warriors. But some New Englanders also doubted the value of Eliot's work. Most of the English who settled the New World believed that all land uncultivated by the Indians belonged to the King, and could therefore be parceled out only by the Crown or its representatives. The Indians, accustomed to ranging over the land at will, found the colonists' attitude hard to understand. John Eliot, however, was determined not to let the dispute over land claims deter him from his desire to separate his converts from hostile Indians and suspicious settlers. He felt it was necessary for the Algonquins to live in a town so that they could be "under the government of the Lord, and . . . have a church." He was also concerned that the Indians be in a community where they could more easily be instructed in such skills as reading, writing, planting, and building. His arguments proved convincing to the Massachusetts General Court, and that body granted the Indians 6000 acres for their first town.

After a fruitless search for the perfect location, Eliot got on his knees before God. It was while he was still praying that one of his Indian converts came to his teacher and led him to the future site of the first "praying villiage": Natick. The Indians built the town, including wigwams, a storehouse, a meetinghouse, a fort, and a footbridge without any other aid than that of an English carpenter, who was there for two days. They based their civil government on the Mosaic plan in Exodus 18: rulers of tens, fifties, and hundreds. Eliot composed the town's formal laws himself, and the Indians soon became conscientious in rebuking and punishing those who broke laws such as abstaining from strong drink or men being forbidden to wear long hair.

Eliot traveled to Natick at least once every two weeks. His converts multiplied, and by 1656 all of the house lots at Natick had been assigned, leaving no room for other Christian Indians. As a result, 13 more towns were established in Massachusetts' Nipmuck County. The hard-working missionary needed assistance in overseeing the government of the villages, so the Massachusetts General Court, which Eliot had kept informed of his progress, appointed Daniel Gookin as superintendent of all the Praying Villages. Gookin had participated in planting the Virginia and Maryland colonies. When religious persecution arose in those settlements he moved to Massachusetts where he became a steadfast friend to Eliot.

The Indian Library

Eliot not only continued to preach to the Indians but also worked in other ways for their benefit. As a scholar, he placed great emphasis on education, and as a missionary, he realized that others were needed to carry on his work. In 1671 Eliot wrote: "I find few English students willing to engage in so dim a Work as this." Thus, Eliot established schools for the Christian Indians and trained them to be teachers and pastors of their own people. These schools were successful, as Cotton Mather testified in Magnalia Christi Americana when he quoted his father, Increase Mather: "Of the Indians there are four and twenty who are preachers of the Word of God." For use in his schools the able linguist published an Indian primer and catechism as well as many other works. These became part of what Cotton Mather labeled the "Indian library." Eliot's greatest contribution to this library was his translation of the entire Bible into Algonquin.

It was a difficult task, and Eliot encountered many problems in his attempt to provide an accurate, literal translation. The Indian culture was far removed from the Jewish culture of the Bible. Indian males were expected to be chaste; therefore, the 10 virgins in Matthew 25 became 10 chaste young men awaiting the Bridegroom. Another problem was finding Indian words that corresponded to the English. The Indian vocabulary lacked the abstract words required to explain spiritual concepts, and Eliot struggled to find the Indian comparisons to the often figurative English version. Sometimes he even had difficulty finding matching concrete nouns. One example was the word "lattice," a framework made of crossed pieces of wood. The closest word in Algonquin to fit this definition was "eelpot," a cage made of twigs and bark which was used to catch fish. But, in applying this to Judges 5:28, the result was: "The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the eelpot." Eliot wisely chose to let the English "lattice" stand.

After 8 grueling years the Indian translation was complete. In 1663 the first Bible printed in America came off the presses. J. H. Trumbull, a nineteenth-century expert in North American Indian dialects, said of the Algonquin Bible: "On the whole, his [Eliot's] version was probably as good as any first version that has been made, from his time to ours, in a previously unwritten and so-called 'barbarous' language." Eliot himself didn't seem to feel he could now rest from his arduous translation labors. In 1663 he wrote in a letter to a friend: 'My work about the Indian Bible being finished, I am meditating what to do next for these Sons of our Morning [Indians]: they having no books for their private use." Eliot went on to translate some devotional and sermon books for the praying Indians.

King Philip's War

Every mission work suffers its share of setbacks, and John Eliot's pioneer effort was no exception. Although the majority of the Christian Indians were loyal to the English, the relationship between the Luther land-hungry tribes and the equally hungry settlers had for a long time been like a powder keg waiting for a match. But it was the murder of one of the praying Indians which lit the fuse and blew the keg. Sassamon, once a student in Eliot's Natick school, had become a secretary to King Philip, chieftain of the Wampanoag tribe. He then moved back to Natick, was converted, and became the village schoolmaster. Now loyal to the English, Sassamon went to Plymouth Governor Winslow to warn that Philip was planning a campaign against the colony. A few days later Sassamon's body was found in a pond near his home. The Wampanoag murderers were found, tried, and hanged. King Philip used the execution of his tribesmen as an excuse for attacking the Massachusetts town of Swansea on June 24, 1675. The war had begun.

Eliot and his assistant Gookin planned to use the praying Indian villages as a line of defense, and several hundred of the Christian natives joined the English army and taught the white men how to cope with Indian tactics. However, the settlers soon became panicky even at the sight of a red face, and the General Court exiled the praying Indians to Deer Island in Boston harbor. Eliot and Gookin visited them frequently to offer whatever aid and comfort they could. But many Indians died there from exposure and lack of food.

In 1677, 162 Christian Indians returned to the four surviving towns. The war had made the Indians contemptible in the colonists' eyes and had made the English lose what little desire they had once possessed to Christianize the Indians. One Englishman even reported that the war was caused by "an imprudent zeal . . . to Christianize those heathen before they were civilized." John Eliot, now 72, became the target of abuse by many of his fellow New Englanders. But even as the older praying Indians died and new converts were few, Eliot continued to visit the towns every two weeks until he was physically unable to ride. Nor did he neglect his Roxbury parish, preaching to his faithful congregation until he could no longer walk to the church. Indian and Negro children still came to his home for lessons.

The Father of Modern Missions

John Eliot left this world for a better one on May 20, 1690. The remaining villages and the Natick church, already depleted by King Philip's War, now dwindled rapidly. After the church's Indian preacher, Daniel Tokkowampait, died in 1716, English clergymen led the decreasing assembly.

Was this dedicated missionary's work for naught, thwarted by a brief war started by an insignificant tribal chieftain? No—John Eliot not only led numerous Indians to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour, but his missionary endeavor set a pattern which earned him the title "Father of Modern Missions." Says one writer: "The American Indian mission . . . provided both inspiration and a model for the nineteenth-century advance . . . The young churches of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific islands are in a very real sense the fruits of the ministry of John Eliot." Not only have John Eliot's intense dedication and methods of establishing churches remained a pattern, but also his means of financial support. In London the first Protestant missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, was established for Eliot's financial benefit in 1649. It later grew into a worldwide mission.

Eliot left a bountiful legacy in other ways as well. The praying Indian villages survived him under English names such as Marlboro, Grafton, and Littleton. Natick kept its Indian name. The Roxbury Latin School, the grammar school Eliot founded, is still in operation. The Algonquin Bible and the Bay Psalm Book, which he co-authored with Richard Mather and Thomas Welch in 1640, are collector's items. Eliot's Indian grammar which gives principles for tackling an unwritten language with no grammatical rules, has been studied and used in the formation of laws for the comparative science of linguistics.

John Eliot stands as a tremendous example of what one man can accomplish when his life is dedicated to Christ. But his underlying motive for everything he did was to glorify God, not himself. Said the "Apostle to the Indians" while on his deathbed: "My doings! Alas, they have been poor and small, and lean doings, and I'll be the man that shall throw the first stone at them all."

Article Information

Title: John Eliot: Apostle to the Algonquins

Author: Sandra Harber

Year: 1975, Vol. 3 Num. 5

Faith for the Family was a magazine published by Bob Jones University from 1973 to 1986. Though now out of print, the universal principles shared in the articles still find relevance in today's Christian family. John Eliot: Apostle to the Algonquins appeared in 1975.