Eliot, John.  (1604 - 1690)

 Domain: Literature, Religion.
 Teacher, Missionary, Pamphleteer, Translator, Theologian, Biographer
 Active 1640 - 1690 in North America

John Eliot was a Puritan missionary in the Massachusetts Bay area, and for his work with Algonquian tribes he was dubbed “Apostle to the Indians.” In 1631 Eliot sailed to the New World on board the Lyon, following other first-generation ministers to New England. During his long career in the colony, from 1631 until his death in 1690, Eliot distinguished himself as a preacher, writer and translator.

Eliot was born in Hertfordshire, England, and was baptised at St. John the Baptist Church in Widford, around twenty miles from London. His father Bennett Eliot was a landowner, and was wealthy enough to send his son John to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he studied under the charge of Reverend Thomas Hooker. When Eliot arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1631 he took up the position of minister to the Puritan Congregationalist church at Roxbury. The following year he married Hannah or Anna Mumford and together they had six children, several of whom died in infancy or early adulthood.

In addition to his duties as a minister at Roxbury, Eliot began preaching to Algonquian tribes in their own language sometime between 1643 and 1646, and by 1650 Eliot had acquired land for Praying Indians (Indians who had converted to Christianity) to establish their own town at Natick. Natick was the first of eleven Praying Towns for which Eliot was responsible, and these are detailed in one of Eliot’s missionary tracts, which was titled A Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New- England (London, 1671).

Eliot’s translations are his best-known publications, beginning with a collaborative translation called The Bay Psalm Book (Cambridge, 1640). Together with Richard Mather and Thomas Welde, Eliot translated the Psalms from Hebrew into English for New England Congregationalist church members, and this publication has been credited as New England’s first published book. Eliot is also responsible for the first published Bible in North America. With the assistance of skilled Algonquian translators, including Cockenoe, John Sassomon, Job Nesutan, James Printer, and Monequasson, Eliot published the complete Algonquian Bible, Mamvsse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1663), which was reprinted in 1685.

In addition to his interest in language and linguistics, Eliot’s missionary pamphlets demonstrate his continued interested in the colony’s relationship with England. A series of eleven missionary tracts, which contain many of his letters and narratives, were sent to England between the years 1643-1671 and were published by the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel. To a large extent, these missionary tracts took the form of promotional pamphlets which aimed to boost the reputation of the colony amid claims of ill-treatment from former residents. Also, the tracts were designed to encourage financial contributions from wealthy individuals and congregations to support the continuation of Eliot’s mission. In general, the tracts contain narratives of Indian conversions to Christianity and also claim to document verbatim accounts of individual confession narratives, many of which appear in Tears of Repentance (London, 1653) and A Further Account of the Progress of the Gospel (London, 1660).

One of Eliot’s later and most unusual publications was Indian Dialogues (Cambridge, 1670). In this publication Eliot constructs four dialogues between Algonquian speakers; some of the characters are fictional and some are fictionalised representations of seventeenth-century Algonquian Indians, and each dialogue is dedicated to the furtherance of Christianity among Algonquian tribes. Eliot’s final publication, Dying Speeches of Several Indians (Cambridge, 1685), continues to demonstrate his interest in recording the Algonquian voice and each speech takes the form a death-bed confession or monologue, where Indian speakers account for their lives and their religious beliefs.

Cotton Mather, Eliot’s first biographer, supposes: “He that will write of Eliot, must write of Charity, or say nothing. His Charity was a star of the First Magnitude in the bright Constellation of his Vertues; and the Rays of it were wonderfully various and extensive.” (Magnalia Christa Americana, Book III, London, 1698, p.181) While religious tastes and cultural analysis have changed, leading recent critics including Francis Jennings and Neal Salisbury to contend that Eliot’s religious fervour was a form of cultural genocide, it remains a fact that his influence continues in some strands of Algonquian society. In the forward to the recently reprinted Indian Grammar (1666), Caring Hands, Touohkomuck Silva Clan Sachem of Natick Praying Indians, writes: “Today many Algonquian Natives utilize Eliot’s works for their language reaffirmation and / or spirituality... Kuttabotomish to the Reverend John Eliot, whose gifts to our people have spanned over 350 years and continue to reach his beloved Praying Indians.” (The Indian Grammar Begun. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 2001).