© Duane A. Cline 2002
PRESERVATION OF THE INDIAN LANGUAGE
Following the decimation of the Native American population in King Philips War in 1675, the Native population was so reduced and dispersed that their language was finally lost. The Native Americans who survived were so fearful of the European settlers that they tried to conceal their Native American heritage and take on the appearance and speech of the settlers.
As a result, the Native American language of the Wampanoag people slowly became extinct. The language of the Wampanoag people has not been spoken as a common language for about seven generations. Only recently has there been a renewed interest in trying to retrieve the language of the Wampanoag – a daunting task, indeed. Fortunately the entire Bible and a few other writings had been translated into the Massachusett language by John Eliot while it was still a vital language. Through great effort, it is hoped the language can be revived.
John Eliot was born about 1604 in Widford, Hertfordshire, England, the son of Bennett Eliot, a yeoman who was a landholder in the parishes of Ware, Widford, Hansdon and Estweeke. John was baptized on 5 August 1604.
He matriculated at Jesus College Cambridge University on 20 March 1619 as a “pensioner,” which meant he paid his own expenses at Jesus College. His father died the year before John received his A.B. degree from Cambridge in 1622. In his father’s will John was provided financial assistance for his maintenance at Cambridge, “where he is a Scholar.”
After leaving Cambridge, John taught for nine years in a grammar school which had been established by Rev. Thomas Hooker at Little Braddow, near Chelmsford, England. There he came under the Puritan influence and decided to become a minister.
Since the Church of England was still dealing harshly with anyone who did not conform to its doctrines and ordinances, John emigrated to New England, landing in Boston on 4 November 1631. On his arrival in New England John pastored a church in Boston for a while before he was ordained to serve the church at Roxbury, Mass.
Apparently, John had become engaged to a woman before leaving England. She came to New England in 1632 and they were married at Roxbury on 4 September 1632.
During the next few years, John developed a deep interest in the neighboring Indians, their language and their culture. In collaboration with his colleague, Rev. Thomas Mather, and neighbor, Rev, Richard Mather, of nearby Dorchester, Eliot translated “The Psalms of David” into the Indian language. He began to preach to the Indians in 1646.
There is an account of his first meeting with the Indians in his book, “The Daybreaking, if not Sunrising, of the Gospel with the Indians in New England,” London, 1647. He tells how on 28 October 1646 four of them went to the wigwam of Waaubon at Nonantum, which was located in the northeast corner of Newton (about five miles from Roxbury). There they met with a group of Indian men, women and children who had gathered from the surrounding area. John opened the meeting with a prayer in English and proceeded to preach for an hour and a quarter in their own language, following which there was a period of questions and answers. The meeting lasted about three hours, during which apples were given to women and children and tobacco to the men.
By 1651 Natick had been selected as the place for an Indian church and community to be organized for the settlement of the “praying Indians” from the surrounding area. It was seventeen miles from Boston and some distance from the groups of early settlers. In 1653 or 1654 Eliot produced his “Catechism,“ which was probably the first book to be printed in the Indian language. By 1655 Eliot had prepared the “Book of Genesis” and the “Gospel of Matthew.” They were printed at Cambridge in 1662.
The Natick church was formed and a civil government established in 1660. The new Indian community was opposed by a number of Indians and colonists alike. Eliot organized towns for Indian converts where they could preserve their own language and culture and live by their own laws. Through the next few years fourteen of those towns were established with the total converts numbering about four thousand. By 1674 each of the communities had a school where the Indians were taught English and handicrafts. While the towns prospered, Eliot prepared Indians to become missionaries to their own people. Daniel Takawambpait became the first Indian minister in New England when he was ordained at Natick in 1681.
The establishment of those Indian towns met with angry opposition from many of the Indians and settlers alike. However, they prospered until 1675 when King Philip’s War created havoc. After the war four of the communities were re-established, but did not continue long. The Natick church, which was originally established in 1660, managed to continue until the death of their last pastor, Daniel Takawambpait, in 1716.
In 1660 Thomas Thorowgood made the first reference to John Eliot as the “Indian Apostle,” a designation which has continued to be associated with Eliot to this day.
The entire New Testament was printed at Cambridge in 1661, and the next year a second edition of the “Catechism” was printed there.
A small edition of “The Psalms of David” was published at Cambridge in 1662 , and the same year a second edition of the “Catechism” was printed.
In 1663 “The Old Testament” was printed and bound together with a metrical version of the “Psalms.” This has been considered the first Bible printed in America. A second edition of “The New Testament” was printed in 1680, and in 1685 it was printed and bound with the “Old Testament.”
Other books written by Eliot were: “The Christian Commonwealth,” 1659; “The Communion of the Churches,” 1665; The Indian Primer” 1669; “Harmony of the Gospels,” 1678; and in 1689 his Indian translation of “The Sincere Convert” by Rev. Thomas Shepard was published.
He had also been a major contributor to the “Bay Psalm Book.”
After a long illness, John Eliot died at Roxbury, Mass., on 21 May 1690. In Eliot’s honor, May 21 is celebrated by some as “Saint Day of John Eliot.”