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John Eliot

John Eliot (1604-90), known as ‘the apostle to the Indians’ (1), was born in August 1604 at Widford in Hertfordshire, the son of Bennett Eliot, a yeoman of that county. He grew up at Nazeing, in Essex, and, some time in the year 1617-18, he went up to Jesus College Cambridge, as a pensioner, and matriculated on 20 March 1619. He took his B.A. degree in 1622. His strong Nonconformist opinions led him to depart for New England in 1631.

Eliot arrived in Boston on 4 November 1631, followed shortly afterwards by other members of his family and other neighbours from Essex, including Hanna Mumford, whom he married in October 1632. They had one daughter and five sons, only one of whom was to survive him. In November, he became the pastor of a church at Roxbury, near Boston, which he was to serve for the rest of his life. He founded a grammar school at Roxbury and helped prepare a metrical translation of the psalms, known as The Bay Psalm Book (2), for the use of his congregation.

It was as pastor at Roxbury that Eliot began to display the devotion to the spiritual and material welfare of the native (‘Indian’) population that distinguished him throughout his life. He set himself to learn Algonquin, the local native language and, after two years of study, began to preach to the native inhabitants. Eliot was not the first English settler to preach to the natives in their own language. Roger Williams, a fellow linguist and author of a Key to the Indian Language (3), had already done so at Plymouth and Providence. But Eliot was the first to devote his life to this task. His first pastoral visit to the natives was in October 1646, at a place called Nonantum (now Newton), in Massachusetts.

In 1649, a London-based Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel among the Indians of New England was set up by Parliament. In 1651, with financial help from the Corporation, Eliot established a native settlement at Natick, also in Massachusetts, which provided the natives with occupations, houses and clothes. Subsequently, thirteen more settlements were established. The first ‘Indian’ church was founded, at Natick, in 1660. The Corporation paid salaries to teachers and preachers, founded schools, and provided for the expense of printing translations.

Meanwhile, Eliot was working on his major achievement, the translation of the Bible into the Algonquin language. His first translations were of some short passages of Scriptures, including the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer and some of the psalms. Early in 1658, he wrote ‘The whole book of God is translated into their own language; it wanteth but revising, transcribing, and printing. Oh, that the Lord would so move, that by some means or other it may be printed’ (4). His prayer was answered by the Corporation for the Propagating of the Gospel, which financed the publication of his translations of the Book of Genesis and St Matthew’s Gospel, in August 1658, and of some of the psalms in December 1658. No copies of these early editions have survived.

In September 1661, his version of the New Testament was published, and a copy was sent to the recently restored Charles II. The complete Bible appeared in 1663, the first edition of the Bible to be published on the American continent and, again, a copy was sent to the king. Other copies were sent to Jesus College Cambridge and to Sion College London. Most of these Algonquin Bibles were destroyed, and the new settlements devastated, during the ‘Indian wars’ of the 1670s, and Eliot petitioned the Corporation to publish a new edition, a request that they eventually granted. Eliot undertook a thorough revision of his translation for the second edition, the revised version of the New Testament being published in 1681 and the Old Testament in 1685. In 1710, twenty years after Eliot’s death, which occurred on 20 May 1690, there was some talk of a third edition of the Bible, but by that time most of the ‘praying Indians’, as they were called, had learned to read English, and nothing came of the idea.

Eliot also wrote a number of other books, including The Christian Commonwealth, his most substantial work in English, which was published in 1659, and The Communion of Churches, published in 1665. His earliest volume in the Algonquin language was A Catechism in the Indian language, published in 1658, and he translated Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted and Practice of Piety into Algonquin, both of which were published in 1665. He also wrote The Indian Grammar Begun, a grammar of the Algonquin language, which was published in 1666, followed by The Indian Primer in 1669, and The Logic Primer in 1672. In 1678, he wrote The Harmony of the Gospels, a life of Christ compiled from the four gospels.

Although his publications were essentially adjuncts to his missionary work, they are regarded as being of considerable linguistic interest, even though the Algonquin language, like the people who spoke it, has long since been extinct. One linguist, Peter du Ponceau, wrote, in 1832, that Eliot ‘did not foresee, when he wrote his Indian grammar, that it would be sought after and studied by the learned of all nations, as a powerful help towards the improvement of a science not then in existence; I mean the Comparative Science of Languages’ (5).

  1. See O.E.Winslow: John Eliot: Apostle to the Indians. Boston, 1968.
  2. The Bay Psalm Book, a Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition of 1640. Chicago, 1956.
  3. Key to the Indian Language. Publications of the Narragansett Club. 1st Series. 1866.
  4. Letter to Thomas Thorowgood. Cited in O.E.Winslow: John Eliot: Apostle to the Indians, p.141.
  5. The Indian Grammar Begun. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections. 2nd Series. Cited in O.E Winslow: John Eliot: Apostle to the Indians, p.90.

Alex Perkins

John Eliot