The History of 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 1622i. His strong Nonconformist opinions led him to depart for New England in 1631ii.
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 languageiii. 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 ivOctober 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 Parliamentv. 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 psalmsvi. 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 1670svii, 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 Commonwealthviii, 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).
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i When did you graduate from college? Jesus College at Cambridge at 18
ii When did you come to the colonies? At 27, married a woman from my village, got a job at a village church in Roxbury about 5 miles from Boston and stayed there the rest of my life. Job security. The church is still called the Eliot church.
iii How did you get involved with the local natives? Studied their language for two years and began preaching to them in the late 1640s. I was in my early 40s at the time. Roger Williams, another minister was also preaching in their language. He and I were about the same age and came to the colonies about the same time. He left off teaching when he began to think that the churches in the colonies were not "separate" enough. The he left to settle in the south, what is now Providence and his preaching to the Indians subsided. I was comfortable with the separateness of the Roxbury church and also that Indians should be baptized so I continued working with the Indians all my life.
iv Were the Indians around your church in Roxbury? No, my early contacts were when a group of us went to an Indian settlement about 10 miles west into the forest. A place called Nonantum. It's in a town that is now called Newton although that part of Newton is still called Nonantum. And the locals still have canoes there. You can see them from the high road.
v What made you think about translating the Bible? You get to know a people by learning their language. I developed a real respect for their culture and history and wanted to help them maintain their uniqueness and, at the same time, introducing them to Christianity and baptizing them. Roger Williams and I were similar in that respect. He respected and loved the Indians' culture. He was working with the Narragansetts and I was working with the Algonquins.
About the time I started working with the Indians, the English civil war broke out and Cromwell deposed King Charles and set up England as a Commonwealth. A couple years later, Parliament set up a group called Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel among the Indians of New England. I think you Americans call it "nation building" today but we thought of it as Christian conversion.
I applied for a grant and got money to set up Indian towns where they could continue with their culture and language but also function as Christians. We established the first town in what you now call Natick and went on to found other towns. The towns had Indian names at the time but now you know them as: Littleton, Lowell, Grafton, Marlborough, Canton, Hopkinton, and Mendon. We used some of the money for clothes, housing, and education and to hire teachers and preachers, much like you do in the 21st century in countries over near the holy land.
Once we established towns and functioning churches, I wanted to provide the emerging ministers with a Bible. The Indians had no written language so I experimented with translating phonetically using English sounds and alphabet but continuing the Algonquin language syntax and semantics. I'm told that linguists in the 19th century used my translations to study Algonquin. By that time the language and its speakers were long extinct. My translations helped form the modern science of Comparative Languages.
vi The Bible is a massive document. How did you come to translate such a large work? I started with the obvious things like the Lords Prayer, the Commandments, some scripture, and some of the Psalms. Once I demonstrated that it could be done and was used, Corporation for the propagation of the Gospel gave me another grant and I did Genesis and Matthew. And we were then on our way. More grants followed and the New Testament was printed as a complete volume in 1661 and the complete bible in 1663 sort of a 60th birthday present for me. By the way, it was the first Bible printed in the colonies. Those first editions are now worth, I'm told, millions of your dollars.
vii What happened to those Indian towns? A terrible tragedy, the white settlers attacked them during the Indian wars of the 1670 when I was in my 70s. Those villages were not involved in any way in the fighting but they were easy targets for enraged colonists. Seems to be similar to what happens in the 21 century to model villages and countries set up by you Americans. I did go back for a grant to re-publish the translated bible since many of them were destroyed when the towns were sacked and burned. I got the grant and a 2nd edition came out. I understand that your library has one here and you can look at it and touch it.
viii Did you publish any other books? Yes, I wrote a book called The Christian Commonwealth: or The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ in 1649. Again, Roger Williams and I were on a similar line of thinking. Based on our observation and knowledge of the Indian approach to government, both Williams and I proposed a real separation of church and state. Our ideas were echoed in the First Amendment to your constitution on separation of church and state. Again, you folks seem to be revisiting that issue today. "Williams was the first to use the phrase "wall of separation" to describe the relationship of the church and state. He called for a high wall of separation between the "Garden of Christ" and the "Wilderness of the World." This idea is one of the foundations of the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In 1802 Thomas Jefferson, writing of the "wall of separation" echoed Roger Williams in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
My book was banned in the colonies because it embarrassed the colonial leaders once Cromwell died in 1658 and Charles II ascended to the throne. I mentioned that the true heir to the crown of England was Christ, and all other countries too. That did not set too well with the European concept of "the divine right of kings". I based it on Exodus 18 when Moses instituted a government among the Israelites in the wilderness. I guess you could say I was a century ahead of my time.
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