When is a minister a missionary? When the minister is the Rev. John Eliot.
John Eliot was a minister before he was a missionary. But he eventually became a passionate and compassionate missionary. The image portrayed in the emblems of John Eliot proselytizing the native Americans is not fully representative, as no one image can be, of course. But our stained glass portrayal of him needs completion and complexification. I hope we will take on that project this summer.
To understand the Eliot story, though, first it’s necessary to understand Christian ministry, at least better than people generally do. How does anyone decide to become a minister, anyway? Why do people want to be ministers? What is behind what is known as a call from God? Where does the imperative to preach and teach the Word of God come from? Where does the missionary impulse come from that marks world history the way that it has. Where does John Eliot fit among the 2000 years of ministers before and after him?
Where can we turn for answers to these questions, for insight into Christian ministry, its motivation and purpose, outside of the usual theological tomes? It is tempting to start with the infamous Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale from Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter.
The story takes place in our colonial Boston in 1642, just ten years after Eliot’s own arrival here at the age of 27. The novel features the minister of Boston’s first church, the actual John Wilson, for whom the actual John Eliot substituted for nine months while Wilson was in London persuading his wife to come to New England. Eliot had never served a congregation before, and that should tell us something of his maturity and spiritual capacities. It is a fun fact–drum roll–Eliot himself gets a cameo reference in Hawthorne’s novel as the object of a visit by Dimmesdale to “the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian converts.” Eliot would be known to Hawthorne’s 19th century readers as a saint, so the reference is in purposeful contrast to Dimmesdale. Rev. Dimmesdale suffers in anguish over a sin he only confesses to after seven years upon his death. This leaves the woman, Hester Prynne, to continue bearing the burden of punishment all alone. His training, his community, and his Bible told him he was grievously wrong. But he knew his offense would be professionally terminal as it would be, in fact, today for violating parishioner/minister boundaries. Dimmesdale could not bear the pain of public shaming.
Hawthorne portrays the Puritan ministers as a gloomy bunch. Hawthorne’s caricature is rooted in truth. They preached a strict Calvinist doctrine of sin and sanctification on earth, heaven or hell in the afterlife. It illustrates the gravity with which colonial religion was taken—both government and religion revolved around the Bible. It was a theocratic state, and strict uniformity of belief was paramount in importance. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished from Boston in Eliot’s time, and so was Mary Dyer who was executed by them.
Compare this picture of ministry with the one portrayed in Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, The Apostle. There are remarkable parallels between our Rev. Eliot and the protagonist, Rev. Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey. They aren’t obvious at first, because of the huge distance between them in time and culture. The movie opens with Sonny coming upon a multi-vehicle car accident beside the highway. The police have already arrived and the ambulances can be heard. Sonny pulls right over, grabs his Bible, and approaches one of the cars which, he discovers, has two young people in the front seat apparently mortally injured. Sonny prays first then reaches his head in to speak to the young man about God’s love for him. Sonny would appear to be following the standard formula we associate with fundamentalist Christianity, but we are persuaded of the genuine importance of this to the fate of the dying boy. Prayer is always close to the surface–Sonny drops into it readily like dropping to your knees. So Sonny gets shooed away by the police and goes on his way back to home and church where his ministry is being overthrown by his musician wife and her lover, the youth minister. We learn that Sonny is a dynamic preacher sought after on the tent meeting circuit, but that he is also an overbearing, abusive husband. When his wife’s lover shows up at the Little League field for his son’s game one day, Sonny takes a baseball bat to the youth minister and leaves him possibly dead and tended to by the spectators. Sonny knows what he has done and flees the scene and home and town altogether. He travels incognito to evade justice and takes up life as a missionary. He calls himself “Apostle E.F.,” being his initials. He tells no one of his origins nor, of course, what he has left behind. With the help of a retired black preacher, he starts a church that becomes a modest success in the town, complete with radio broadcasts and revivals.
Like Dimmesdale, Sonny too is living a lie. Or is he? We see a minister who is committed to preaching the Bible, like Dimmesdale, but with a difference. Sonny certainly is deeply flawed personally–anger management problems and homicide. But in the holiness faith he practices, Sonny exemplifies a prime characteristic of ministry–they know the Bible so well, they are so close to the world of the Bible, that they seem to be living the story, living IN the story. Sonny’s well-thumbed volume finds its way into his conversation, his preaching and his praying. The Bible’s widely disparate elements nevertheless form an interconnected archipelago of images and personages that are constantly ready to hand. The minds of his people are saturated in the Bible’s dramatis personae. You listen to Sonny speak, and it makes a kind of word jazz. He loops the symbols around and through each other continuously.
I repeat, ministers live the story, they live IN the story. They will one thing and one thing only, to see the Word become alive in others, so alive that Abraham can speak to Moses, and Joshua can speak to Jesus and Mary can speak to Miriam. Ministers don’t care about people living a “spiritual life” or adopting spiritual practices—we want each person to give up “the good life” for “a good life.” The news, and it is news, that a good life is even possible becomes the prime responsibility of such men and women to proclaim–like the newspapers which years ago had little boys on street corners shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it–!” In a world where goodness is scarce, the good word of God has to come out. When the obviousness of the good news emerges from obscurity, the result is excitement, enthusiasm, possession by the Holy Spirit. The Good Book contains sacred words, and so it is a sacred object, a talisman. In the movie, Sonny places the book on the ground before the advancing bulldozer driven by a hostile skeptic, and it stops him. It’s a holy object with holy powers. That leads us to the importance of translation into the local vernacular–just as Luther and his martyred predecessors did before him, John Eliot did when he translated the Bible into Algonquin, with the help of 5 or 6 very intelligent young native men.
Dimmesdale lived a lie; Sonny Dewey lived the truth, at least, the spiritual truth as he saw it. He was trying to avoid being caught for more time to bring light and life to others–hence, the “apostle” title. Of course, he knew the day was coming, and should come, when the piper had to be paid. Dimmesdale on the other hand, wouldn’t have confessed except for collapsing under the weight of his guilt. Sonny is remanded to his expected punishment, but nothing changes his mission. This minister remains ever the missionary, as was Eliot and perhaps every minister.
Ministers are god-intoxicated men and women. Religion, in the minds of the god-intoxicated, is a total thing. And not only John Eliot, but every minister is in some degree a missionary, some set apart to evangelize his/her congregation, others to be sent out (“apostle” means sent away) to dispense this indispensable knowledge among the unbelievers, sometimes to foreign countries.
The question we are left with is, when it comes to evangelizing, how could something so not-the-point become the point? In Eliot’s day, and before him and after, the proof of faith meant assenting to intellectual formulas. The Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ were taught at the point of a sword; in American revivalistic religion, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior issues from emotional manipulation. It’s what one scholar calls, “the invasion within.” Christ has been prosecuted with a kind of madness, even cruelty, to enjoy someone forced into submission beneath the economic expansion of empires.
But this is not true of all Christian missions. Eliot’s conduct was very different, we will learn further down the road. The Puritan minister-become-missionary was more pastoral and more practically oriented when it came to his indigenous constituency. But for that story we have to wait.
What we see today is that a minister has a Book and an alternative Life to share, be it near or far, or foul or fair.