Our Quest for the Historical John Eliot
The Question of Our Quest
The Rev. John Eliot (1604-1690), acclaimed as the “Apostle to the Indians” in his own lifetime, was chosen as our namesake by the founders of Eliot Church in 1845. The site of Eliot’s inaugural sermon to the native people on October 28, 1646 is a half-mile away from the church building, on an unprepossessing slope facing what is now a municipal golf course, but otherwise on a rather high set of hills overlooking the Quinobequin (meaning “meandering”) River, now the Charles River. His audience that day consisted of Waban, a sub-chief of this band of the Wampanoag tribe, and kindred families of his.
A stained glass pane in one of our church windows portrays Eliot in a prayerful gesture, surrounded by a half-dozen attentive, seated Indians, one of whom in chieftain garb also sits close by with bow in hand. The iconography memorializes the spiritual nature of Eliot’s relationship to the native peoples that persisted through the years of King Philip’s War (1675-78) and continued to the end of his life. For their own part, the Wampanoags had been curious, cautious, and careful to calculate their self-interest before these unpredictable English. Many observers then and scholars now doubt how deeply their spiritual interests or Eliot’s influence really ran. John Eliot himself was aware of this ambiguity. When it came to war finally, the ambiguities held tragic costs for the “praying Indians.”
This region of alternating forest, fertile fields and rugged coastline was occupied by numerous interrelated tribes continuously for 10,000 years, whose populations in 1646 had been severely reduced by illness brought by Europeans over the prior 50 years. When the English settlers arrived and John Eliot set out to convert the indigenous peoples, the subsequent destruction of the entire native population was set in motion. But what precise role did Eliot have in that destruction? What shall Eliot’s legacy be, and who is John Eliot to us at Eliot Church, today?
Our quest for the historical John Eliot will hopefully answer this question.
Rev. Richard Chrisman 6/21/2021
Land Equals Food
Taking this land from its peoples must have been like taking candy from a baby--as long as you crush the baby--such was the English juggernaut! Except, the peoples fought back, fought for it, fought for themselves--although, ultimately and catastrophically, losing everything.
The people called this land Dawnland, because it lies the farthest east, where the sun dawns, and where the unfortified, easternmost shores fatefully received the English representatives of the Bronze Age. After a period of about 40 years, jockeying warily around each other’s motivations, sword fatally met tomahawk, gunfire met torchfire, possess met defend.
The collision was absolute. The English were not going to be denied, having tasted the elixir called free land, land “granted” unilaterally by the crowns of Europe to any who would occupy and settle it. That was called “owning” land, owning property with exclusive rights to use or re-sell it. In feudal Europe, land was divided up solely among the landed, except for the “common” where the peasantry grazed their livestock until the commons were taken away in the 18th century. But in New England, any white adult male Christian could rule over a private fief for the taking. Such possession was unknown among the native peoples who only “owned” land by usage (called “usufruct rights”). The English overwhelmed the indigenous peoples because the English were intoxicated, they were land-intoxicated.
Land means survival because land means food--but not automatically. There is no food ready at hand as you look out upon an expanse of forest. The colonists thought it was an empty wilderness, but the Indians successfully practiced a wide range of subsistence methods over a continent-wide expanse for millennia. The colonists eventually caught on, and survived, but fatefully adding to hunt and agriculture the profits of mercantilism--natural resources were converted into cash and profit. Land treated as capital became the engine of wealth, exactly what was denied to native Americans, at the same time that it led to the degradation of the environment we know today (Cronon, 169-70).
A fatal incompatibility was at work--something, someone, had to give. The indigenous peoples were forced to give it all up--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
*Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: 1993, 2003).
The Smell of Land
“For the entirety of the 16th century, maps of New England consisted of a single line separating ocean from land. . . the interior remained blank.” (*)
As far as the newest arrivals were concerned, the unpopulated continent was theirs for the taking. That assumption governed every decision they made as settlers, as church people, as a people essentially self-governed through their General Court, and it governed their reactions to the indigenous peoples whom they immediately encountered. The quaint assumption of the crowns of Europe that they only need plant a flag in the ground to claim entire regions and then parcel portions out to deserving minions was birthed by the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal edict of 1493 (the year after Columbus “discovered” America) asserting non-Christian lands could be seized from their occupants by fiat.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” wrote our great national poet, Robert Frost. This beautiful, but unhistorical line, gave the lie to those who knew the land first--the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, and Nipmuc tribes. They would rewrite Frost this way: “We are owned by the land even if you don’t own the land.” Because, a whole people, entire cultures, a civilization existed where our maps had shown none.
Uniquely adapted to the “wilderness” which met the colonists, native Americans had developed an existence that could be described as homeostatic--balanced. All their senses were tuned to their aesthetic and spiritual existence, and survival. Think of what the smell of your natal ground means to you when you visit again--an intangible savoring of the life force itself. But unless you grew up on a farm, you lived at several--many!--removes from the soil, the seasonal cycles, the intimate messages of the distant lights of the sky. Native Americans were owned by the land under the sky.
For the English colonists, what they smelled as they forced their way into the land from the coastal lowlands was the smell of money. The native Americans could not possibly have gauged the ferocity with which the settlers would vie not just for a foothold but for the primacy needed to guarantee their economic independence from the mother country. The settlers did not hate the Indians--they just wanted them out of the way. (**) When they fought back, a violence was released from the settlers that pushed the weakened natives back to the Connecticut River and beyond. The settlers’ own violence, once open warfare broke out, so alarmed the pious colonists that the clergy declared a day of fasting and mourning--although it failed to abate the violence. The smell of land overruled their humanity.
(*) Cronon, Changes in the Land (1983, 2003).
(**) MacDougall, Freedom Is Just around the Corner (2004).
Riddle: When is a minister a missionary?
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, for departure from orthodoxy.
Like Dimmesdale, was John Eliot living a lie. We see a minister who is committed to preaching the Bible, like Dimmesdale, but 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. 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 just 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 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. 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; Eliot lived the truth, at least, the spiritual truth as he saw it. He was trying to bring light and life to others—hence, the “Apostle” title. Dimmesdale on the other hand, wouldn’t have confessed except for collapsing under the weight of his guilt. 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 for the next Teaspoon.
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.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman
Religious Upheaval in England of John Eliot’s time.
1517 - Martin Luther posts 95 theses for the Roman Catholic Church to debate with him, initiating the Protestant Reformation.
1534 - Henry VIII assumes the role of Supreme Head of the English Church.
Protestant and Catholic monarchs in England vie for power. Bloody persecutions with every change of monarch.
1604 - birth of John Eliot in Hertfordshire, England.
1618-1648 - Thirty Year (religious) War in Europe.
1607 - Separatists flee to Holland, first stop for the Pilgrims.
1620 - Separatists sail to the New World and land in Plymouth.
1630 - Puritan Non-Conformists seek religious freedom in the New World and found the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston).
1631 - 27-year-old John Eliot, a Non-Conformist, comes to Boston.
1642 - beginning of the English Civil War.
1646 - John Eliot preaches to the Wampanoag natives at Nonantum.
1647 - Charles I beheaded.
1649 - Establishment of the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell
1660 - Restoration of the English Monarchy with Charles II and reinstatement of the Anglican Church hierarchy.
1663 - Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquin, with the help of several Native Americans, published.
1673 - the Test Act in England requiring loyalty to the crown and the Anglican faith.
1678 - The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan published in England.
1690 - Eliot dies.