John Eliot

Apostle to the Indians

A full 150 years before the modern missionary movement, John Eliot was successfully evangelizing native Americans. Yet forces beyond his control would destroy his life’s work.

Eliot’s wealthy English father sent him to Cambridge. Afterward Eliot taught grammar school and met Thomas Hooker, the man chiefly responsible for his conversion: “When I came to this blessed family I then saw, and never before, the power of godliness in its lively vigor and efficacy.”

In 1631, as church leaders applied heat to English Puritans, Eliot emigrated to America. He became pastor of the church in Roxbury, composed of many of his English friends. The following year, he married Ann (Hannah) Mumford.

The main legacy of Eliot’s early years is his work on the Bay Psalm Book (1640), which put the Psalms in metrical verse. This famous hymnbook was the first book published in America.

Eliot was frugal, eating just one plain dish for dinner. Of wine he said, “It is a noble, generous liquor … but as I remember, water was made before it.” He was deeply against the use of tobacco, and wigs or long hair on men.

However, Eliot cared deeply for the Indians. At Roxbury, he began learning Algonkian, and by 1647 was preaching in the native tongue. He began translating and in 1663 published the entire Algonkian Bible—the first Bible printed in America.

Eliot helped organize towns in which native Americans managed local affairs in their own way. By 1674, there were fourteen towns with a total of 1,100 “praying Indians.” He began giving some natives ministerial training.

Tragically, the bloody King Philip’s War (1675–76) between Wampanoags and the English, undid all his efforts. Though the “praying Indians” supported ...

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