Eliot, John, 1604 - 1690

John Eliot (1604-May 21, 1690), the noted Puritan clergyman to the Indians, was born in Widford, England, in late July or early Aug. 1604. He matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1619 and received a B.A. in 1622. Thereafter, he served as usher or assistant master to Thomas Hooker’s Puritan academy at Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex. After Archbishop William Laud closed the academy, Eliot migrated to New England arriving at Boston on Nov. 3, 1631. He took the position of teacher to the Roxbury Church serving under the Rev. Thomas Weld. When Weld was sent on a fundraising mission to England in 1641, Eliot became minister of the Roxbury Church, a position he held until the end of his life. He also served as Overseer of Harvard College (1642-1685).

Sometime after he became pastor of Roxbury Church, Eliot began to study the Algonquian language of the Massachusett and was preaching to local natives in their own language by the late 1640s. When the government in England chartered the “Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England” (1649), Eliot received more money for his missionary work and began to establish towns of “praying Indians.” The first was in Natick (1650-51), followed by thirteen more by 1674, with a total population of about 1,100 Indians. Eliot began the laborious task of translating the Bible into the Algonquian language in 1653. With a press established in Cambridge as a gift from English supporters, Eliot and a number of his Indian assistants printed the New Testament in 1661, followed by the Old Testament in 1663, making these efforts the first complete Bible to be printed on the American continent. Eliot's team translated other works into Massachusetts, including primers and one-page catechisms. Eliot’s writings and his sponsored work were published as the Eliot Indian Tracts between 1647 and 1671. 

King Philip’s War caused many of the Christianized Indians from Natick to flee to Boston, where they, and other Indian captives, were subsequently forced to Deer Island in Boston Harbor.   Around this time Eliot wrote a petition to the Governor and Council of Massachusetts arguing against enslaving Indians, although opinions like his were minority voices within the Colony. 

The war marked the end of general support for Eliot’s missionary work, as New England Puritans no longer viewed Indians as well-suited for the "New England way."  Increasingly, Native people were viewed as the “other” who were incompatible with European settlement and Puritanism itself.  During the war, many of the Praying Indian towns were destroyed or the communities living there were relocated.  Eliot spent the post-war years trying to reestablish some of the villages.  He died in 1690 at 85 years old.

ODNBANB; Robert J. Naeher, "Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival," New England Quarterly, vol. 62 (1989), 346-68; Shurtleff, Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, vol. 9, 203-4; vol. 10, 451-3.  Portait of John Eliot by Unknown - Roxbury Latin School, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Late July or pre Aug. 5, 1604
May 21, 1690