Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John Eliot,
the Apostle of the Indians

The white men who came to America had two ways of dealing with the Indians. One way was with the musket and the sword; the other was with the Bible and the voice of justice and peace. Most men took the first way; a few only took the second. One of these was Roger Williams, whose story we have told. Another was John Eliot, whose story we have now to tell.

While Roger Williams was raising his voice for justice to the Indians and going among them in the interest of peace, John Eliot was carrying to them the Word of God and devoting his life to bringing them into the fold of Christ. He was one of those noble-hearted heroes of good to whom life means only work for the benefit of the poor and ignorant, and he won fame by his earnestness in doing his duty.

John Eliot was born in England of a Puritan family. He was educated at the University of Cambridge, where he showed much quickness in the study of languages. It was this that helped him in later years, when he began his famous work of translating the Bible into the speech of the Indians.

He was one of the early settlers of Boston, where he preached for a time, afterwards going to a church in Roxbury. The people he preached to thought a great deal of him, and he was very successful among them, but all the time, in his home and in the pulpit, there was another matter in his mind. He could not help thinking of the poor pagan savages, the old owners of the land. From the day he landed and saw for himself the ways of life of the ignorant natives his soul was filled with the desire to teach and uplift them. He longed to convert them from superstition to Christianity and to bring them out of their wild and savage ways.

Title-page of Eliot's Algonquin Bible


This matter got into the good man's heart and soul. It was with him day and night. Finally be could bear it no longer, but made up his mind to give up his church and to go out into the wilderness among the Indians, to live with them, preach to them, and teach them the truths of the Christian faith.

But before doing this he felt that he must learn their mode of speech, so that he could talk to them in their own tongue and be sure that they understood him. He wanted to speak like them and live like them, and in this way to gain influence over them. He had, as we have said, a talent for languages, and after a good deal of hard study he got to know that of the neighboring Indians very well. It is doubtful if any other white man ever knew it so well, as will be seen when you have read all that he did with it.

When he was able to talk with the Indians easily he left the settlements and went among them, to spend his he in their wigwams, telling them what the Bible contained and teaching them better ways of living. They gathered around him in their villages and listened eagerly to him, ready and glad to hear all he had to say, for they saw that this white man was their friend. On mossy banks and in quiet dales, on the verdant shores of streams or among the dwellings of the natives, he would talk to them of virtue and honor and good living, and he soon had many ardent followers.

When we read of his work, in the quaint old record he made of it, we are interested in the curious questions they asked him. One Indian did not think that Jesus Christ could understand a prayer in the Indian language. And when he told them the story of the deluge, he was asked how the world became full of people after they had all been drowned. These and others of the kind were natural questions, but it is likely he found easy answers to them. Of course he had to talk in a very simple way to make his uneducated hearers understand him.

You may be sure that Eliot did not find his new life an easy or comfortable one. All the red men were not his friends. Some of them doubted and suspected him, others were angry with him for asking them to give up their old beliefs. He needed to be a brave and daring man, for his life was often in danger. Some of the chiefs did all they could to stop his work, telling their people that he was seeking to bring them under the rule of the white man, and trying to frighten him by threats. And the medicine men, the priests of the Indians, were bitter against him, for they feared that they would lose their power if he went on with his teachings.

But nothing could stop the ardent missionary in his work. He went from village to village and from tribe to tribe, dwelling in their wigwams, living on their food, and adopting their ways. He made long journeys on foot through the wilderness, enduring the hardships of cold and hunger, passing through many perils, but always cheerful, never repining. He was held up by faith and confidence in his mission, and said, "I am about the work of God; I need not fear."

But we have not told the greatest work done by John Eliot, one of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken by any missionary to the Indians. Finding that he needed written as well as spoken words to aid him in his duties, he undertook the enormous labor of translating the whole Bible into the Indian language. This wonderful performance was done not for his own benefit, but to aid all Christian laborers among the Indians. And to make this easy for others, he also wrote an Indian grammar to assist them in learning the speech of the natives.

This would seem enough for any one man, but it was a small part of Eliot's work. What he most wished to do was to collect the men and women he converted to the Christian faith into separate towns, that they might give up their savage life and take up the habits of civilized people. But he did not want these towns to be too near the English settlements. He thought it best to have his converts live by themselves, and away from the influence of the white people.

So he settled his "praying Indians," as they were called, on tracts of land far from the settlements, taught them how to raise other crops than corn, and gave them instruction in many of the industries of the whites.

The first town founded by him was at Natick, Massachusetts. This was in the year 1660. The meeting-house there was the first ever built by Protestants for Indian use, though the Jesuits of Canada had several in their settlements along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Before Eliot's work ended he had established thirteen or more little Indian settlements, in which he aimed to make peace and industry the rule and the Bible the law and guide of the people.

But the disturbances and the wars among the Indians interfered greatly with the work of this noble and devoted pioneer of the Christian faith. The injustice of the whites troubled him exceedingly, and the bloody struggle known as King Philip's War went far to destroy all the good he had done. At that time, it is thought, America had about five thousand "praying Indians."

After the war the whites were very bitter against the Indians and treated them cruelly, many of them being sold into slavery. Eliot did all he could for the protection of his peaceful converts, but his life's work was ruined by the war, and it was too late to begin it again. He was now an old man, too feeble to preach, yet he continued to do what he could, and to the end of his life went on writing religious books, not willing to cease while a hope of doing good was left.

The great work of his life, the Indian Bible, was published in 1663. No man had ever accomplished a greater or more unselfish task. Only two editions of it were ever printed, for with the destruction which fell upon the Indians of that region few were left who could speak the Indian dialect in which it was written. But it remains an imperishable honor to the memory of the great John Eliot.

He lived to be eighty-six years of age, dying ripe in years and honors on the twentieth of May, 1690, at Roxbury, Massachusetts. In his death passed away one of the noblest of men.