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John Eliot

1604-1690. “Apostle to the Indians.” Born in England, he graduated at Cambridge in 1622, was ordained in the Church of England, and taught for a time at an Essex school run by Thomas Hooker,* whose views were decidedly Nonconformist. Eliot came to share them, and this led to his leaving for the New World in 1631. In 1632 he became teacher to the church at Roxbury, which connection he retained until his death. Having perfected himself in the Indian dialects, he began his work among them in 1646. Having soon discovered that they preferred to live by themselves, he had by 1674 gathered his “praying Indians” (numbered at 3,600) into fourteen self- governing communities. The work at Natick, where the first Indian church was founded in 1660, was to continue until the death of the last native pastor in 1716. Eliot arranged for them to have jobs, housing, land, clothes. Teetotaler and nonsmoker himself, he did not forbid alcohol and tobacco to his converts. His fellow ministers, among whom he was held in high respect, approved his work, and money for the founding of schools and other purposes came in, even from England.

The medicine men were hostile, and when the war associated with King Philip's name broke out, a severe blow was struck to the mission cause. It was some years before enough support could again be enlisted. Eliot never despaired, and in 1689 gave seventy-five acres of land in Roxbury for the teaching of Indians and Negroes (he may have been the first to champion the latter also).

His literary zeal was not abandoned despite the incessant demands of his ministry. With Richard Mather and Thomas Welch he prepared for printing in 1640 an English metrical version of the Psalms. This Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in New England. He translated many works into the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonkian language; here his crowning achievement was the Bible (1661-63), the first time the Scriptures had been printed in North America. With the help of his sons he produced also an Indian grammar (1666). His translation of the Larger Catechism followed in 1669. He published also The Christian Commonwealth (1659), which curious work on government was suppressed by the authorities for its republican sympathies. Finally, his Harmony of the Gospels (1678) was a life of Jesus Christ. Renowned for learning, piety, evangelistic zeal, and practical wisdom, Eliot lived to a great age. “He that writes of Eliot,” said Cotton Mather, “must write of charity, or say nothing.”

See C. Mather, Magnalia (2 vols., 1820); and W. Walker, Ten New England Leaders (1901).