John Eliot: Apostle to Indians

Updated Oct 10, 2022
John Eliot: Apostle to Indians

The 1628 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company stated that one of the chief purposes of establishing a colony in New England was "to win the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind." The seal of the colony had the picture of an Indian and the words of the Macedonian to Paul from Acts 16:9, "Come Over and Help Us." During the earliest years of the colony, however, the Puritans' energy was devoted to simply surviving in the American wilderness and establishing their own homes; there was little attempt to evangelize the Indians in those early days.

In 1637, after an English trader had been killed, the Puritans became involved in an inter-tribal war between the Narragansett and Pequot Indians. Surprisingly, the war spawned the earliest Puritan missions to the Indians. Indians who had previously ignored the Christian God now respected Him, and more began to be converted to Christianity. John Eliot, later known as the "Apostle to the Indians," first began learning the Algonquian language, spoken by most New England Indians, from Indians captured during the Pequot War.

In their own language

John Eliot had come to Massachusetts in 1631 and become pastor of the church in Roxbury the next year. For the next fifty-eight years he not only pastored the congregation at Roxbury but maintained an energetic concerned Christian witness to the surrounding Indians as well. In his dealings with the Indians, Eliot was not interested in a mere outward change of religious beliefs. Rather, his emphasis was on repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. Having learned Algonquian, Eliot began teaching Christian truths to the Indians in their own language. He would begin by describing the glorious power, goodness, and greatness of God as seen in His creation. By presenting the ten commandments to the Indians, Eliot pointed out what God required of them and the punishment which would come from breaking His holy law. All this was preparatory to the comforting words that "God had sent Jesus Christ to die for their sins."

Eliot began by giving gifts to the Indians. He then presented the gospel and allowed the Indians to ask any questions which the teaching might have raised.

Any questions?

Eliot showed great wisdom in answering the Indians' questions. How could God hear the Indian prayers when he was used to hearing English prayers? Because God had made all things and all men, Indian as well as English. If He made man, He knows all that is within man. As the maker of an Indian basket knows the straw and even unseen materials that go into the basket, so the Creator knows and understands His creatures.

One old Indian particularly moved Eliot with compassion when he asked: Am I not too old to come to Christ? Eliot told him Christ's parable about the laborers who were hired at the eleventh hour receiving equal wages with all the other laborers. God was a merciful father who would accept all who came to Him in repentance.

Praying towns

Many of the Indians showed a strong interest in the things of Christ, though Eliot recognized that "the profession of very many is but a mere paint, and their best graces nothing but mere flashes and pangs, which are suddenly kindled and as soon go out and are extinct again." Those who maintained their profession often left their nomadic lives and formed villages to separate themselves from their pagan backgrounds and learn more about Christianity. These villages were often called "praying Indian towns," where the Indians often made laws punishing their former practices, including idleness, wife beating, polygamy, lying, and stealing. These laws were not imposed by the English but formulated by the converted Indians after they had learned some of the Scriptures. Some of the laws showed the great respect the praying Indians had for English ways. One law required the Indians to knock before entering English homes; another encouraged the sachems to abandon the practice of heavily greasing themselves. Yet another warned, "If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings." Although such laws seem amusing to us today, they reflect how conversion to Christianity led to a change of their entire lifestyle, outlook, and culture.

First American Bible

John Eliot and the Puritans recognized that conversion to Christianity would change the entire fabric of Indian life (as it had changed the entire fabric of the Puritans' own lives). Christian living must follow conversion. So, John Eliot took upon himself the immense task of translating the Bible into Algonquian. In 1663 this translation became the first Bible printed in America. Eliot also composed an Indian primer, an Indian grammar, and an Indian psalter. Such hard work was characteristic of Puritans in all occupations. The "Apostle to the Indians" died at the age of 85, having lived a life full of service to his Lord, his congregation, and his beloved Indian neighbors.


Mugwump, one of the Algonquian words in Eliot's translation of the Bible, came into the American language in the 1880's. In Eliot's Bible, a mugwump was a great chief, such as Joshua, Gideon, or Joab. Later New Englanders used the word in mockery for a self-conceited politician. In 1884 the name was applied to deserters from the Republican party, and from that the word has come to mean any independent, especially in politics.


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