John Eliot (missionary)

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John Eliot
Appletons' Eliot John.jpg
Puritan missionary to Native Americans
Widford, Hertfordshire, England
DiedMay 21, 1690
SignatureAppletons' Eliot John signature.jpg
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For other people of the same name, see John Eliot.
John Eliot
Appletons' Eliot John.jpg
Puritan missionary to Native Americans
Widford, Hertfordshire, England
DiedMay 21, 1690
SignatureAppletons' Eliot John signature.jpg

John Eliot (c. 1604 – 21 May 1690) was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians whom some called “the apostle to the Indians.”[1][2]

English education and Massachusetts ministry[edit]

Cuckoos Farm, Little Baddow, Eliot's home around 1629

John Eliot was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England and lived at Nazeing as a boy. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge.[3] After college, he became assistant to Thomas Hooker at a private school at Little Baddow, Essex.[4] After Hooker was forced to flee to Holland, Eliot emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, arranging passage as chaplain on the ship Lyon and arriving on November 3, 1631. Eliot became minister and "teaching elder" at the First Church in Roxbury.

From 1637 to 1638 Eliot participated in both the civil and church trials of Anne Hutchinson during the Antinomian Controversy. Eliot disapproved of Hutchinson's views and actions, and was one of the two ministers representing Roxbury in the proceedings which led to her excommunication and exile.[5] In 1645, Eliot founded the Roxbury Latin School. He and fellow ministers Thomas Weld (also of Roxbury) and Richard Mather of Dorchester, are credited with editing the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British North American colonies (1640). From 1649 to 1674, Samuel Danforth assisted Eliot in his Roxbury ministry.[1]

Missionary career[edit]

1st Bible printed in New World
The Algonquian Bible

An important part of Eliot's ministry focused on the conversion of Massachusett Indians. Accordingly, Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and published it in 1663 as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God.[6] In 1666, he published "The Indian Grammar Begun", again concerning the Massachusett language. As a missionary, Eliot strove to consolidate Native Americans in planned towns, thereby encouraging them to recreate a Christian society. At one point, there were 14 towns of so-called "Praying Indians", the best documented being at Natick, Massachusetts. Other praying Indian towns included: Littleton (Nashoba), Lowell (Wamesit, initially incorporated as part of Chelmsford), Grafton (Hassanamessit), Marlborough (Okommakamesit), a portion of Hopkinton that is now in the Town of Ashland (Makunkokoag), Canton (Punkapoag), and Mendon-Uxbridge (Wacentug). In 1662, Eliot witnessed the signing of the deed for Mendon with Nipmuck Indians for "Squinshepauk Plantation". Eliot's better intentions can be seen in his involvement in the legal case, The Town of Dedham v. The Indians of Natick, which concerned a boundary dispute. Besides answering Dedham's complaint point by point, Eliot stated that the colony's purpose was to benefit the native people.[7] Praying Indian towns were also established by other missionaries, including the Presbyterian Samson Occom, himself of Mohegan descent. All praying Indian towns suffered disruption during King Philip's War (1675), and for the most part lost their special status as Indian self-governing communities in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, in some cases being paid to move to Wisconsin and other areas further West.[8]

Eliot also wrote The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, considered the first book on politics written by an American, as well as the first book to be banned by a North American governmental unit. Written in the late 1640s, and published in England in 1659, it proposed a new model of civil government based on the system Eliot instituted among the converted Indians, which was based in turn on the government Moses instituted among the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 18). Eliot asserted that "Christ is the only right Heir of the Crown of England," and called for an elected theocracy in England and throughout the world. The accession to the throne of Charles II of England made the book an embarrassment to the Massachusetts colony. In 1661 the General Court forced Eliot to issue a public retraction and apology, banned the book and ordered all copies destroyed.


John Eliot married Hanna Mumford. They had six children, five sons and one daughter.[9] Their daughter Hannah Eliot married Habbakuk Glover .[10] Their son, John Eliot, Jr., was the first pastor of the First Church of Christ in Newton,[11] Another son, Joseph Eliot, became a pastor in Guilford, Connecticut, and later fathered Jared Eliot, a noted agricultural writer and pastor.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Rev. Eliot died in 1690, aged 85, his last words being "welcome joy!" His descendants became one branch of a Boston Brahmin family.

Puritan "remembrancer" Cotton Mather called John Eliot's missionary career the epitome of the ideals of New England Puritanism.[12] William Carey considered Eliot alongside the Apostle Paul and David Brainerd (1718–47) as "canonized heroes" and "enkindlers" in his groundbreaking An Enquiry Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792).[13]

In 1689 John Eliot donated 75 acres (30 ha) of land to support the Eliot School in what was then Roxbury's Jamaica Plain district and now is a historic Boston neighborhood. Two other Puritans had donated land on which to build the school in 1676, but boarding students especially required support. Eliot's donation required the school (renamed in his honor) to accept both Negroes and Indians without prejudice, very unusual at the time.[14] The school continues near its original location today, with continued admissions of all ethnicities, but now includes lifelong learning.[15]

Natick remembers John Eliot with a monument on the grounds of the Bacon Free Library.[16]

The Eliot Elementary School in Needham, Massachusetts, founded in 1956, is named for him.[17]

The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers Eliot with a feast day on May 21.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Moore, Martin (1822). The Life and Character of Rev. John Eliot, Apostle of the N.A. Indians. Boston: T. Bedlington. 
  2. ^ "English Bible History: John Eliot". The Great Site. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  3. ^ "Elliott, John (ELT618J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ "Hooker, Thomas (HKR604T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Battis, Emery (1962). Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 189–246. 
  6. ^ A Short History of Boston by Robert J. Allison, p.14
  7. ^ Carpenter, John B. (2002) "New England Puritans: The Grandparents of Modern Protestant Missions." Fides et Historia 30.4, 526.
  8. ^ Goddard, Ives and Kathleen J. Bragdon (eds.) (1989) Native Writings in Massachusett. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. P.2-15.
  9. ^ Genealogy of the Descendants of John Eliot, "apostle to the Indians," 1598-1905 By William Horace Eliot (jr.)
  10. ^ ("Habbacuke Glover was married to Hannah Eliott daughter of John Eliott teacher of the Church of Christ at Roxbury 4th -- 3rd month by Thomas Dudley Dept. Govr." - Massachusetts Town Vital Records, NEHGS)
  11. ^ 1st Settlers Monument - Middlesex County, Massachusetts
  12. ^ Mather, Cotton (1694). The Life and Death of the Reverend John Eliot. London: J. Dunton. 
  13. ^ Carpenter, John, (2002) "New England Puritans: The Grandparents of Modern Protestant Missions," Fides et Historia 30,4, 529.
  14. ^ Jamaica Plain Historical Society
  15. ^ The Eliot School
  16. ^ Bacon Free Library
  17. ^ "School History". Retrieved 9 September 2013. 


External links[edit]