May 21: John Eliot, Missionary among the Algonquin, 1690

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

John Eliot, known as “The Apostle to the Indians,” was born in 1604 at Widford in Hertfordshire, England. Educated at Cambridge, Eliot’s nonconformist beliefs brought him into conflict with the tenets of the established church, and he departed for New England in 1631. Eliot arrived in Boston later that year and became the pastor of a church in Roxbury.

During his tenure as pastor in Roxbury he became concerned with the welfare of the native populations and he learned Algonquin language. After two years of study he began preaching to them in their own language. Like Roger Williams before him, Eliot had learned the native language and preached to the local tribes, but unlike Williams, Eliot devoted his entire life’s work to preaching the Gospel to the native people.

In 1649, by act of Parliament, a Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel among the Indians of New England was set up, and with the financial backing of the English government, Eliot built a native settlement at Natick. The native people were provided with food, clothing, homes, and education, and in 1660 the first Indian church in New England was founded.

During this time, Eliot began his monumental translation of the English Bible into the Algonquin language. Starting with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, he was able to complete translations of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew with the financial support of the Corporation for the Propagating of the Gospel.

In 1661, his Algonquin New Testament was published, a copy of which was sent to King Charles II, and finally, in 1663, his complete translation of the Bible was published. Eliot would revise his translation several times after most copies had been destroyed in the Indian Wars of 1670, along with many of the Indian settlements he established.

Eliot wrote a number of other books before his death, including a grammar of the Algonquin language. His work was vital to the studies of many linguists after him who were interested in Native American languages.

Collects

I. Great Creator, source of mercy, we offer thanks for the imagination and conviction of thine evangelist, John Eliot, who brought both literacy and the Bible to the Algonquin people, and reshaped their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve thee and give thee praise; and we pray that we may so desire to share thy Good News with others that we labor for mutual understanding and trust; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II. Great Creator, source of mercy, we thank you for the imagination and conviction of your evangelist, John Eliot, who brought both literacy and the Bible to the Algonquin people, and reshaped their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve you and give you praise; and we pray that we may so desire to share your Good News with others that we labor for mutual understanding and trust; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Lessons

Psalm 68:33–36

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 1:1–11

Romans 15:13–21

Mark 4:1–20

Preface of a Saint (1)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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20 Responses to May 21: John Eliot, Missionary among the Algonquin, 1690

  1. John LaVoe says:

    “Eliot wrote a number of other books before his death,”
    Probably a good approach.

    • John LaVoe says:

      “His work was vital to the studies of many linguists after him”
      (Coincidental timing? Possibly not.) Conversational informality allows us to be less self-critical of our inane wording than writing demands.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  3. Michael Hartney says:

    Collect: ‘… and reshaped their communities …’ Reshaped? There has to be a better word than reshaped.

    Readings: The reading from Sirach is appropriate. But, I am relatively sure that John Eliot did not translate the Apocrypha into the Algonquin language. He might not even have known of the book of Sirach. Does that make any difference in choosing this reading to commemorate him? Maybe.
    Psalm – just four verses, and IMO too few.

    Bio: Paragraph 2 – ‘native populations’? Surely these are Native Americans.
    A word is missing in the first sentence. It should read ‘… and he learned the Algonquin language …”.
    ‘… he began preaching to them …’ Them? The ‘native populations’?
    Paragraph 3 and 4 – Is the Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel and the Corporation for the Propagating of the Gospel the same organization? If so, then which title is correct?
    Again, the use of ‘native people’ and ‘Indian settlements’ highlights the problem with nomenclature (A problem that exists throughout HWHM whenever persons others than white are described.) . Could HWHM use ‘Native Americans.’ here?

  4. Nigel Renton says:

    Since he died on May 20th, this commemoration should be moved to May 20th, being paired with Alcuin on that date.

    • S. Sauter says:

      The Genealogy of the Descendants of John Eliot, Apostle to the Indians states that John Eliot died at about 1 a.m. on 21 May 1690 at Roxbury, Massachusetts. His funeral was 23 May 1690.

  5. John Morrell says:

    It should probably be noted that Roxbury and Natick are in Massachusetts. Non-Rhode Islanders may not readily identify Roger Williams. Either say who he was, or leave out the reference altogether, since it doesn’t add much to the narrative on Eliot.

  6. Pete Ross says:

    I am concerned about the term “Indian” as it is used in this hagiography and others. This is a term derived from the error of early explorers who believed they had circumnavigated the globe and arrived at India. It is an erroneous and demeaning term, inappropriate for use in publications of The Episcopal Church. I believe it is more appropriate to call those who inhabited this continent before the Europeans, either “First Peoples” or “Native Americans.”

    We are engaged in a truth-telling and repentance for the Northern Europeans’ treatment of African peoples during and following our wallow in the filth of slavery. It seems equally important and appropriate to engage in a period of repentance and truth-telling about the treatment of the First Peoples by invading Northern Europeans.

    This comment comes from a seventy-one-year-old Caucasian of Northern European descent (although I might have a miniscule amount of Native American ancestry) who is serving his third term as a Deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Michigan.

    • John Morrell says:

      “Indian” may be an affront to some of the descendants of the people who occupied the pre-Colombian Americas, but “native American” is an affront to the English language. Anyone of whatever ethnicity born in America is a native American. The magnificent National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, as well as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs both use the I-word, so I am not sure that “Indian” is all that controversial.

    • Philip Wainwright says:

      Inaccurate, but hardly ‘demeaning’!

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    HWHM seems to have confounded the subjects without dividing the purposes of what is now the New England Company. In1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an “Act for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians.” The Long Parliament followed up in 1649 passed an Ordination forming “A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England” to provide and support missionaries and teachers for the New England natives. Following the Restoration, it was rechartered as the “Company for Propagation of the Gospel in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America” in 1662. Since 1786 its operations have been restricted to Canada and the West Indies. It remains “the oldest missionary society still active in Britain.” (Note that the New England Company is not and never has been connected with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) formed in 1701 on the recommendation of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray.)

    As for the “Indians,” “natives,” “Native Americans,” HWHM needs to pick one and stick with it. You can probably get away with almost anything but “savages” or “Redskins.” As I understand it, the easily offended ones long ago immigrated to Asia, where they built their own subcontinent. At least the Natick Indians seem to be perfectly happy to identify themselves as “Indians,” and “Praying” ones, at that. See http://natickprayingindians.org/

    Whatever you want to call them, HWHM has its Native Americans confused. The Algonquin (spelled with one “a”) were a tribe that lived (and lives) in what is now Quebec and Ontario. Eliot preached in and translated into the Algonquian (with a second “a”) language, which takes its name from the Canadian tribe. The “Algonquians” are not a tribe or even a nation of tribes but a language group to which a bewildering number of tribes belong, spread across the continent in an irregular triangle reaching from Virginia to Labrador to California. Eliot’s Bible was written in the Algonquian dialect of the Wampanoag, who (just to keep things simple) are also called the Massachusett (from which the Commonwealth takes its name), the Pokanoket, or the Natick. To add one more twist, some linguists now think the one-a Algonquins speak a dialect of the Ojibwe, not the Algonquian, language.

    These “Great Creator” or “Great Spirit” collects grate on my nerves (too Boy Scout-ish). They’re not quite as bad as Bishop Hare’s “Wakantanka,” so I suppose I should be thankful the author of Eliot’s collect didn’t use the Algonquian name for “the supreme god.” Eliot himself made no effort to be “inclusive,” as the title his Bible attests: “Mamusse wunneetupanatamwe up-biblum God naneeswe nukkone testament kah wonk wusku testament.” HWHM should follow Eliot’s lead.
    It might be worth noting that Eliot’s seems to have been the first complete Bible printed in America in any language. The Spanish had a century’s head start on having printing presses in the New World, but there seems to be no evidence that they used them to print Bibles before 1663.
    It would also be Christian to squeeze in a mention of Daniel Takawambpait, who was certainly the first Native American ordained a pastor (like Eliot, he was a Puritan) in New England and very likely the first in the New World. He inherited Eliot’s pulpit at Natick in 1698 and managed to keep the community of “Praying Indians” together despite Prince Philip’s War and the antagonism of both their English Puritan and unconverted native neighbors until his death in 1716.

    It’s also probably in order to mention that, despite Eliot and Takawambpait’s efforts, the community of Praying Indians broke up after Takawambpait’s death and scattered, only to be reunited in the 20th century. Eliot’s lasting legacy – apart from the witness of his life – is the fact that his Bible and other writings preserved the otherwise extinct language of the Wampanoag. Thus the pioneering French-American linguist Peter du Ponceau (1760-1844) wrote that Eliot “did not foresee, when he wrote his Indian grammar, that it would be sought after and studied by the learned of all nations, as a powerful help towards the improvement of a science not then in existence; I mean the Comparative Science of Languages.”

    Perhaps more to the point is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tribute in Grandfather’s Chair (1840): “[I]f ever you should doubt that man is capable of disinterested zeal for his brother’s good, then remember how the apostle Eliot toiled. And if you should feel your own self-interest pressing upon your heart too closely, then think of Eliot’s Indian Bible. It is good for the world that such a man has lived and left this emblem of his life.”

    • John LaVoe says:

      You come up with the best material, Steve — thank you! I went to the “Praying Indians” site and it made me feel John Eliot is significant, and belongs in HWHM. I didn’t feel that way on the basis of the HWHM narrative. That subtle distinction in the tribal names is extremely important. I hope we end up with a greatly improved commemoration and, if we do, I suspect much of it will be thanks to your comment. Thank you!

  8. Dale says:

    Growing up in Oklahoma, most of my Chickasaw and Seminole friends preferred to be grouped, if you will, by tribal affiliation. They did–and still do–most use American Indian when speaking of the indigenous people’s of North and Central America collectively. I don’t see a need for absolute consistency in HWHM, but for a thoughtful style that respects people–and the English language. When referring to only one tribe, the name of that tribe should be used. Another approach is needed for people of various tribes.

  9. Lajuan Copeland says:

    my boys have often asked me how any of the indians would go to heaven without the knowledge of Jesus Christ,since there was no one to tell them.even though i would tell them that the bible states that all of mankind knows that their is someone greater than us who created us and this earth that we live on (as shown by their lythographs and beliefs). i am sending this on to my sons.maybe this will help them in their understanding.
    sincerely,
    Lajuan Copeland

  10. Michael Weylandt says:

    Three short comments on the collect:

    Great Creator, source of mercy, we offer thanks for the imagination and conviction of thine evangelist, John Eliot, who brought both literacy and the Bible to the Algonquin people, and reshaped their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve thee and give thee praise; and we pray that we may so desire to share thy Good News with others that we labor for mutual understanding and trust; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

    1) “Great Creator” — I agree with Mr. Lusk; it’s a little boy-scout-generic and sounds like something that gets used at an interfaith event.* It’s not non-Christian, but neither is it necessarily Chrisitian. And why would you want anything else?

    *Nothing against Interfaith events, but they certainly require a very different style and vocabulary than I think makes sense for a project like HWHM.

    2) “who brought both literacy and the Bible”. Did JE bring reading/writing to the Algonquian? It’s not totally clear from the bio that he was the first and, if he was, that’s definitely worth noting.

    3) “we pray that we may so desire to share thy Good News with others that we labor for mutual understanding and trust.” Aren’t the cause and effect backwards: Don’t we labor for mutual understanding and trust so that we are successful in sharing the Good News with others?

    Bonus comment:) Reshaped is awkward….not sure what’s better though

  11. Steve Lusk says:

    Some more thoughts on the collect: as noted, it should be the “Algonquian,” or better the “Wampanoag” people, not the “Algonquins.” Eliot never got within 400 miles of Algonquin territory. As neither Eliot’s communities of Praying Indians nor the language of the Wampanoag survived, the collect should read something along the lines of “who labored to bring both literacy and the Bible to the Wampanoag people and to transform their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve and praise thee.”
    To make it clearer that Eliot’s efforts were, as the world judges such efforts, in vain, I probably should have included more of Hawthorne’s write-up. And I should have noted that just as when Edward Gibbon lauds a bishop, one should sit up and take notice when Hawthorne praises a Puritan. Here’s the paragraph that led into the one I quoted above:

    “My heart is not satisfied to think,” observed Laurence, “that Mr. Eliot’s labors have done no good except to a few Indians of his own time. Doubtless he would not have regretted his toil, if it were the means of saving but a single soul. But it is a grievous thing to me that he should have toiled so hard to translate the Bible, and now the language and the people are gone! The Indian Bible itself is almost the only relic of both.”
    “Laurence,” said his Grandfather, “if ever you should doubt that man is capable of disinterested zeal for his brother’s good, then remember how the apostle Eliot toiled. And if you should feel your own self-interest pressing upon your heart too closely, then think of Eliot’s Indian Bible. It is good for the world that such a man has lived and left this emblem of his life.”

  12. Philip Wainwright says:

    ‘Eliot’s nonconformist beliefs brought him into conflict with the tenets of the established church’—if we need to say something about his churchmanship (which I don’t think we do), this is not the thing to say. Eliot, like the vast majority of those who came to New England in the 1630s, was very happy with the established church, but very unhappy with the changes being forced on it by Charles I and William Laud. Laud’s arbitrary closure of the school in London where Eliot taught was what convinced him to try life in a place without bishops.

    The collect is far too wordy. Less is more.

    • (Sorry to be three years late!) As I was preparing for tomorrow’s Eucharist, I wondered whether “nonconformist” was anachronistic. Evidently Eliot was what we might call a Puritan, but I don’t think being in disagreement with the direction Laud was leading the Church of England constituted “nonconformity” at that time. The term is only appropriate following the 1662 Act of Uniformity.

  13. Pingback: May 21 – John Eliot : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  14. Pingback: May 21 – John Eliot : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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