The most renowned of the Puritan missionaries, John Eliot was born in Widford, a village near London, in 1604. The third of seven children, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Jesus College in 1622. Around 1630, he fell under the spiritual influence of Thomas Hooker (see no. 21) and taught at Hooker’s school.
In 1631 , Eliot sailed on board the Lyon for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He soon took up a post as teacher and pastor of the church of Roxbury, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. In 1632, he married Hanna Mumford and the couple eventually had six children.
Eliot was interested in the lives and souls of the Native Americans around him, so he learned the Algonquin language from an Indian servant in his home. In 1646, Eliot began to preach to the Algonquin in their own language. Hearing of Eliot’s work, missionaries in England founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which was charted by Parliament in 1649.
The society provided funds for Eliot and others to further their endeavors.In 1650, Eliot established in Natick the first settlement of Native American converts to Christianity. From the start, the Indian converts looked upon Eliot with love; he had a great charm and ease of manner which endeared him to nearly everyone he met. It is said that children almost always found small gifts waiting for them in Eliot’s large coat pockets.
Meanwhile, Eliot worked to translate the Old and New Testaments into the Algonquin language. His efforts bore fruit in 1663, when his translation was published in Cambridge. It was the first Bible to be printed anywhere in the American colonies. Eliot wrote a revised edition that was printed in 1685. He also translated many of the classic Puritan texts into the Algonquin language.
King Philip’s War came as a disaster to Eliot’s mission. By 1675, he had founded 14 different towns of “praying Indians.” The war disrupted most of what he had accomplished. His favorite Indian group—those at Natick—were removed to Deer Island in Boston Harbor for the duration of the war. Manydied from sickness there. Even after the war ended, Eliot was unable to re-establish his settlements with the success he previously had.
Eliot died in Roxbury, uttering the final words, “Welcome Joy.” In his will, he left 75 acres of land for the teaching of Indians and African-Americans in Roxbury. Virtually all who had known Eliot mourned his death. He was one of a small group of unique individuals who were able to move with ease through almost all segments of colonial society and to retain the good will of virtually everyone.