The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Indians of North America >> General History
John Eliot

creator of the first Bible written specifically for Native Americans

John Eliot

John Eliot was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England, the son of a middle class farmer, and was baptised on August 5, 1604. Very little is known of his childhood years, but he is reported to have received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1622. From 1629 to 1630 he was an assistant at the school of Rev. Thomas Hooker. Facing persecution in England because of his Puritan beliefs, Eliot decided to emigrate to America in the autumn of 1631. After spending time at Boston, he became a teacher (later a pastor) at a church in Roxbury, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1632, he married Hannah Mulford, who had been bethrothed to him in England.

Ministry to Indians

As did most Puritans, Eliot believed it was his duty to convert the local Algonquin Indians to Christianity. Unlike his contemporaries, however, he believed he could be far more successful if he learned the Alonquin language, rather than trying to force the Indians to learn English in order to learn Christian teachings. There was only one problem -- neither he nor any of his contemporaries spoke Algonquin, and very few Algonquins spoke English. In addition, the Algonquins had no written language, so even if he succeeded at learning their spoken language he could not provide them with any written scriptures. Undaunted, Eliot first took up the task of learning to speak and understand Algonquin. To accomplish this, he took into his home an Algonquin lad who had been orphaned in the Pequot War who, fortunately, not only spoke fluent English but who also spoke Algonquin with almost perfect clarity. From this boy Eliot learned how to speak Algonquin almost as well as a native. He began preaching to the Algonquin in their own language at a meeting house in Nonantum (now Newton, Massachusetts), in October 1646. By his third sermon several Algonquin had declared themselves converted.

Eliot's success with the Algonquin convinced the Massachusetts General Court to set lands aside specifically for the Indians, on which Eliot had houses, schools, and churches built. Before long he was getting financial assistance from private sources on both sides of the Atlantic. In July 1659, the British Parliament incorporated the "Society for the Propogation of the Gospel in New England," which was made responsible for supporting and directing the work Eliot had started. In 1651, the town Eliot had founded at Nonatum was removed to Natick, and Eliot did his best to preach there at least twice a month throughout the rest of his life.

Eliot's first "Indian town" proved so successful that another was built at Ponkapog (now Stoughton) in 1654. Over the subsequent years a total of fourteen self-governing towns would be established. Unfortunately, Eliot's work was seriously disrupted during King Philip's War (1675-1676). Although the "praying Indians" did not take any part in the actual war, most of their towns were destroyed, some by other Indians, others by colonists. Only four of the towns were ever rebuilt, and many of Eliot's converts were too afraid to return.

The First American-Made Bible

Having successfully learned how to speak and understand Algonquin, Eliot next set out to translate the Bible and other important religious works into Algonquin. To do this he first had to create a written Algonquin language, which he did by spelling Algonquin words using the English phonetic alphabet. He then taught the written language to his converts. The first work to be published in Algonquin was the Catechism, copies of which Eliot began distributing in 1653.

Eliot's translation of the New Testament into Algonquin was published in Massachusetts in 1661, and his translation of the Old Testament was published in 1663. Both testaments, along with a Catechism and a metrical version of the Psalms were then bound together and published in one volume in 1663, becoming the first Bible to be printed in America. (It would be another 120 years before the first English-language Bible would be printed in America.) Over the years Eliot would publish two more editions, with the last being released in 1685.

a page from Eliot's Algonquin-language Bible

In addition to the Bible, Eliot also translated a number of other Christian works into Algonquin, and authored several Algonquin- and English-language books to help his converts better understand Christian teachings, as well as Algonquin primers to help Christian missionaires learn how to preach in Algonquin.

John Eliot died on May 21, 1690.

Partial Listing of Eliot's Works
titles in bold face were written in Algonquin

Tears of Repentance (1653)
A Primer or Catechism in the Massachusetts Indian Language (1654)
The Christian Commonwealth (1659)
The Holy Bible... Translated into the Indian Language (1663)
Baxter's Call to the Uncoverted (1664)
Indian Grammar Begun (1664)
The Communion of Churches (1665)
The Indian Primer (1669)
Indian Dialogues (1671)
Logick Primer (1672)
Sincere Convert (1689)

See Also

Pequot War

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Indians of North America >> General History

This page was last updated on 08/04/2018.