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John Eliot was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England, and lived at Nazeing as a boy. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge. After college, he became assistant to Thomas Hooker at a private school in Little Baddow, Essex. After Hooker was forced to flee to the Netherlands, he emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, arranging passage as chaplain on the ship Lyon and arriving on November 3, 1631. He married Hanna Mumford in September of 1632, the first entry in the “Marages of the Inhabitants of Roxbury” record. They had six children, five sons, and one daughter. Eliot became minister and “teaching elder” at the First Church in Roxbury.
In 1645, Eliot founded the Roxbury Latin School. He and fellow ministers Thomas Weld (also of Roxbury), Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard, and Richard Mather of Dorchester, are credited with editing the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British North American colonies (1640).
Eliot began studying the Massachusett or Wampanoag language, which was the language of the local Indians. To help him with this task, he relied on a young Indian named “Cockenoe”. Eliot said, “he was the first that I made use of to teach me words, and to be my interpreter.” Cockenoe could not write but he could speak Massachusett and English. With his help, Eliot was able to translate the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and other scriptures and prayers.
John Eliot was not the first Puritan missionary to try to convert the Indians to Christianity but he was the first to produce printed publications for the Algonquian Indians in their own language. This was important because the settlements of “praying Indians” could be provided with other preachers and teachers to continue the work John Eliot started. By translating sermons to the Massachusett language, he brought the Indians an understanding of Christianity but also an understanding of written language. They did not have an equivalent written “alphabet” of their own and relied mainly on spoken language and pictorial language.
An important part of Eliot’s ministry focused on the conversion of Massachusett and other Algonquian Indians. Accordingly, Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and published it in 1663 as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. It was the first complete Bible printed in the Western hemisphere; Stephen Daye printed 1,000 copies on the first printing press in the American colonies. In 1666, Eliot published “The Indian Grammar Begun”, again concerning the Massachusett language. As a missionary, Eliot strove to consolidate the Algonquian Indians 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.
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. But in 1709 a special edition of the Massachusett Bible was co-authored by Experience Mayhew and Thomas Prince with the Indian words in one column and the English words in the opposite column. The 1709 Massachusett Bible textbook is also referred to as the Massachusett Psalter. This 1709 edition is based on the Geneva Bible, like the Eliot Indian Bible.
Eliot died in 1690, aged 85, his last words being “welcome joy!”
- Walker, Williston (1911). “Eliot, John”. In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 277–278.
- “Elliott, John (ELT618J)”. A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- “Hooker, Thomas (HKR604T)”. A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- “Promoting and Propagating the Gospel”. Jesus College Cambridge. Archived from the original on 15 August 2016. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- “John Eliot’s first Indian teacher and interpreter, Cockenoe-de-Long Island : and the story of his career from the early records : Tooker, William Wallace, 1848–1917 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive”. Archive.org. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- “John Eliot”. Greatsite.com. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- A Short History of Boston by Robert J. Allison, p.14.
- the Bay Psalm Book exhibition at the Library of Congress 2015.
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1888). Appleton’s Cyclopædia of American Biography. D. Appleton. p. 323.
- Genealogy of the Descendants of John Eliot, “apostle to the Indians,” 1598-1905 By William Horace Eliot (jr.)
- Information retrieved from Wikipedia.org on 11/03/2021.
ALSO ON THIS DAY
1818 – Pliny Fisk set sail for Palestine aboard the Sally Ann. He was ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and became the first American missionary to journey to the Near East.
1917 – Canadian Methodist Albert Carman, the last and greatest of the holiness Methodist leaders in Canada; died. He broke a hip sometime before and never recovered.
1960 – Lutheran bishops prepare The Christians in the DNR to show Lutherans how to live under communism with obedience but without violating their consciences.
*Information retrieved from Christianhistoryinstitute.org.