Formative years

Daily Reading for May 21 • John Eliot, Missionary among the Algonquin, 1690

As Eliot spent much of his youth in Essex, where the zealous religious attitudes that came to be called “Puritan” were particularly widespread, he may have been influenced by them in his earliest years. His [Jesus] College educational experience would have been very different, directed towards preserving orthodoxy, though while in Cambridge he would have had the opportunity to meet other students and academics with a variety of religious sympathies. These would have included Puritans from Emmanuel College, recently founded by the Mildmay family and attended by the great patron of American colonisation Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. Emmanuel also produced numerous early emigrants, among them Eliot’s mentor in later years, Thomas Hooker.

The Master at the time of Eliot’s admission was John Duport, a man of high scholarly reputation and one of the group entrusted with preparing King James’s “Authorised Version” of the Bible (1611). In 1618 he was succeeded by Roger Andrewes, who had also been involved in translating for the Authorised Version and was the brother of Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes, the overall director of the enterprise. Andrewes proved a highhanded and unsatisfactory Master; as he did not engage in college teaching, Eliot probably had little contact with him. In contrast Eliot’s tutor, William Beale, was a young Fellow of good scholarly reputation who attracted numerous pupils. He later became Master of the College (1632-34), and moved on to be Master of St John’s until expelled as a Laudian in the Civil War period; he died in exile in Spain, where he had accompanied Ambassador Richard Fanshawe, another Jesuan.

Eliot was of a gentle disposition and never showed the kind of Calvinist dogmatic severity associated with the extremer kinds of Puritanism, but he would have shared the views reputedly expressed by another departing emigrant: “We do not go to New-England as separatists from the Church of England; though we cannot but separate from the corruptions in it: but we go to practice the positive part of church reformation, and propagate the gospel in America.” The speaker was Francis Higginson, another former Jesuan student (1613) and a friend of Hooker’s; he was one of the earliest emigrants (1629) and co-founder of Salem, Massachusetts.

It seems very likely that Eliot was familiar with Higginson’s pamphlet: New-Englands Plantation. Or, a short and true description of the commodities and discommodities of that countrey. The author predictably made a great deal more of the commodities than the “discommodities,” listing the latter as “little Flyes called Musketoes,” two months snow and sharp frost in winter, the abundance of snakes (fatalities rare), and the lack of “honest Christians . . . to make use of this fruitfull Land,” much of which (he believed) lay unoccupied. Many of the native inhabitants had been swept away by a plague, but the survivors “doe generally professe to like well of our comming and planting here; partly because there is abundance of ground that they cannot possesse nor make use of, and partly because our being here will be a meanes both of reliefe to them when they want, and also a defence from their Enemies. . . . We purpose to learn their Language as soone as we can, which will be a meanes to do them good.”

The person who most influenced the later course of Eliot’s life, after he had left college, was Thomas Hooker. Hooker was older than Eliot; he had been a scholar at Emmanuel in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and had been influenced by John Dod—the one (relatively moderate) Puritan Fellow of Jesus. A line of descent may be traced from Dod through Hooker to Eliot, with their shared emphasis on thorough teaching from the most basic catechising onwards. . . .

Hooker was involved in discussions with the founders of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had just received a royal grant of land (1628) and begun to attract settlers. Their charter stated that to “wynn and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the onelie true God and Saviour of mankind and the christian faythe” was in the “royall intention and the adventurers’ free profession the principall ende of this Plantation.” Inspired by Hooker’s example, Eliot decided to devote his life to Christian ministry and was naturally drawn in to the same circles and projects.

From “John Eliot, ‘Apostle to the Indians’ of New England: Cambridge influences: Duport, Andrewes, Beale, Higginson, Hooker,” part of an exhibition on John Eliot at Jesus College, Cambridge; found at

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