Puritan mission

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

Puritan missionary activity was not an early form of the aggressive evangelism so familiar to twentieth-century Americans. As several scholars have observed, the Massachusetts charter enjoined the planters to “win and incite the natives to . . . the Christian faith” through “your good life and orderly conversation.” This phrasing reflected a point of view found in many seventeenth-century missionary sources, whether Puritan or Anglican. The perspective in question—which I would term the “affective model” for a mission—taught that Indians would yearn to participate in the English way of life once they had witnessed the virtues of the colonists. . . .

Puritans identified four stages in the missionary process that would unfold after the natives had “affect[ed] the persons” of the saints. The first was to train the Indians in what was almost always termed “civility.” In James Axtell’s handy summary of Puritan judgments about the matter, natives lacked three defining characteristics of the “civilized” way of life: order, industry, and manners. Colonists saw evidence of disorder in the Indians’ failure to enclose their fields and establish year-round places of residence, a disregard for the virtue of industry in native subsistence practices, and improper breeding in the Indians’ grooming habits. Eliot devoted much of his attention to eliminating these alleged deficiencies in aboriginal culture. The second stage was to teach the Indians about Protestant Christianity. The indoctrination of the natives required the eradication of their traditional form of animism, which colonists variously described as superstition, idolatry, and devil worship. . . .

Puritan sources on Indian instruction invariably listed the word “civility” before the word “religion.” In some cases, this arrangement clearly indicated a chronological order. . . . Eliot’s practice, however, was to “carry on civility with religion.” From the outset of his missionary work, he taught the Indians to “labor and work in building, planting, clothing [them]selves, etc.” and also instructed them in “all the principal matters of religion.”. . . Indians “must have visible civility,” Eliot explained, “before they can rightly enjoy visible sanctity in ecclesiastical communion.”

The Native Americans were not the only persons whom the colonists considered deficient in civility and religion. . . . Maine, Virginia, and the West Indies were filled with English settlers whom the authors of New Englands First Fruits considered “almost as dark and rude as the Indians themselves.” . . . At the same time, however, the Indians represented a special challenge. They were more “dark and rude” than reprobates in Maine and interior Massachusetts, and they did not speak English. The Massachusetts Puritans did not lack advice about how to solve the language problem. In 1632 Edward Howes, a family friend in England, told the younger John Winthrop that the colonists’ objective should be “the speedy bringing of . . . Indians to the perfect understanding of our tongue and writing.”. . . [Other colonists, including John Eliot,] concluded that the planters would have to become “more perfectly acquainted” with the Indians’ language, and “they with our,” before proper instruction could be given.

From John Eliot’s Mission to the Indians Before King Philip’s War by Richard W. Cogley (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Past Posts