To Lay a Sure Foundation: John Eliot and The Algonquin Bible

Dr Herbert Samworth

What is the connection between William Tyndale and John Eliot? Both were translators of the Scriptures and both were concerned with the common person. Tyndale did his work for the ploughboy and Eliot for the American Indian. Eliot’s work forms one of the most interesting, and yet controversial, events of the Puritan experiment in the New World: the translation and printing of the Bible in the Algonquin Indian language. Eliot arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 and assumed the position of Teacher of the Roxbury Church, a position he held until his death in 1690 at the age of eighty-six. However, he is best known for his work with the American Indians to the degree that he was called the “Indian evangelist” or the “Apostle of the Red Indians”.

The Puritans in The New World

With the ascension of King James I in 1603 to the throne of England, a rigid conformity was imposed on the Church of England. A number of people sought refuge in Holland who later emigrated to New England to establish the Plymouth Colony in 1620. These individuals were the Pilgrims and they were Separatists from the Church of England.

There were others who also sought liberty from the imposition of the Anglican rites but who did not separate from the State Church. However, the religious situation continued to worsen during the reign of Charles I owing to the rigidity of William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through a fortuitous series of circumstances, they obtained a charter to establish what later came to be known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Those who formed his colony were Puritans and they were Non-separating Congregationalists. They denied that they had come to the New World solely for the purpose of economic gain. John Winthrop, one of the first leaders, expressed this purpose clearly:

The end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members, that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.1

Another reason that brought the Puritans to the New England shores was the evangelization of the original inhabitants. On the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was an Indian with the words, ‘Come over and help us’. The Colony’s charter contained the following words:

…and for the directing, ruling and disposing of all other matters and things, whereby our said people, inhabitants there, may be so religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly conversation, may win and incite the natives of country, to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith, which in our royal intention, and the adventurers’ free profession, is the principal end of this plantation.2 The chief actor in this colonization effort was John Winthrop who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630. While still on board the ship Arabella that transported him to the New World, Winthrop outlined the purpose of the colony in a sermon entitled A Model of Christian Charity: a sober call for charity, or love, to be the governing principle of the Colony. Winthrop reminded his fellow colonists that they were a city set on a hill and the eyes of the world were on them. They were required to fulfil their covenant engagements lest they became a byword and reproach to the world.

The Early Life of John Eliot

John Eliot did not come with Governor Winthrop but arrived in Boston a year later on the same ship that transported John Winthrop’s wife and family. Eliot was born in 1604 and grew up in Nazing, England; he was educated at Jesus College Cambridge, the noted Puritan university. Apparently he had imbibed Puritan principles that brought him under the lash of Archbishop William Laud. For a time, Eliot was a schoolteacher at Little Baddow near Chelmsford, Essex serving under Thomas Hooker, a noted Puritan leader who served as minister of Newtown, Massachusetts (later Cambridge) and the founder of the Hartford, Connecticut Colony.

Seeing that any opportunity to minister in the Church of England was closed, Eliot decided in 1631 to emigrate to the New World. Upon his arrival, he was invited to preach at the First Church of Boston, pastored by John Wilson who was in England seeking to persuade his wife to come to the New World. Eliot preached with such acceptance that he was offered the position of Teacher in the Church when Wilson, minus his wife, arrived back in Boston. However, Eliot had previously agreed with a group from England that if they arrived in Massachusetts before he was officially settled in a church situation, he would consent to be their teacher. Such proved to be the case because in November 1632 Eliot became the Teacher at Roxbury as colleague to Thomas Weld. Previous to his settlement in Roxbury, Eliot married his fiancée, Hannah Mumford, who proved to be a great blessing to him.

The Work with the Indians

We have no exact information as to what first attracted Eliot to work with the Indians although many of them lived in the Colony and contact between them and the British was frequent. However, the documentary history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s evangelization of the Indians is contained in a series of eleven publications printed in England between 1643 and 1670 that have received the unofficial title of The Eliot Tracts.

However, before we examine the tracts and chart a chronological overview of the work, it is necessary to understand the principles that guided the work.

First, John Eliot, as a true Puritan, founded everything on the Word of God. The Puritans were Biblicists and sought to under gird every action and decision from the authority of God’s Word. In everything the Scriptures were central.

Second, the Puritans did not view Christianity in the individualistic manner that is so frequent in our days. While one could only become a Christian by a personal act of faith, the new life in Christ was not lived in isolation but in covenant fellowship with the other members of the body. Thus, when one became a church member, he entered into a covenant with the other members. The Puritans took those covenantal obligations, whether civil or ecclesiastical, very seriously. Note the words spoken by John Winthrop:

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission….We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles…The Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.3

What did the application of these principles mean in a practical way for Eliot’s work with the Indians?

First, Eliot would evangelize the Indians by preaching the Gospel to bring them to a saving relationship with Christ. His message would come from the Word of God and the purpose would be to convict them of sin and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, after they were evangelized, Eliot would guide them into what was called “church estate” so the Indians could partake of the Church ordinances of baptism and communion. They would be formed into churches following the Congregational model that had several requirements. One, every prospective member would be required to give a relation or account of his conversion to satisfy the other members of the church that he was a genuine Christian. Two, a properly constituted Congregational Church required Biblically qualified teaching and ruling elders. Three, the Puritans practised church discipline in an attempt to insure the doctrinal and moral purity of the Church.

These requirements would not be waived for the Indians because the Puritans believed they were Biblical requirements. No matter how spiritually ignorant the Indians might be, the standard of God’s Word could not be lowered. This is a partial explanation of why it took nearly ten years for the first Indian church to be constituted and why many of the Eliot Tracts are replete with the conversion testimonies of the Indians. Even those in England needed to be convinced that the Indian accounts were in agreement with the Word of God.

These qualifications for church estate contributed to the most controversial decision in Eliot’s work: the decision to bring the Indians into the status of “civility” by living in villages governed on the English model. Because Eliot and others have been accused of “cultural genocide” in forcing this step, it is necessary to see the rationale behind this requirement. As long as the Indians continued to live their nomadic manner of life, it would be impossible to teach them on a consistent basis so they could understand the Christian faith. Also, church discipline could not be enforced because the Indian could just leave and go back to his former manner of life. However, Eliot believed if the Indians were living in a structured environment where it would be difficult to leave, they would be willing to submit to such discipline.

While it is true that many Puritans viewed the Indians as the “ruins of mankind”, the description refers primarily to their manner of unsettled living and not in a derogatory way. It is important to remember that the Indians themselves were the ones who desired to have Church Ordinances and agreed to adopt the English way of life so they could have them. Note Eliot’s comment on the situation:

I have intimated in my other letters, what good hopes I have of sundry of them, and that they begin to enquire after baptisme and Church Ordinances, and the way of worshipping God as the Churches here do; but I show them how uncapable they be to be trusted therewith, while they live so unfixed, confused, and ungoverned a life, uncivilized and unsubdued to labor and order; they begin now to enquire after such things. And to that end, I have propounded to them a fit place be found out for cohabitation, wherewith they may subsist by labor and settle them in such a way: And then they may have a church and all the ordinances of Christ among them.4

Another factor in Eliot’s desire to establish a church among the Indians was his view of the universal church. He envisioned a Presbyterian system of ascending church courts leading to an ecumenical assembly, constantly in session in Jerusalem, where all the delegates were required to converse in Hebrew! The Indian Church would assume its part in this ecumenical structure as Eliot described it in the book The Communion of Christian Churches.

The Indian work must also be set in the larger context of rampant millennial expectations that were stirring in England during this time. The monarchy had been overthrown and the saints were now ruling. Learned theologians in Europe had advanced the thesis that the native inhabitants of North America were, in reality, descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. God had promised in His Word that the Jews were to be restored and brought into the Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel. From the perspective of three hundred and fifty years such thoughts may bring a smile to our lips but for Eliot and his fellow Puritans they were sober realities. John Eliot was convinced that it was the beginning of a great work of God and he was given the honour to lay that sure foundation.

These steps flowed out of the Puritan interpretation of the Word of God. For the Puritans, the Word of God determined everything. It was the revelation of all that God commanded in evangelism, civil government, church government, and the ultimate reign of Christ over the entire earth. Although John Eliot was located in what some have termed “the waste howling wilderness” of New England far from the center of power and influence, he would not have agreed. From Eliot’s perspective, he was in the middle of a great work to build the Kingdom of God.

For the first time, The Eliot Tracts have been printed together and they provide the primary source for the history of the work. Although there are gaps in the narrative and the tracts were printed at irregular intervals, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the work of John Eliot.

The first tract, entitled New England’s First Fruits, was printed in 1643 before Eliot’s first recorded contact with the Indians. Although the writer is not named, it is believed to be Thomas Weld, Eliot’s colleague at the Roxbury Church. Weld, along with Hugh Peter, had been sent to England to solicit funds for the Colony. Previous to this time, the amount of funds flowing to the West had met the Colony’s financial needs. However, with outbreak of the Civil War in England, immigration to the Colony had slowed dramatically and a number of New Englanders returned to their home country to aid the cause of Parliament. As a result, the Massachusetts Colony was facing dire financial hardship.

In this first tract, the writer was concerned to refute the accusation that the colonists had failed to evangelize the native inhabitants. He conceded that one of the purposes of the Colony was to evangelize the Indians, many Indians were indeed seeking spiritual direction at that time and the people of England were not to despise the day of small things.

While it is not possible to work through the tracts because of their length, they will be our primary source. As we read The Eliot Tracts containing the accounts of his preaching, the confessions of the Indians, their desire for church estate, the rebuttal of the frequent accusations that the work was only a sham to solicit money, we note the steadfast purpose of a man who was motivated by the teaching of the Scripture.

From the first day that Eliot entered in the work of preaching to the Indians on 28th October 1646 until the translation and printing of the Indian Bible 1663, there is a record of faithfulness and perseverance. Eliot’s motto is a summary of his methods, ‘Prayer and pains through faith in Jesus Christ can accomplish anything.’ He also said, ‘When we would have any great thing to be accomplished, the best policy is to work by an engine the world sees nothing of ’. On another occasion, after he had spent three days in the wilderness in wet clothes, he was reminded of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

By 1649 Eliot had determined to translate and print the Word of God in the Indian language. Note his words:

Besides, I do very much desire to translate some parts of the Scriptures into their language, and to print some Primer in their language wherein to initiate and teach them to read…I must have some Indians, and it may be other help continually about me to try and examine Translations, which I look at as a sacred and holy work, and to be regarded with much fear, care, and reverence.5

In 1650 the first village of praying Indians was established at Natick and they entered into a civil covenant in 1651. For nine more years Eliot laboured to bring them into church estate. There were disappointments when the Indians relapsed into their former ways but Eliot remained hopeful. Perhaps his greatest disappointment came from his fellow Colonists who did not share his goal of giving the Indians the word of God in their own language. There was a deep-seated distrust, and even fear, of the Indians. But Eliot persevered even when the first confessions of the Indians were deemed inadequate in expressing clearly the doctrinal points of conviction and the knowledge of theological terms. Fast enough if well enough was the motto that sustained him. He realized that the work of organizing of the Indians into a church estate was to be a model for others to follow and he was determined to do it according to God’s Word. When one works from the perspective of eternity, trials and setbacks are viewed in a different light. Additional discouragement came from those in England who said that the entire work was a fraud and only five or six Indians had professed conversion to Christianity.

Through this ten-year period Eliot continued to work on the translation of the Bible. Without the aid of grammars, dictionaries, and other helps he persevered. Although he had the help of bilingual Indians, one of these proved to be a disappointment when he was involved in drunkenness. How difficult was this task of translation that Eliot had undertaken? Cotton Mather expressed his opinion that the demons of the invisible world who had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were utterly baffled by the Algonquin language!

The Algonquin Indian Bible

Eliot received help and encouragement from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England established in 1649 as the first Protestant Missionary Society. The Society underwrote the cost of printing of the Indian Bible, provided the paper, a press and even a printer by the name of Marmaduke Johnson.

In 1661 the printing of the New Testament in fifteen hundred copies was finished. Two years later the Old Testament followed. One thousand volumes were bound containing both Testaments. The Indian Bible was now complete. For the first time in their history, the Indians had a book, and it was the greatest of all books — the Word of God, in their own language. Volumes containing both the English and Indian title pages were sent to England as presentation copies. One was given to Charles II, King of England. While Charles expressed little interest in the work of Eliot, he had permitted the Society to be reconstituted as the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and parts adjacent in America in 1662. In addition to Natick, thirteen villages of Praying Indians were formed with a total population of about eleven hundred Indians. Both the civil and church governments were based on the word of God following the pattern Jethro had given Moses to organize the people of Israel into groups of ten, fifty and one hundred. Note what Eliot wrote:

…I propound as a general rule through the help of the Lord; they shall be wholly governed by the Scriptures in all things both in Church and State; they shall have no other Law-giver; the Lord shall be their Law-giver, the Lord shall be their Judge, the Lord shall be their King, and He will save them.6

However, it was not only the Indians whom Eliot desired to have their government based on the teaching of God’s Word. Note his desire for England:

Oh the blessed day in England when the word of God shall be their Magna Charta and chief Law Book; and when all lawyers must be divines to study the scriptures; and should the Gentile nations take up Moses policy so far as it is moral and conscionable, make the Scriptures the foundation of all their laws, who knoweth what a door would be opened to the Jewes to come in to Christ.7

King Philip’s War of 1675

We must briefly touch on the greatest trial that befell Eliot’s work among the Indians. It was King Philip’s war of 1675, called by some the bloodiest war ever fought on the American continent. The reasons for the uprising of the Indians against the European colonists are complex but the basic cause was the clash of two cultures regarding the use of the land. The Indian had no concept of the private ownership of land; he could freely roam over it. Although the colonists were careful to purchase the land from the Indians, often the price was insufficient or not understood by the Indians. When the white man began to enclose the lands with fences and did not permit them to pass though it, this was foreign to their understanding. The marks they had made on paper showing that they had sold the land and received payment meant nothing when it was exhausted.

page from the Eliot Bible

When the war broke out, numerous towns were destroyed with a great loss of life. All Indians, including those who lived in the Praying Towns, were considered as the enemy. Part out of fear, and partly out of a concern to protect them, the Massachusetts Court ordered that the Praying Indians be taken from their villages and placed on Deer Island.

It is not possible to recount accurately all the suffering and deprivations suffered by the Indians. They were taken away from their villages at a half hours’ notice. Bibles were left behind that were later destroyed by marauding bands. Eliot and Daniel Gookin met the boats taking the Indians to Deer Island seeking to encourage them. The winter of 1675 was exceedingly harsh and numerous Indians died of malnutrition and exposure. However, there is no record that the Praying Indians ever complained of this harsh treatment. Eliot visited them several times in an attempt to provide additional food and clothing. On one occasion while taking supplies to them, his boat was swamped and Eliot nearly drowned.

As heartbreaking as the material deprivations were, Eliot lamented more the spiritual loss. The Indian work received a blow from which it never recovered. The spirit of prayer among the Indians was lost. Although the Indian Bible was reprinted in 1685 over much opposition, only four of the Praying Villages were rebuilt. An attempt to print a third edition of the Algonquin Bible after Eliot’s death was rejected.

Eliot lived for fifteen years after King Philip’s war and continued to minister to the Indians until his strength gave out. In a letter to Robert Boyle, the governor of the New England Society, Eliot stated that he ‘was drawing home’. In 1690 he died, having been predeceased by his wife and four of his six children.


How can one evaluate the life of John Eliot? Nathaniel Hawthorne, no friend of the Puritans, expressed it in these words: ‘It is good for the world that such a man has lived’. This is high praise, indeed, from one who did not share Eliot’s spiritual values.

Perhaps the best way would be to take Eliot’s words at face value. Whether or not one would agree with John Eliot and his beliefs, common honesty requires us to take him at his word. Perhaps mistakes were made in the Indian work, perhaps things could, and should, have been done differently, but listen to what John Eliot, whose reticence about himself and his work is well attested, stated as the reason for his ministry to the Indians:

The godly undertakers of this plantation had it so much in their hearts, to make the conversion of the Indians one end of their coming, as that they made it one cause in their patent, which did lay a public engagement upon us thereunto: and when God was pleased to put me upon that work of preaching to them, that public engagement, together with pity to the poor Indians, and desire to make the name of Christ chief in these dark ends of the earth, and not the rewards of men, were the very first, and chief movers, if I know what did first, and chiefly, move in my heart.8


  1. Winthrop, John. A Model of Christian Charity, 1630. Posted online at and other sites.
  2. Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. Posted online at
  3. Winthrop, op. cit.
  4. Clark, Michael P., editor. The Eliot Tracts with Letters of John Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood and Richard Baxter. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2003), p. 159.
  5. Ibid. p. 187.
  6. Ibid. p. 191, 2.
  7. Ibid. p. 195.
  8. Ibid. p. 426.

This paper was given by Dr Herbert Samworth at the Tyndale Society Conference, The Bible as Battleground, Virginia, USA, September 2004 and we are grateful to him for allowing us to reproduce it.