The little Hertfordshire church registry says:
Anno dm. 1604. John Elliott the sonne of Bennett Elliott was baptized the fifte daye of August in the yeere of our Lord God 1604.
What a wonder this John Eliot was. Educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, Eliot was especially gifted in the study of language. He came under the teaching of Thomas Hooker (later the founder of Connecticut) and entered the ministry. Puritan trouble was brewing all over England, and by 1631 Eliot had made the ten week voyage and arrived in Boston. He became a teaching elder at the church in Roxbury, where he remained for 58 years. The remarkable thing is that he ministered not only to the settlers, but to the natives. One account says of him, “by his indefatigable pains both with his flock and the poor Indians… whose language he learned purposely to help them to the knowledge of God in Christ, frequently preaching in their wigwams and catechising their children.”
How did Eliot learn the difficult Algonquin language, a language so odd to European ears that Cotton Mather once (joking?) said that not even demons had bothered to learn it? For all the fact that God strengthened him for the task, the main answer is that he was well prepared (having studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew profoundly at Cambridge) and he worked hard. “We must not sit still and look for miracles. Up and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Prayer and pains through faith in Jesus Christ will do anything,” he wrote. Eliot started in 1643 by retaining the help of a bright young Indian who had previously been a servant in an English home, and within three years he was prepared to preach in this newly-acquired language.
Then came the hard part. Eliot was always remarkably free with the gospel. He invited questions after every sermon, and he encouraged the native Americans to pray in their own language as soon as possible. At first he must have personally represented All Things Christian to the tribes he ministered to, but his principles demanded that he give the faith away completely into their hands. He earnestly desired the Indians should have it in their own tongue. So he began the work of translating. I don’t know anything about Algonquin, but it looks very hard. Again, Cotton Mather said of it, “”If their alphabet be short, I am sure the words composed of it, are long enough to tire the patience of any scholar in the world. One would think they had been growing ever since Babel, unto the dimensions to which they are now extended: if I must translate ‘our loves,’ it must be ‘Noowomantainmoonkamnownash.’ I pray you count the letters.”
Eliot was undeterred. He produced a short catechism in 1654; Genesis the next year; some Psalms by 1658. By 1661 he had the whole New Testament done, and in 1663 he brought out the entire Bible in Algonqin: Up-Biblum God.
After that, he had the hang of it. He produced an Algonquin grammar book, and translated Puritan classics: The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted and Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety. This last book, once quite famous but now little read, begins with about twenty pages of difficult trinitarian theology. The section on the nature of God begins with the sentence, “God is that one spiritual and infinitely perfect essence, whose being is of himself eternally.” In Algonquin, that goes like this, apparently:
God pasukoooo e, Wunneetupanatamweyeuoo d, mat wohkukqhiffinooe a pannuppeyeuoo f, noh nehenwoncheyeuit g wutch micheme onk yean micheme.
A few bits of John Eliot trivia:
*Eliot was on the translation team for the Bay Psalme Book, the first book printed in New England.
*Eliot really, really hated for men to wear wigs. A lot! Preached about it more than enough.
*Eliot believed the American Indians were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. So in bringing the gospel to them, he thought he was connected to the biblical promise of the conversion of Israel to the Messiah.
*He initially believed that the Algonquin language would show some relationship to Hebrew, God’s own language, the language the redeemed will speak in heaven. He never found any relationship, though.
*The Jesuit missionary Father Gabriel Druillettes came down from Quebec to meet with Eliot and talk about Algonquin spirituality. They apparently got along quite well, this Jesuit and this Puritan in the new world.
In his church at Roxbury, this memorial tablet was installed:
APOSTLE TO THE INDIANS
BORN AT WIDFORD 1604 HIS FIRST YEARS
SEASONED WITH THE FEAR OF GOD THE WORD
AND PRAYER EDUCATED AT JESUS COLLEGE
CAMBRIDGE CAME TO THE NEW WORLD 1631
PREINGAGED TO THE CHURCH IN ROXBURY
ORDAINED AS PREACHER WITH WELD 1632
WHOM HE SUCCEEDED AS PASTOR 1641
1645 FOUNDED THE ROXBURY LATIN SCHOOL
1689 THE ELIOT SCHOOL IN JAMAICA PLAIN
ONE OF THE AUTHORS OF THE BAY PSALM BooK
1646 BEGAN HIS MARVELLOUS WORK AMONG
THE NATIVE TRIBES OF NEW ENGLAND
1660 FOUNDED AT NATICK THE FIRST INDIAN
CHURCH IN THE MASSACHUSETTS COLONY
1663 COMPLETED THE TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE
IN ZEAL EQUAL TO SAINT PAUL
IN CHARITY EQUAL TO SAINT FRANCIS
HE TRAVERSED THE LAND FOR FORTY YEARS
IN PERILS OF THE WILDERNESS
IN PERILS OF THE HEATHEN
IN HUNGER AND THIRST
WITH GENTLENESS AND FEARLESSNESS
TO BEAR THE GOSPEL TO THE CHILDREN OF THE WOODS
WHO WERE TO HIM THE CHILDREN OF GOD
DIED MAY 21 1690
FIRST AMONG PURITAN SAINTS