ELIOT, JOHN (1604-1690), American colonial clergyman, known as the "Apostle to the Indians," was born probably at Widford, Hertfordshire, England, where he was baptized on the 5th of August 1604. He was the son of Bennett Eliot, a middle-class farmer. Little is known of his boyhood and early manhood except that he took his degree of B.A. at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1622. It seems probable that he entered the ministry of the Established Church, but there is nothing definitely known of him until 1629-1630, when he became an usher or assistant at the school of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, at Little Baddow, near Chelmsford. The influence of Hooker apparently determined him to become a Puritan, but his connexion with the school ceased in 1630, when Laud's persecutions drove Hooker into exile. The realization of the difficulties in the way of a non-conforming clergyman in England undoubtedly determined Eliot to emigrate to America in the autumn of 1631, where he settled first at Boston, assisting for a time at the First Church. In November 1632 he became "teacher" to the church at Roxbury, with which his connexion lasted until his death. There he married Hannah Mulford, who had been betrothed to him in England, and who became his constant helper. In the care of the Roxbury church he was associated with Thomas Welde from 1632 to 1641, with Samuel Danforth (1626-1674) from 1649 to 1674, and with Nehemiah Walter (1663-1750) from 1688 to 1690.
Inspired with the idea of converting the Indians, his first step was to perfect himself in their dialects, which he did by the assistance of a young Indian whom he received into his home. With his aid he translated the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. He first successfully preached to the Indians in their own tongue at Nonantum (Newton) in October 1646. At the third meeting several Indians declared themselves converted, and were soon followed by many others. Eliot induced the Massachusetts General Court to set aside land for their residence, the same body also voting him £10 to prosecute the work, and directing that two clergymen be annually elected by the clergy as preachers to the Indians. As soon as the success of Eliot's endeavours became known, the necessary funds flowed in upon him from private sources in both Old and New England. In July 1649 parliament incorporated the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England," which henceforth supported and directed the work inaugurated by Eliot. The first appeal for aid brought contributions of £11,000. In 1651 the Christian Indian town founded by Eliot was removed from Nonantum to Natick, where residences, a meeting-house, and a school-house were erected, and where Eliot preached, when able, once in every two weeks as long as he lived. To this community Eliot applied a plan of government by means of tens, fifties and hundreds, which he subsequently advocated as suitable for all England. Eliot's missionary labours encouraged others to follow in his footsteps. A second town under his direction was established at Ponkapog (Stoughton) in 1654, in which he had the assistance of Daniel Gookin (c.1612-1687). His success was duplicated in Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket by the Mayhews, and by 1674 the unofficial census of the "praying Indians" numbered 4000. King Philip's War (1675-76) was a staggering blow to all missionary enterprise; and although few of the converted Indians proved disloyal, it was some years before adequate support could again be enlisted. Yet at Eliot's death, which occurred at Roxbury on the 21st of May 1690, the missions were at the height of their prosperity, and that the results of his labours were not permanent was due only to the racial traits of the New England tribes.
Of wider influence and more lasting value than his personal labours as a missionary was Eliot's work as a translator of the Bible and various religious works into the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquian language. The first work completed was the Catechism, published in 1653 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first book to be printed in the Indian tongue. Several years elapsed before Eliot completed his task of translating the Bible. The New Testament was at last issued in 1661, and the Old Testament followed two years later. The New Testament was bound with it, and thus the whole Bible was completed. To it were added a Catechism and a metrical version of the Psalms. The title of this Bible, now a great rarity, is Mamussee Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God naneeswe Nukkone Testament kah wonk Wusku Testament-Ne quoshkinnumuk nashpe Wuttinneumoh Christ noh assoowesit John Eliot; literally translated, "The Whole Holy His-Bible God, both Old Testament and also New Testament. This turned by the-servant-of-Christ, who is called John Eliot."
This book was printed in 1663 at Cambridge, Mass., by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, and was the first Bible printed in America. In 1685 appeared a second edition, in the preparation of which Eliot was assisted by the Rev. John Cotton (1640-1699), the younger, of Plymouth, who also had a wide knowledge of the Indian tongue.
Besides his Bible, Eliot published at Cambridge in 1664 a translation of Baxter's Call to the Unconverted, and in 1665 an abridged translation of Bishop Bayly's Practice of Piety. With the assistance of his sons he completed (1664) his well-known Indian Grammar Begun, printed at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1666. It was reprinted in vol. ix. of the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Indian Primer, comprising an exposition of the Lord's Prayer and a translation of the Larger Catechism, was published at Cambridge in 1669, and was reprinted under the editorial superintendence of Mr John Small of the university of Edinburgh in 1877. In 1671 Eliot printed in English a little volume entitled Indian Dialogues, followed in 1672 by his Logick Primer, both of which were intended for the instruction of the Indians in English. His last translation was Thomas Shepard's Sincere Convert, completed and published by Grindal Rawson in 1689. Eliot's literary activity, however, extended into other fields than that of Indian instruction. He was, with Richard Mather, one of the editors of the Bay Psalm Book (1640). Several tracts written wholly or in part by him in the nature of reports to the society which supported his missions were published at various times in England. In 1660 he published a curious treatise on government entitled The Christian Commonwealth, in which he found the ideal of government in the ancient Jewish state, and proposed the reorganization of the English government on the basis of a numerical subdivision of the inhabitants. His Harmony of the Gospels (1678) was a life of Jesus Christ.
Bibliography. - An account of Eliot's life and work is contained in Williston Walker's Ten New England Leaders (New York, 1901). There is a "Life of John Eliot," by Convers Francis, in Sparks' American Biography, vol. v. (New York, 1853); another by N. Adams (Boston, 1847); and a sketch in Cotton Mather's Magnalia (London, 1702). For a good account of his publications in the Indian language see the chapter on "The Indian Tongue and its Literature," by J.H. Trumbull, in vol. i. of the Memorial History of Boston (1882).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)