Puritan Conversion Attempts

(The Algonquins and Seventeenth Century Massachusetts Bay Colony)





The Puritan Mission

"To winn and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Saviour of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth."

- Charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay states













Original Seal of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay



        The Puritans believed that they had been enlightened by God and had been shown the correct way to follow Him.  When they encountered the Natives of the New World, they saw them as an idolatrous race that needed to be shown the One True Faith that the Puritans subscribed to.  By converting them to Christianity, they were saving them from their sinful ways and the wrath of the Christian God.  As their seal shows, the members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony viewed the Indians as savages that were in need and in want of guidance.  They dismissed the Indian religious practices as unsubstantiated and inferior to their own.  In essence, they were doing the Indians a favor by teaching them the Christian way and they believed the Indians should be grateful for the chance to be enlightened.





In this picture, painted in the nineteenth century, the missionary is the only figure standing while the Indians are kneeling in a position of inferiority.  He is also illuminated from behind while the Indians are all in the darkness of the wilderness.




Early Conversion Attempts


The Puritans first arrived in New England in the 1620's but the first formal interest in converting the Indians was not expressed until 1644.  Their initial contacts with the Indians were mostly made for the purposes of trade and diplomacy.  At this time, the Puritans were still vastly outnumbered by the Native Americans and were still attempting to establish themselves in the area.  Missionary attempts were still considered to be too much of a risk to attempt until after the Pequot War of 1636 and 1637.  During this war, the few Puritan colonies that had been established in North America joined together to defeat the Pequot warriors that had begun the war by capturing a small vessel on Long Island and murdering an Englishman named John Oldham.  The war eventually ended when the remaining Pequots surrendered to the colonists and were distributed amongst other tribes.  The results of this war boosted the colonists' confidence in their military abilities, despite being outnumbered.  It was because of this confidence and complaints from London about the colonists' lack of missionary work towards the Natives that they settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to make a plan for conversion.  There is also speculation that the Massachusetts Bay Company began to devote so much attention to Indian conversion because they were in competition for funds from England with the colony at Plymouth.  Regardless of motive, in November 1644, the Court formally expressed its desire to put direct means into the religious instruction of the Native Americans and asked for the opinions of the local missionaries.  The missionary who impacted the colony's conversion efforts most directly was John Eliot.

Newspaper article is from http://www.connhistory.org/peq_rdgs.htm


John Eliot - The Apostle to the Indians

John Eliot arrived in Boston in November 1631 from England.  In 1643, he began to devote the majority of his time to learning the native language.  He acquired the assistance of two interpreters in this endeavor.  Their names were Cockenoe and Job Nesutan. With their help, he eventually became fluent in the Algonquin language.  His first translations were the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and various other passages of scripture.  He first used the Native language to preach to Indians at Dorcester Mill.  However, this attempt failed.  Eliot said that the Indians treated him with suspicion and did not wish to be taught.  His second attempt at Nonantum was much more successful.  There, the Indians listened to him preach for over three hours and then continued to ask him questions.  He returned to Nonantum once every two weeks, and soon the Indians started showing signs that they had actually converted.  They started to observe the Sabbath, abandoned their former religious practices, and prayed as a family in the morning, at night, and before meals.  In general, Indian converts were also expected to submit to European rule and many signed documents giving up their right to rule themselves.  Eliot was also responsible for the development of the Praying Towns in the Massachusetts area and was a crucial influence in the formation of The President and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England.  This society was formed by the English Parliament with the aid of Oliver Cromwell.  It ordered that a contribution be made to the Puritan missionary project by every church in England and Wales.




















John Eliot preaching to the Natives.  He spent much of his time traveling to Indian villages, some as far as forty miles away, in order to help them to learn about the Christian religion.






The money that the missionaries received from the society was used to educate young Indian preachers, build the Indian college at Cambridge, print a Bible in the Algonquin language, provide tools for the Indians in the Praying Towns, and pay the salaries of the missionaries.  The Bible that was funded by this society was translated by Eliot as well.  The New Testament was printed in September 1661 and the Old Testament was printed in 1663.  It was the first Bible printed in the United States.

            A page of the Bible that Eliot translated into the Algonquin language
                www.sims.berkeley.edu/.../ is182/s01/first4.html

The Praying Towns

"I find it absolutely necessary to carry on civility with religion."  - John Eliot      

 The praying towns were started as a way for the Native American converts to live in a society based on the European way of life.  The goal was for the Indians to be able to farm rather than depend completely on hunting.  They were also supposed to follow a European model for their government and live in houses with separate rooms rather than just one room per wigwam.  The intent of living in houses was to preserve the delicacy of the family.  Nonantum was the first of the Praying Towns, but it was soon determined to be too small and too close to European settlements.  As a result, it was moved to Natick which was located on the banks of the Charles River, eighteen miles southwest of Boston.  The Indians that lived in this town had moved from various other Indian villages where conversion attempts had been successful in addition to Nonantum.  The settlement officially began in the spring of 1651.  The government of the town was based on the government Eliot had recommended in his The Christian Commonwealth, and the Indians were able to elect their own rulers, but were still subject to colonial rule and were expected to adopt European culture, as can be seen by the rules that they were expected to follow.


 Eliot's Rules for the Praying Indians at Natick

I. If any man shall be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall be fined five shillings.

II. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall be fined five shillings.

III. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him, and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be punished severely.

IV. Every young man, if not another's servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.

V. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang lose, or be cut as a man's hair, she shall pay five shillings.

VI. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.

VII. All men that shall wear long locks, shall pay five shillings.

VIII. If any shall crack lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.



Map of the Indian Praying Towns at the Peak of their Success



The Establishment of Churches in the Praying Towns

Eliot was the person who led the movement to establish churches in the Praying Towns.  Throughout the entire process, he was met with a lot of opposition.  In fact, the first Indian Church was not established until 1660.  Even though the Puritans seemed to gladly accept the Praying Indians as members of their Churches, they were hesitant to give them the responsibility of running their own church.  In order for Eliot to persuade the pastors of the local churches, he had the Praying Indians tell them about "their experience in the Lord's work upon their hearts."  The first time the Indians spoke to the Pastors, they were not convinced, but Eliot was persistent and the Pastors met with the Indians and Eliot again two years later.  This time the Council questioned the Indians themselves and determined that they had made substantial progress in their faith.  It still took another six years for the first Church to be established however, but when it was formed, it was recognized as a regular congregational Church and every position in the Church was filled by a Native American.  The second Indian Church was established in 1671 at Hassanamesett.


King Philip's War and the End of the Praying Town


Depiction of a battle in King Philip's War in which many Puritan towns were burned.


In the year 1675, there were an estimated 1,100 Praying Indians in mainland Massachusetts located in 14 Praying Towns.  In the Old Colony and on the Islands, there were an additional 2,500 Praying Indians.  This number was greatly reduced, however, when King Philip of the Wampanoags began to attack the colonists.  The Praying Indians had to choose a side, and most of them chose to fight on the side of the Puritans.  Unfortunately, the Puritans did not trust any Indians once the war broke out and after many requests from the colonists, the Massachusetts Council of War ordered that the Praying Indians be restricted to five specified towns.  The Indians of Natick were moved to Deer Island where they were denied sufficient amounts of food and most starved to death.  In the summer of 1676, however, the colonists became desperate for men to fight after numerous successful attacks by King Philip, and they called on the Praying Indians to help them.  Despite the poor treatment they were shown, the Indians succeeded in killing an estimated four hundred of the Indians fighting for King Philip.  The war ended in August 1676 when King Philip was killed, but the attitude towards the Praying Indians had been drastically altered by the war.  The colonists no longer trusted them and began to take their land from them.  After Eliot died in 1690, the Puritans slowly began to invade the Indian's land.  The Praying Town of Natick provides a perfect example.  By 1734, there were Englishmen serving as officers in the town.  Thirty years later, Indians in Natick were members of the minority, and finally in 1781, Natick was incorporated as a English town.  The number of converts had dropped dramatically and the missionary efforts had almost stopped completely.




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