Eliot is best-known for his mission work among the Algonquian-speaking peoples of Massachusetts. Around 1646, he began learning the Wôpanâak (Massachuset) language of southern New England. At this time, Eliot began the instruction of indigenous peoples in Christianity. In 1647, he began publishing a series of promotional tracts in England, aimed at generating financial support for proselytizing in the Massachusetts Bay colony. After some initial success with conversions among the Massachuset people, Eliot decided to establish "praying towns " where Christianized Natives could become fully assimilated to English and Christian ways of life in an atmosphere that he believed to be the key to lasting conversions.
In October 1650, Eliot and several proselytes chose the site of Natick along the Charles River as the site of the first praying town, a place where Christian Natives would live away from the influence of their unconverted friends and relatives. In total, the Puritans set up fourteen praying towns, which resembled the "reduction" type missions used in New France and Latin America, meant to remove Native people from their traditional cultures. In the praying towns, Natives adopted English dress and hairstyles, took up agriculture, and abandoned their traditional ways of life. Eliot preached to the Massachuset peoples in their Native language but stressed literacy as one of the keys to "civilizing" them. With the help of Native translators, Eliot translated and compiled what became the Indian Library, a series of pamphlets and devotional literature in the Wôpanâak language. Eliot's A Primer or Catechism appeared in 1654, and his translation of the entire Bible in the Native language—the first Bible printed in the Americas—was published in 1663. One of Eliot's famous booklets, The Indian Dialogues (1671), which consisted of fictional dialogues between Christian and non-Christian Natives about the benefits of conversion, illustrates the significance of literacy in the praying towns, as well as the divide in Native society that resulted from Eliot's missionary zeal.
George Tinker, an Osage religious studies scholar, suggests that Eliot's well-intentioned explicit goal—assimilating the indigenous population into English/Christian lifeways—was a significant aspect of European cultural genocide in the Americas. According to Tinker, the praying towns separated indigenous peoples from their families and community networks and were thus a major cause of social breakdown and alienation. According to Tinker, the creation of new economic, social, and government systems in the missions led to indigenous dependency on the English (Tinker, 1993, 21–41). Tinker writes: "In spite of his good intentions toward Indian peoples and his hopes for their conversion to Christianity, Eliot must be held historically accountable for the resulting cultural genocide of these peoples" (Tinker, 1993, 40).
Eliot's praying towns became weakened and were subsequently dismantled during Metacom's uprising (King Philip's War) against the English (1675). A census of the towns in 1674 reveals a population of 1,100 Christian Natives (Lepore, 1998, 370). During the bloody uprising, many indigenous peoples rejoined their communities to fight against the colonizers. John Eliot's mission work continued outside the praying towns, as he continued publishing and preaching up to his retirement in 1688.
Daniel Morley Johnson
Cogley, Richard W. 1999. John Eliot's Mission to the Indians Before King Philip's War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Lepore, Jill. 1998. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.; Tinker, George E. 1993. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.; Wyss, Hilary. 2000. Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.