Native Language Evangelism in New England

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1407-1421:

Roger Williams, whose `soul’s desire’, as he wrote, was `to do the natives good’, published his A Key into the Language of America in 1643. In 1647 Governor Winthrop reported in his journal that the pastor of Roxbury, the Reverend John Eliot, had taken `great pains’ to learn Algonquian, `and in a few months could speak of the things of God, to their understanding’. At the same time Thomas Mayhew, who had settled on Martha’s Vineyard, achieved some important conversions and was acquiring proficiency in the native language. The 1640s, then, saw the beginning of a major effort, although small-scale by Spanish standards, to win the North American Indians to Christianity.

This effort benefited from the triumph of the parliamentarians in the English Civil War, which created a more favourable official climate in the home country for the support of Puritan missionary enterprise overseas. In 1649 the Rump Parliament approved the founding of a corporation, the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in New England, to promote the cause of the conversion of the Indians by organizing the collection and disbursement of funds. The enterprise was therefore dependent on voluntary contributions from the faithful – a reflection of the growing tendency in the English world to rely on private and corporate initiative and voluntary associations to undertake projects which in the Hispanic world came within the official ambit of church and state.

As in Spanish America the missionary effort supported by the Society involved the compilation of dictionaries and grammars, and the preparation of catechisms in the native languages. It also included something that did not figure on the Spanish agenda – the translation into a native Indian tongue of the Bible, a heroic enterprise completed by Eliot in 1659 and published in 1663. The fundamental importance of the written word to Protestantism strengthened the arguments for the schooling of Indians, and considerable effort – including the construction of an Indian College at Harvard in 1655 – was to be devoted to the teaching of Indian children. But the most spectacular, if not the most successful, feature of the New England missionary enterprise was the establishment of the `praying towns’ – the fourteen village communities set up by Eliot in Massachusetts for converted Indians. The practical purpose behind their foundation was similar to that which inspired the creation of the so-called reducciones in the Spanish colonial world from the mid-sixteenth century: it was easier to indoctrinate Indians and to shield them from the corrupting influences of the outside world if they were concentrated in large settlements, instead of living dispersed.


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Filed under Britain, language, migration, North America, religion

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