The Praying Towns

WinthropThe Puritans had imagined it would be easy. Fervent believers themselves, they expected the native people of New England would embrace Christianity. It was just a matter of presenting the gospel to natives and they would immediately cast aside their own “heathen idols” and convert to faith in the one, true God. They would kneel and thank the English for bringing them the Word. Wouldn’t they?
Widespread conversion of the natives had been one of the Puritan’s justifications for settling in New England. It was in the royal charter and the governor’ oath. Yet for the first twenty-five years, there were hardly any converts at all. There was no missionary program or even any attempt to launch one. The leaders of the New England colonies were consumed with more pressing matters, until critical voices grew so loud the situation became embarrassing.
But converting the natives proved formidable, choked with obstacles. The polity of the Puritan church didn’t help. There was no central hierarchy; each church was autonomous and answered to no higher authority. And there wasn’t enough money for missionary programs. The Puritans were already struggling to pay their debtors in England for the goods and supplies they needed. Then there was the problem of who could do the missionary work itself. There was a shortage of ministers as it was.
A Puritan minister was called by a specific congregation as a pastor or a teacher (and often as both), and his primary obligation was to the members of that church. He was on call twenty-four/seven. This meant that the only missionary ministers were ones who stole time from their regular parish duties.
Then there was the fact that tribal religious and political leaders rightly regarded mission work as a threat to their power and the stability of their communities. Algonquian languages were complex, unwritten, and tonal, difficult for the English to master. Dialects varied from tribe to tribe. There was also the matter of tribal customs, which required dedicated interaction between missionaries and natives. There was the question of how a minister could effectively communicate the abstract European ideas and doctrines to people who had no context for them.
Finally, in 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed “An Act for the Propagation of

Rev. John Eliot

Rev. John Eliot

the Gospel” and soon afterwards, money began to flow in from English contributors.
One minister – John Eliot, of Roxbury – successfully rose to the challenge. With the help of Samuel Danforth, he managed to juggle his parish duties so that he could spend large amounts of time among the natives without forfeiting the loyalty of his English parishioners. He must have been a man of enormous energy and charisma, for he not only preached to the natives, but also founded a school, directed the translation of the Bible into the language of the Massachusett tribe, helped to edit the Bay Psalm Book, and established the fourteen “praying towns,” in an attempt to consolidate converted natives in planned Christian towns.
The “praying towns” were located in a ring around the coastal English towns. The only residents were converted natives and their families. They governed themselves (under the authority of the Court) and led their own Christian worship services. On paper, at least, they were adhering to English customs of dress, labor, and religion. They gave up hunting and become completely agricultural. They lived in square, English houses and follow English marriage customs.
At least, that’s what Eliot’s English funders were told. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that there’s no archeological evidence that the converts actually adhered to these regulations.
The mission to the natives turned out to be a short-lived experiment, lasting less than thirty years. In 1675, King Philip’s War erupted, resulting in the near-destruction of native culture, and the dissolution of most of the praying towns.


Sealing the Deal

 United States public domain

United States public domain

The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony shows a Native American man standing between two evergreen trees.  He is naked except for a loincloth of leaves, and he’s holding a bow in one hand and arrows pointing down (signifying peace) in the other.  From his mouth emerges a scroll, bearing the words “Come over and help us,” an allusion to Acts 16:9, which records the Apostle Paul having a vision in which he saw a man begging him: “Come over into Macedonia and help us.”

It seems a strange image for a colony of Puritans whose primary reason for settling in New England was freedom from religious persecution.   It suggests that there were other, perhaps equally significant, motivations.  It also betrays an acute awareness that the land they were “coming over to” was already occupied.

Though the seal portrays a native asking for help, there’s no evidence that the native Algonquian people of New England ever felt the need for English help, let alone that they begged for it.  So the seal is clearly not based on historical events.

John Eliot (United States public domain)

John Eliot (United States public domain)

An obvious conclusion is that the seal reflects the Puritans’ missionary zeal.  But, in fact, they didn’t make much effort to convert the natives for more than a decade, even then, it was largely the efforts of one man: John Eliot, the minister at Roxbury.  And his labors were only marginally successful.

Why, then, was this image chosen to represent the colony?  Why not a seal showing the colonist’s connection to the wealth and power of England?  Why not one representing the resources available in the new world?

The simple answer is that the seal was a public relations tactic, and its purpose was economic.  To understand this, we need to look at what was going on in England.  The great migration of Puritans from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony started in 1630.  The Puritans were able to raise money to support their migration to New England, by promising great economic benefits for their investors.

But, when the civil war in England resulted in Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power, many Puritans decided to go back. That left those who stayed concerned about financial backing.  It was at this point that the emphasis shifted from religious freedom to converting the natives.  It wasn’t an all-out effort, but it got attention – and funds.  To the English investor, it appeared to be a worthy Christian endeavor, with obvious economic benefits.  If the natives could be “helped” by being converted to Christianity and integrated into English society, then their land and resources would come with them.

The money poured in and John Eliot began his ventures into Nipmuc territory to proselytize and baptize.  Massachusetts Bay Colony had an image to seal the deal.

Living in the Cold


Here in Vermont we’ve been through a couple of cold spells and last Friday night it was 20 below.  We woke up Saturday morning to find our pipes had frozen.  It prompted me to wonder how people in the 1600’s coped with New England winters.  We know the Pilgrims survived their first winter thanks to the help of the natives.  But while the Massachusetts Bay Puritan settlers were shivering by open hearths in their drafty frame houses, what were the natives doing?

For centuries, the Algonquian people of New England had moved with the seasons.  In winter, they moved away from the open valleys with their icy winds and drifting snow and sought the protection of inland mountains and deep forests.  Their wetus were dismantled and the insulating mats and hides were backpacked to their new location.

Their winter dwellings were sometimes larger, especially ceremonial houses, and designed to shelter several families, equipped with two or more smoke holes. Two or more entrances, covered with deerskins, provided access.  The outside was covered with tree bark and the inside lined with woven reed mats.  They wore capes, leggings and moccasins of animal hides, with the fur-side turned toward the body. Late Summer 040

Winter was hunting season.  The men built snowshoes and toboggans for stalking and hauling game. They tracked rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, deer, moose, and bear.  They also shot or snared turkeys, quails, partridges, ducks and geese.  Carnivores such as fox, wildcats, and wolves, were not eaten, though their skins were valued.  Every part of killed animals were used, from the meat to the sinews, bladders, and bones.

When the weather became severe, the people stayed in their villages and relied on stored food they’d harvested from their summer gardens.  It was a leisurely season during which they socialized, told stories, repaired their tools, prepared hides, wove baskets and decorated their clothing with dyed quills.

Although there are people who relish winter and its outdoor sports, many of us think of winter as a time of hardship, when snow and ice make it often difficult to pursue our normal activities.  Maybe the problem isn’t winter, but our own reluctance to adjust our habits to the season.  Maybe we could learn something from the Algonquians and appreciate winter as an opportunity to spend leisurely time together, relaxing, socializing and telling stories.