The 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
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.