March 23, 2011

John Eliot and the Algonquin Language

In the 1600s in the American colonies, many of the groups of settlers tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity. William Penn saw it as part of his holy mission in Pennsylvania to convert the Native Americans there to Quakerism and the Puritans in Massachusetts tried to convert many Native Americans to Calvinism.

The Puritans did not understand the Native American culture because it differed so much from their own. To the Puritans, the Natives acted like uncivilized animals. They thought the Natives ran around in the forest, practically naked, like children and considered it their religious duty to "civilize" them.

The Puritans ended up kidnapping Natives and sending them to small villages called "Praying Towns" where they were taught religion, how to dress and act like the English, writing and math. These praying towns were not effective until one man, John Eliot decided to take a different approach. With help of a Native convert, Eliot studied the Native language and in 1663, translated the Bible and Puritan Catechism to help teach the Native Americans. He also gave sermons to them in their language. After this many Native Americans were willing to go to prayer towns and learn to live like the English.

Eliot's Bible inadvertently helped save the Algonquin language, which did not have a writing system.Today, fewer than 2,700 people can speak the language but many Native languages were wiped out completely.

For those of you interested in the Algonquin language, Eliot's "Indian Grammar" can be read online for free here. There is an excerpt of the book below:


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!



  2. Thanks, Kim. I think Native American Languages are fascinating and I hate that many languages have died out.

  3. VERY interesting indeed! I took a course on Native Americans last year; but because it was just a one-semester course, we skipped on a lot of things, of course. Like this. (Besides, it was more focused on what the people were most likely like in pre-contact period).

  4. Hana, I think that it is awesome you got to take a whole semester on it! Our college doesn't offer anything like that right now.

  5. Eliot is one of my favorite figures in early (post-Columbian) American history. He's certainly less well known than other Puritan figures.


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