John Eliot and the Conversion of Native Peoples in Boston’s North End
In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie examines the efforts of missionaries in the late 1700s and early 1800s to urge Indigenous people in Massachusetts to convert to Christianity. She focuses on Rev. John Eliot, a Congregational minister in Boston’s North End, and his work with a prominent missionary group, the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America. Jaimie also considers the relationship between Congregational missionaries and Anglican missionaries as they both set out to impose their faith and cultural norms on Indigenous people.
See below for the video, primary sources, and episode transcript!
Excerpts from the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America’s Historical Sketch
Members of the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America
Excerpts from The Character of Rev. John Eliot, D.D.
The Rev. John Eliot Death Record
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. My name is Jaimie Crumley. I am the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated. Today we will discuss the efforts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Massachusetts men to urge Indigenous peoples to convert to Christianity. I will also explain how that story connects to religious life here in the North End.
In a previous video, I talked about a young Indigenous woman named Elizabeth who was baptized here at the Old North Church in 1733. I told you that I would continue to track the history of Indigenous peoples here in Boston into the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and let you know what I learned. Today, I want to make good on that promise by telling you about the Eliot family of Boston and their efforts to Christianize Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts.
Rev. Andrew Eliot and his son John were ordained Congregational ministers. Both men served the New North Church, which is a Congregational Church here in Boston’s North End neighborhood during their careers as ministers.1 Both men were passionate about ministering to Indigenous peoples and converting them to Christianity.
The Rev. John Eliot, a Boston-born minister who died in 1813, worked alongside his colleagues here in Boston to obtain funding to carry out this work. He was a founding member of the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America.2 The group was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1787 but functioned earlier than that without official state sanctioning. The membership pages reveal that the group’s members included Massachusetts ministers, lawyers, and judges. The Society continued into the 1930s, which allowed it to participate in the push to “civilize” Indigenous peoples and newly emancipated Black people after the Civil War.
The Society was founded by Congregationalists who were opposed to Anglican missionary work. Yet, by the late-nineteenth century, Anglican missionaries worked alongside missionaries of other Christian denominations to convert American Indians and newly emancipated Black people. In a future video, I can discuss the Society’s late nineteenth and early twentieth-century work.
You might be noticing a few unusual things about the Society for Propagating the Gospel already. In a previous video, I talked about a different Rev. John Eliot. That Rev. John Eliot was the famed English missionary to Indigenous peoples here in Massachusetts. He did much of his work in Natick, the hometown of a mixed-race woman named Beulah Speen who wed her husband Saul Rogers, a Black enslaved man, here at Old North in 1767. However, the John Eliot I am talking about today is a different minister with the same name. The group name Society for Propagating the Gospel might also feel familiar if you. In a previous video, I discussed a sermon that Rev. Timothy Cutler, Old North’s first rector, made before a Church of England-sponsored group called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1754.
The missionary zeal of the two John Eliots and the two Societies for Propagating the Gospel indicates that an eighteenth-century desire to Christianize Indigenous peoples was ecumenical.3 The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (or the SPG) was the largest and most influential missionary organization in the British Atlantic world. The SPG sent Anglican clergy all over the Atlantic world. Their responsibility was to help bring the message of the Church of England into the Americas and set the stage for what would become the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.
The SPG had two missions. They worked to “return” English people who had left the Church of England to Anglicanism. They also endeavored to convert Native Americans and Black enslaved people. In this context, the word “convert” means that they wanted to do more than change belief systems. For the SPG, to convert people was to change how people lived and convince them to conform to ways of life that the British Empire deemed virtuous. For Native peoples, converting meant ceding their rights to live freely on their sacred homelands and to practice their spirituality and culture in ways they saw fit. For Black enslaved people, converting meant ceding their right to have autonomy over their lives.
Efforts to Christianize Indigenous peoples began in the British Empire and other European Empires. However, American-born men continued the work. Several white, Massachusetts-born men formed the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians and Others in North America so they could encourage Indigenous peoples to conform to the white Christian or “settler,” to use the term that is more common in Native Studies, way of life.4 According to the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America’s Historical Sketch, they first tried to form their group in 1762. They fundraised and received a charter from the colonial government. However, when they took their plan to England, it was refused. The British government feared the group would compete with the Anglican Church’s SPG.
Things changed in 1787 when gentlemen in Massachusetts received notice from a group of men in Scotland. The Scottish men also wanted to convert Native Americans as part of their work to spread Christianity. According to the historical sketch, when Society members learned about the Scottish group’s efforts, they were “ashamed that more solicitude for this object should be discovered by foreigners than themselves.” Society members resumed their efforts to acquire funding to Christianize all of North America.
They returned to their work with the assistance of a substantive donation that they received from the estate of the late John Alford of Charlestown. Alford was a professor at Harvard University. Upon receiving the money from Alford’s estate, they felt they had the resources to tend to what they called the “best interests” of the Indigenous peoples of Massachusetts. How they determined these best interests is unknown. Their records provide no details that indicate that they discussed the needs of Indigenous peoples with them before starting their efforts to Christianize them. Their records also do not reflect what kinds of social support, if any, Indigenous peoples asked them to provide.
The Society stated that its primary goal was to “civilize” the Natives. They believed Native peoples could not be converted if they maintained Indigenous cultural practices. Therefore, the Society purchased plows and hoes to encourage land cultivation. They also distributed instructional books and built schools.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among Indians and Others in North America continued its work. Group members also supported the work of other organizations that worked to convert and educate Indigenous and Black people in the United States. During the nineteenth century, missionary groups became less competitive across denominational lines. Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists collaborated in their efforts to force Indigenous and Black people to conform to the American way. The records of the Massachusetts Society indicate that it encouraged its missionaries to avoid controversy with other missionaries and to work collaboratively with them when possible.
When we think of missionary work among Indigenous peoples, we tend to focus on the missionaries who went West. The Society’s eighteenth-century efforts demonstrate that Massachusetts men were among the earliest to begin missionary campaigns. Their efforts were local. The Society was led by men including Rev. John Eliot, the minister at the New North Church on Hanover Street in the North End, and Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, Eliot’s friend and correspondent with whom he founded the Massachusetts Historical Society. Together, these men led these so-called civilizing efforts, which preceded the formation of American Indian Boarding Schools in the late nineteenth century. The purpose of the boarding schools was to take American Indian children away from their homes and cultures and forcibly assimilate them into mainstream or white American culture. In the schools, their teachers taught them new ways of dressing, styling themselves, speaking, cooking, and worshipping.5
Rev. John Eliot died in 1813. He worked with the Society during its first twenty years in existence. He died at age 58 due to what the North End burial records called “spasms of the heart.” Even after its first generation of leaders died, the Society continued its work. The Society pooled its resources to spread Christianity and American cultural norms throughout North America. These missionary efforts intensified after the Civil War shifted the social hierarchy in the United States. There will be more on that in a future video.
Please share your thoughts about the work Rev. John Eliot and his collaborators in Boston did to Christianize local Indigenous peoples as a comment below this video. You can see this video and others on our website by visiting www.oldnorth.com/itu. You may also contact me directly by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The New North Church was a Congregational Church on Hanover Street that no longer exists. It is not related to the Old North Church, which is an Anglican (Episcopal) parish on Salem Street. Both churches were located in Boston’s North End.
2. Many of the group’s records have been digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society.
3. The word ecumenical describes collaborative work between different Christian sects or denominations.
4. In the book Native Studies Keywords edited by Stephanie Nohelani Teves, Andrea Smith, and Michelle H. Raheja, contributor Dean Itsuji Saranillio calls settler colonialism “a working concept that should remain under revision.” However, in short, Saranillio calls settler colonialism a “formation of colonial power that ‘destroys to replace.’” It is “the work of replacing one landscape for another, one people for another, one mode of production for another.” This kind of replacement requires a genocide of Native peoples and is an ongoing project.
5. You can read more about American Indian Boarding Schools here.