Were Protestant Native Conversions Bona Fide?

I just read a very interesting article by the historian James Axtell in his book After Columbus. The article seeks to address the question: “Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?”

Often the claim is made that Christian missionary attempts in North America were all about numbers, economics, land, and politics, not about the sincere, godly desire to spread wondrous news of the gospel to the lost. As Axtell remarks:

“The Puritans, those favorite whipping boys of the enlightened, predictably fare the worst, particularly “Apostle” John Eliot of Massachusetts. According to Francis Jennings and Neal Salisbury, Eliot’s goals were so tainted by a barely hidden political agenda and his methods so “repressive” that his religious results must be drastically discounted. Only after the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded for sixteen years did Eliot decide to get into what Jennings calls the “missionary racket,” largely for the annuity offered by an English noblewoman to encourage American missions. He used an Indian “slave” (a war captive) as a language teacher, and in 1646 talked the colonial “oligarchy” into outlawing the practice of native religion under pain of death and into setting aside some land, purloined from the Indians, as bribes to converts seeking “secure habitation” in the chaos of the Puritan land-grab. These reservations or “praying towns” became the major Puritan institution of “cold war” against the natives.When surrounding tribes would not voluntarily submit to English dominion, Eliot sent faithful warriors from these towns, armed with guns and ammunition purchased with missionary funds, to “compel them to come in.” Moreover, in his published reports abroad, Eliot cooked his results and inflated his own role in converting native New England. Although Eliot claimed that some 1100 Indians had been “subjected to the gospel” by 1674, Jennings could find only seventy-four in full church communion and another forty-five who had been baptized, a total of 119 or just over 10 percent of those claimed for Christ’s battalions. Richard Bourne of Plymouth and especially the Thomas Mayhews, Junior and Senior, of Martha’s Vineyard “outperformed Eliot in almost every re-spect,” largely because of Eliot’s “authoritarian and repressive” methods and corrupting political ends.”

johneliotHowever, Axtell demonstrates quite effectively that these claims are simply not true. John Eliot and the New England puritans were extremely strict about who was considered a Christian and who could even become a member in a church. The amount of time and difficulty it took to become a member in a church, illustrates that the missionaries were not simply out there for numbers, economics, or politics. Rather, it illustrates a sincere interest on the part of the missionary to seek a true conversion and Biblical understanding of Christianity. Also, on the part of the native, it illustrates a sincerity of heart to the doctrines and practices of Christianity. The dedication that the natives had to learning the Scriptures and protestant theology shows a deep valuing of the gospel. The latter part of this long paragraph is especially illustrative of this.


First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language
First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language

Axtell demonstrates all this when he states:


“Puritan missionaries put their candidates to an equally hard test [contrasting the puritans to the Jesuit missionaries in New Frace]. Eliot’s flagship church at Natick was not formally gathered until nine years after the town was established and Eliot began to preach and catechize there regularly. In 1652, the second year of his ministry there, Eliot asked his most promising neophytes to make “preparatory confessions” to him, which he then read to the elders of neighboring English churches. A month or two later, the candidates made full “public confessions” before a panel of visiting clergymen.The following year Eliot and Thomas Mayhew published both sets of confessions in London in order to gather the opinion of English clergymen on the sincerity and suitability of the Indians as potential Christians. In 1654, after assurance from England had arrived, eight natives were given a final grilling before Eliot’s Roxbury congregation. Although their answers to 101 questions on Scripture, Protestant belief, and the conversion experience were entirely satisfactory, Eliot weighed their knowledge and behavior for another six years before allowing them to subscribe to a covenant of faith and to become a true church. The informed specificity and emotional depth of these early confessions simply cannot sustain Salisbury’s suspicions about their quality in comparison with those by colonial candidates.They are not only as probing of the inner “morphology of conversion” as English confessions, but they contain distinctively Indian elements that should allay fears that the minister was merely dictating, or that the Indians were merely parroting, a standard form of confession. As to the natives ‘knowledge of Scripture and Puritan theology, the better place to look is not in the confessions but in the searching questions the Indians asked during instruction or following sermons. Many of the questions drove right to the heart of Christianity’s historical and philosophical contradictions, pushing the missionaries to the walls of their knowledge. The Indians’ ready “faculty to frame hard and difficult questions” demonstrated their grasp of the intricacies of Christian theology and European arts and sciences. When they plunged into queries about biblical history, death, and the problem of evil, the missionaries often must have wished that they were dealing with English parishioners who took more for granted.”


Axtell, James. 1988. After Columbus : Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 20, 2017).

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