Monday, May 21, 2012

John Eliot, Missionary among the Algonquin, 1690


Today we remember the life and ministry of John Eliot. A brief biography can be found by clicking here.

I love the preposition chosen by the editors of Holy Women, Holy Men: we remember John Eliot today not as a missionary to, but among, the Algonquin people. One could develop a whole theology of ministry based on the difference between those two prepositions. 

Eliot was born in 1604 in Hertfordshire, England and educated at Cambridge. His nonconformist views brought him into con´Čéict with the established church and he departed for New England in 1631. Arriving in Boston later that year, he became a pastor in Roxbury, where he became concerned with the welfare of the native populations and learned the Algonquin language. 

Whether it happens instantaneously or after many years of study, it is for me always a Pentecost miracle when someone learns to communicate in another language. I so admire people like John Eliot, who didn’t sit back and wait for the Algonquin to learn the King’s English, but instead got busy learning how to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that would allow them to hear it in her own native tongue. And then, starting with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, he began translating the Bible into Algonquin; from there he moved on to Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew. By 1661, thirty years after he arrived here (and fifty years after that scandalous publication of the King James Bible) his Algonquin New Testament was published, a copy of which he sent to King Charles II. And two years later his translation of the entire Bible was published. A copy of that Bible is located just a few miles from where I live and work, at The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

I think the collect for this feast day is a good one for the Church in our day to be praying. We began by thanking God for the imagination and conviction of John Eliot, who brought both literacy and the Bible to the Algonquin people, and who reshaped their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve God and to give God praise. We could all use a double-share of imagination and conviction in the Church today, couldn’t we?  Great Creator, source of mercy…give us some of that imagination and conviction that you gave John Eliot!

And may God give to us (as God gave to John Eliot) a desire to share the Good News with others in their own native tongues. Sometimes that may mean simply learning to speak to a new generation that hasn’t a clue what words like "narthex" or "tippet" mean. And to labor for mutual understanding and trust, as we continue to shape and reshape the communities where we live and work into fellowships that serve God and give God praise. 

May these words be prayed not only on our lips, but through our lives and the work that we have been given to do.

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