Published on November 9, 2010 by John
Praying Indian is a 17th century term referring to Native Americans of New England who converted to Christianity. While many groups are referred to by this term, it is more commonly used for tribes that were organized into villages, known as praying towns by Puritan leader John Eliot.
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In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an “Act for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians.” This act and the success of Reverend John Eliot and other missionaries preaching Christianity to the New England tribes raised interest in England. In 1649 the Long Parliament passed an Ordination forming “A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England” which raised funds to support the cause. Contributors raised approximately £12,000 pounds sterling to invest in this cause, to be used mainly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in New York. Reverend Eliot received financial aid from this corporation to start schools for teaching the Native Americans. The Indian nations involved appear to have included the Massachusett and the Nipmuc.
On October 28, 1646, in Nonantum (now Newton), Reverend Eliot gave his first sermon to Native Americans in their own language. This happened in the wigwam of Waban, the first convert of his tribe. Waban later offered his son to be taught the English ways and served as an interpreter. By 1675 20% of New England’s Natives lived in Praying Towns.Christian Indian Towns were eventually located throughout Eastern and Central Massachusetts. They included: Littleton (Nashoba), Lowell (Wamesit, initially incorporated as part of Chelmsford), Grafton (Hassanamessit), Marlborough (Okommakamesit), Hopkinton (Makunkokoag), Canton (Punkapoag), Mendon-Uxbridge (Wacentug), and Natick. Today only Natick retains its original name (a proposal to rename it “Eliot” was rejected by the Massachusetts General Court).
These towns were situated so as to serve as an outlying wall of defense for the colony, but came to an end in 1675 during King Philip’s War when residents were first confined to their villages (thus restricted from their farms and unable to feed themselves), and many were confined on Deer Island in Boston Harbor.
Criticism of these towns vary in degrees. Some believe that acculturation was imposed on the Natives and they had very little choice in the matter.