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John Eliot's Mission to the Indians before King Philip's War.

John Eliot's Mission to the Indians before King Philip's War. By Richard W. Cogley. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. xiv + 331 pp. $45.00 cloth.

Richard W. Cogley takes issue with historians such as Francis Jennings who, he believes, have depicted missionary John Eliot as an agent of Puritan cultural aggression and despoliation of Indian lands. Yet this is no hagiography of the sainted "Apostle to the Indians," but a carefully argued and meticulously documented analysis; of the work and writings of the English-born Puritan. Once Eliot's mission began in 1646, concedes Cogley, "there was an ever present possibility that its function as an instrument for Puritan self-aggrandizement would overshadow its role as a vehicle for Indian redemption." Eliot resisted such a development, however. As he grew more familiar with Indians and their problems, "he regarded the mission as a way of protecting Native Americans, whether Christian or not, from land-grabbing settlers and from Indian marauders" (4-5). Further, unlike many fellow Puritans, Eliot exhibited a degree of tolerance for tribal cultures, and sought Indian acceptance of the missionary venture. And, concludes Cogley, if we compare postcontact but premission conditions of Indian converts, "[t]he proselytes, on balance, were better off materially after the birth of the mission than they were during the early settlement period" (245).

To argue forcefully this revisionist view, Cogley employs a conventional narrative approach, and bases his conclusions mostly on published primary sources, especially the writings of Eliot and other Puritans. He opens with an analysis of Puritan missionary imperatives. Despite the Great Seal of Massachusetts, which depicted an Indian imploring Christians to "come over and help us," most seventeenth-century New Englanders gave only perfunctory attention to missions. Cogley convincingly cites reasons such as the struggle to build new communities, the language barrier, millennialist thinking (the "Jews first" argument), and ecclesiastical polity (the pastoral responsibilities of Congregational ministers left little time for missionizing). Yet Eliot and a few others overcame these hindrances, and Cogley employs an "affective model" (5) to explain both Puritan incentives, such as they were, and native responses. Above all, the apparent desire of Indians for the new way "convinced the saints that a mission was now possible" (40). Cogley examines the early development of the mission, and devotes a full chapter to Eliot's changing millennialist views--more than one strictly needs to know, perhaps, but important for a fuller understanding of the missionary's conviction that Indians too were important to God's plan. Detailed analyses follow on the founding of Natick (the most fame, us Indian "praying town"), the growth of the remaining thirteen such towns, and missionary endeavors in other parts of New England. There is a useful comparison of Eliot's work and the more successful--in Cogley's view--Mayhew mission at Martha's Vinyard. Then Cogley examines the funding of the Eliot mission and the forms of supervision exercised by Puritan agencies. He believes that a kind of "benign neglect" (231) evolved in the decades before King Philip's War in 1675, with Christian Indians exercising a high degree of self-rule within each town.

Although focusing heavily on Puritan activities and writings (necessarily so, in light of surviving evidence), Cogley does not neglect native responses. His "affective model" employs a New Social History emphasis on Indian manipulation of missions for individual and group needs. This coping strategy could achieve strikingly ironic results, as when Massechusett Indians "used the mission to return the office of sachem to a more [traditional] consensual form" (56). At times perhaps Cogley overstates Indian freedom of action. He claims, for example, that "one is struck by the extent to which the mission was shaped by the Indians rather than by Eliot" (244). In the broader cultural-political power game who, I wonder, did more of the shaping?

Throughout, the author carefully identifies Indian individuals, groups, and places, even supplying appendices on these issues. Yet such attention to detail can become tedious. Chapter 6, a necessary examination of the expansion of "praying towns" beyond Natick, is a blur of names, mostly Indian, and other chapters are sometimes similarly burdened. Occasionally Indians emerge as individuals--Metacom (King Philip), for example--but few others do. Few Puritans emerge clearly either, except for Eliot. The Apostle's writings "abound in biographical details about the proselytes" (247)--this material, along with surviving Indian conversion narratives, might have been more exploited to allow individuals to emerge. An epilogue on the postwar fate of the mission would have been nice. Words such as "may" and "probably" appear often. Is this a weakness, or an admirable postmodernist foregrounding of evidentiary problems?

A few more comparative comments could have been instructive, on missions beyond New England (say, the contemporaneous Southwest) or beyond the seventeenth century (say, the great nineteenth-century drive to bring "Christian civilization" to the tribes). Historians may accept some of Cogley's arguments, yet still be assailed by troubling questions. To what extent does even a sensitive and relatively tolerant missionary become a destructive presence within the native group? Was Eliot, like other missionaries in other times, a defender of native rights and a facilitator of adaptation, or merely a well-intentioned fifth columnist, dividing and weakening the people in their struggle for survival against the dominant society? There are no simple answers to such questions. But John Eliot's Mission, a significant contribution to both New England Indian history and to the broader history of Indian missions, effectively raises them yet again for the contemplation of all those interested in the history of cross-cultural confrontations.

Michael C. Coleman University of Jyvaskyla
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Author:Coleman, Michael C.
Publication:Church History
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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