American English Missions

The English entered North America after the Spanish and the French. They, too, were confident that their own particular form of Christianity was superior to those in Europe and far superior to the religions practiced by Native Americans.

For decades, scholars wrote that the English, French, and Spanish modes of colonization were fundamentally different. It was believed that since the Spanish and French were interested in conquest and the fur trade, they were more concerned with religion’s pacifying effects; as the English were settlers, and their industrious farms expanded into Native American territory, they left no room for compromise with native religions. Recent scholarship has shown that the English were concerned about the natives’ spiritual well-being.

The first and most famous English missionary efforts spread from the Puritan colonies at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. The English, like other Europeans, found North America’s indigenous population sorely lacking the accoutrements of civilization. The Puritans did believe that the Native Americans could be educated out of their backwardness, although the conversion process might be long and arduous. As in the Spanish and French mind-sets, the natives had to quit acting so much like natives if serious religious reeducation was to take place.

In the 1640s, John Eliot and his associates helped to establish towns of praying Indians, most notably Natick, near some English settlements. From this privileged vantage point, Native Americans in New England could learn about civilized life in preparation for their conversion. John Eliot also translated the Bible into Algonquian and published a series of fictional dialogues between native people concerning the basic tenets of Puritan faith. Literacy and education were crucial aspects of English Puritan faith, and their missions reflected these goals. Over time, missionary efforts suffered as English settlements expanded and placed new pressures on native communities. Tensions boiled over in the 1670s during King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict that divided New England along racial lines.

American English Missions Photo Gallery


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