John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues”

In my intro course to American religion, we recently read some excerpts from John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues,” written around 1670. The dialogues were intended to help train Native converts to Christianity (Massachusett converts to Puritanism, to be more precise) to serve as missionaries to their people. In the imagined dialogue, a missionary named Piumbukhou returns to a village called Nashaurreg (apparently after an absence of 20 years, based on clues dropped during the conversation), where he tries to explain to his relatives why their traditions are now dung in his mouth compared to the sweet honey of Christianity. The style of Piumbukhou’s preaching feels quintessentially Puritan–systematized, long-winded, and, let’s be frank, boring except when he’s unleashing polarizing metaphors to condemn unregenerate Native ways (like the dung/honey metaphor I just paraphrased).

I presume that the questions and challenges posed to Piumbukhou by his Native interlocutors are based on questions Eliot had actually encountered. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, by this interchange. (Note that the non-Christian Natives, unlike the Christianized Piumbukhou, don’t get names.)

KINSMAN. […] But how shall I know that you say true? Our forefathers were (many of them) wise men, and we have wise men now living. They all delight in these our delights. They have taught us nothing about our soul, and God, and heaven, and hell, and joy and torment in the life to come. Are you wiser than our fathers? May not we rather think that English men have invented these stories to amaze us and fear us out of our old customs, and bring us to stand in awe of them, that they might wipe us of our lands, and drive us into corners, to seek new ways of living, and new places too? And be beholding to them for that which is our own, and was ours, before we knew them.

ALL. You say right.

Note that Eliot represents this as a generally held suspicion on the part of the Natives: “All” the spectators agree with the Kinsman. Eliot’s response, in the mouth of Piumbukhou:

PIUM. The Book of God is no invention of Englishmen. It is the holy law of God himself, which was given unto man by God, before Englishmen had any knowledge of God; and all the knowledge which they have, they have it out of the Book of God. And this book is given to us as well as to them […] Yet this is also true, that we have great cause to be thankful to the English, and to thank God for them. For they had a good country of their own, but by ships sailing into these parts of the world, they heard of us, and of our country, and of our nakedness, ignorance of God, and wild condition. God put it into their hearts to desire them to come hither, and teach us the good knowledge of God; and their King gave them leave so to do, and in our country to have their liberty to serve God according to the word of God. And being come hither, we gave them leave freely to live among us. They have purchased of us a great part of those lands which they possess. They love us, they do us right, and no wrong willingly. If any do us wrong, it is without the consent of their rulers, and upon our complaints our wrongs are righted. They are (many of them, especially the ruling part) good men, and desire to do us good.

Eliot seems a touch sensitive here. “We could have stayed back in England, where things were fine for us,” he insists, “but instead we crossed the ocean to bring the gospel to you naked, wild savages out of the goodness of our hearts”–except, of course, being a good Calvinist, he has to clarify that God put that goodness in their hearts. I note that Eliot feels the need to invoke two different sources of legitimation for English colonization: first, the charter that the Puritans received from the king of England; but of course that doesn’t mean squat to the Massachusetts, so he adds, “Plus, you gave us permission to live here.” And, he continues, we’ve paid for, um, “a great part,” at least, of the lands we now possess.

Eventually a “kinswoman” tries to shut Piumbukhou down this way:

KINSWOMAN. You make long and learned discourses to us which we do not well understand. I think our best answer is to stop your mouth, and fill your belly with a good supper, and when your belly is full you will be content to take rest yourself, and give us leave to be at rest from these gastering and heart-trembling discourses. We are well as we are, and desire not to be troubled with these new wise sayings.

“Here–accept our hospitality, and stop trying to push your religion onto us.” A losing strategy–in the imagined dialogues and in real life.

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