October 28, 2014
Commemoration of the 368th anniversary of John Eliot’s first sermon to the native tribes of Massachusetts in his nascent ability to speak their language October 28, 1646.
As the opening of our tour season this year came near the date of John Eliot’s repose, so the close of this season of summer tours falls on the anniversary of Eliot’s first sermon in the native Algonquian language of the tribes of Massachusetts. I am proud to live near the site of that first sermon at Nonantum (“Rejoicing”), now a village of Newton. No celebration I know of was planned for this great, but forgotten memorial, so we memorialize it here with the hopes that someday Boston Pilgrim Tours may move beyond the downtown walking tour for John Eliot and develop a road trip that encompasses where he spent most of his life: in the wilderness, among his native flock of praying Indians.
Below is a somewhat romanticized description of that first sermon along with my pictures of the twentieth century memorial built to commemorate the event. You can visit the memorial yourself if you are ever near Oak Square in Brighton, for it is located on Eliot Memorial Road:
Cambridge, at first called the New Town, began to be settled the next year. It was originally intended to make it the capital of the province of Massachusetts, and the governor and other principal gentlemen began to build houses there. But neither then, nor after it had been determined to make Boston the seat of government, do we read of any molestation or injury from the red owners of the soil. They seem from the first to have regarded the new-comers with a sort of affectionate wonder. They often visited the houses of the settlers. Often they came on Sundays, and at other times, when religious or other business had drawn from home all but the women and the children. Entering in his noiseless way, the Indian saw the mother and her little ones unprotected and helpless, and he neither harmed nor frightened them. On every side was what seemed wondrous wealth to him, yet he seized nothing, he demanded nothing. Only, in his broken English, he asked for the food or clothing which he needed, and vanished again into the forest.
Waban, “The Wind,” originally lived at Musketaquid. “Grassy Brook,” settled in 1635, by the English, and named Concord. There his father-in-law, the Sachem Tahattawan, still lived, and there the tribe planted, and hunted, and fished. Waban, with Tasunsquaw, his wife. the eldest daughter of Tahattawan, and some others, hao, left “the Grassy Brook,” and its wide-spreading plains and, going to the south-east, had built their wigwams on the high lands near the Charles. There we find them on the afternoon of October 28th, 1646.
An autumn afternoon in the woods! Other words are not needed to convey to the mind ideas of the rich and vivid beauty which we all have seen and admired. Instantly lives in our memories the deep green of the cedar, contrasting with the scarlet and orange of maples, and the soft, golden hue of the ash. The crimson branches of the sumach gleam amid the buff, and purple, and olive of birch, or dogwood, or hickory, and our White Oak shows its yellow deepening into brown.
A rustle of the fallen leaves makes us turn suddenly, and we see in the path several figures unlike the pale settlers of “the New-town.” These men seem, as they stand there in the glowing woods, to have caught in their own forms and features something of the flush everywhere about them, and to have drunk in some of the effects of the frost and of the sun.
The first, who casts a glance towards the sky to see how much past noon it is, a grave and serious man, now in the full prime of life, is Waban. His companions are Wampas and Piambouhou, and perhaps Tahattawan. There are five or six in all. They walk down the path, in their usual manner, one behind another, in what we call Indian file, and exchange but few words as they go.
At a little distance they meet four English gentlemen on horseback. One of them is good Mr. Eliot, minister of Roxbury; another is Mr. Wilson, of Boston, also a minister,— supposed to be the writer of the only account we have of this meeting. Having saluted the new-comers in English, and bidden them welcome, Waban conducted them into his principal wigwam. There were already assembled many people, men, women and children, gathered from all quarters, and waiting, with feelings of mingled curiosity and awe, to hear what message the white man’s God had sent them.
There was Tasunsquaw, seated on the ground amid her relatives and companions. There was her eldest son, Weegrammomenet, known afterwards as Thomas Waban, standing, Mr. Wilson says, “by his father, among the rest of his Indian brethren, in plain clothes.”
All being quiet, one of the gentlemen prayed aloud in English, as the ministers thought themselves not well enough acquainted with the language of the Indians, “to express their hearts therein before God or them.” The Indians knew enough of the nature and object of prayer, to he aware that it was a very solemn act in which their visitors were now engaged, and they kept reverent silence while they listened to the accents of a strange speech, as that first prayer from Christian lips rose through the overhanging trees to the one true God, the Father and Saviour of all the races of mankind.
After the prayer, which was, I think, by Mr. Wilson, Mr. Eliot opened his English Bible and read from Ezekiel 37: 9: “Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.”
Now Mr. Eliot had selected this text, because of the resemblance which he saw between the dry bones of the open valley described by the prophet, and the state of his heathen congregation (” that forlorn generation,” Mr. Wilson calls them), and thought of no other application of the words. But, as you already know, the name Waban means wind; so, when Mr. Eliot translated his text into Indian, it seemed to say, Then said God unto me, Prophesy unto Waban, and say to Waban, Tims saith the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O Waban, and so forth.
To the Indian’s mind this seemed a personal call from the Englishman’s God. And who of us may venture to say that it was not such 1 Had not God directed the steps of both Englishman and Indian through those forty-two years of their lives, and brought them, the one from his home by “the Grassy Brook” of Massachusetts, the other from the shores of the German Sea, to that meeting in the rude wigwam on the hill, with the words of His old prophet before their minds.
Mr. Eliot and his host are said to have been of the same age, forty-two that year. One cannot help contrasting them,— the student from an English university, and the pupil of the wilderness. I believe no description of Mr. Eliot’s personal appearance is on record, but we may think of his face as expressing something of that “most sweet, humble, loving, and gracious, and enlarged spirit,” which his friend says he possessed. I seem to see his thoughtful, earnest look of mingled hope and pity, as he stands there with his English Bible in his hands, speaking solemnly and gently withal, to those who as yet have no Bible.
Waban is spoken of as “a man of gravity and counsel.” See him now, standing before Mr. Eliot, with his long, black hair hanging wildly about his neck. His erect and perfect form scarcely seems to breathe as he listens, and his piercing eye, accustomed to look far over hill and lake, is fixed on the speaker’s eye, as if looking through it far into his soul, to read there the truth of what is spoken.
The sermon lasted about an hour and a quarter, and was in the Indian language. The preacher recited and explained the Ten Commandments of Jehovah. He spoke of the creation and fall of man; of the greatness and holiness of God; of the sins that need repentance and forgiveness; of the joys of heaven; of the punishment of the wicked. He told them of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He made all his discourse as simple as possible, and Mr. Wilson calls these plain and familiar truths; but most wonderful and exciting they must have seemed to Waban and the others in his wigwam.
— from “The White Oak And Its Neighbors” in
Nonantum and Natick by Sarah Sprague Jacobs