Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are men not only conspicuous in the pages of American history; their images are carved into the stone face of Mt. Rushmore. The record of the lives of some men makes it nearly impossible for them to be forgotten by future generations.
But there are countless other great individuals whose names and works are forgotten, or were never truly known.
In my reading this week I was reintroduced to John Eliot. You have never heard of John Eliot. However, Edward Everett, 19th century governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard, said that since the Apostle Paul, a nobler Christian than Eliot had not lived. William Carey, the father of modern missions, included John Eliot in his short list of “canonized heroes” of the gospel. Richard Baxter, the chief of English Puritans, wrote to Eliot, “There is no man on earth whose work I think more honorable than yours.”
John Eliot was a 17th century Puritan. While still relatively young, he began to consider following the Mayflower pilgrims to the New World. Such was his reputation that some of those among whom he lived asked, if they ventured across the Atlantic, would he accompany them as their pastor? Their faith and boldness stirred him. Soon he was helping settle a new community in what became Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Not all those who pioneered the New World viewed the native Indians as a danger or a nuisance. To Eliot they were souls for whom Christ died.
To reach these people with the gospel, the language barrier would first have to be crossed. Eliot added to his already heavy workload the difficult task of learning the unwritten language of the Algonquin.
When he learned enough to begin preaching, there was fruit almost immediately. He preached on the Ten Commandments to show the need for salvation. Then he preached on the love of God in Christ to show the possibility of salvation. Opportunities to meet with interested natives increased. They followed his sermons with many questions, the most difficult for him to answer was, “Why has no white man told us this before?”
Eliot made many converts, and he wanted these new believers to grow in grace. He poured literally years of his life into developing a written form of the Algonquin language and then translating the Bible into Algonquin. It is interesting to note that the first Bible printed in the New World was in the language of Native Americans.
So many Indians were won to Christ, and so dramatic was the change in their lives, that several Christian communities called “prayer towns” were formed.
Like our Lord and the apostles, adversity and disappointment marked Eliot’s later labors. Wars, bigotry, and drunkenness all combined to diminish and scatter flocks. But Eliot persevered. When he died in 1680 at the age of 85, he left behind saints won from savagery, a Bible and literacy where before there was ignorance, and an example that inspired Christians such as David Brainerd to extend the gospel beyond racial and cultural boundaries.
History books used to make mention of John Eliot, but no longer. His significance has faded from memory.
In the last chapter of Philippians, Paul wrote of “other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.” Paul’s letters mention dozens of names. There were also significant fellow laborers not named in Scripture, but their names are written in heaven. This continues to be true. A few saints are well known. Most are not. Yet all of God’s servants are well known before His throne. That is where the record is kept that matters most.
When John Eliot died his last words were, “Welcome joy!” Jesus told the apostles, “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). John Eliot’s name is largely forgotten now, and the names of the hundreds he won to Christ were never recorded. But they are written in heaven. Joy indeed.