Thursday, January 21, 2016

Puritan John Eliot Promotes Biblical Civil Law & Builds Chrisitian Civilization Among the Indians (Theonomy Applied)

John Eliot (1604-1690) was a Puritan and a Congregational pastor. He authored the important theonomic work The Christian Commonwealthand is well known for his endeavors to evangelize the Indians, for whom he sought to establish civil government based on God's word.

One author writes this of Eliot's labors to evangelize the Indians:
[H]e seized the banner of the cross, and, under the influence of faith and love, marched forth to take possession of a new territory, in the name of his Almighty Saviour. He turned his attention to the American Indians, in circumstances which entirely prevent the suspicion of his being actuated by improper motives; and, by a long life of active, enlightened, and persevering labour as an Evangelist, he made full proof of his ministry, and afforded an unequivocal testimony to the world, that he loved the cause of God as his own soul.[1] 
Eliot serves as a great example of applying a more thorough Great Commission: he understood that discipling nations involves teaching them to obey Christ in all areas of life, civil government included. And so in his ministry to the Indians, he didn't stop at their salvation: he sought to teach them about Christ's lordship over civil matters.

Rulers Must be Skilled in God's Word and Enforce Both Tables of the Law

In  The Christian Commonwealth: or,The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, John Eliot notes that rulers must enforce both tables of the law in matters "liable to Political observation"; and to faithfully execute their office, they must be skilled in the Scriptures:
The Office and Duty of all the Rulers, is to govern the people in the orderly and seasonable practice of all the Commandments of God, in actions liable to Political observation, whether of piety and love to God, or of justice, and love to man with peace. Hence they are keepers of both Tables, and are so to look that all the Commandments of God be observed, as to compel men to their undoubted duty, and punish them for their undoubted sins, errors and transgressions. A Case, a Duty, a Sin, is said then to be undoubted, when either it is expressly, or by general approved consequence, commanded or forbidden in the Scriptures; or when it hath passed the circuit of God's Polity, and received its final determination according to the Scriptures; unto which not to submit, is capital presumption. Hence again, Rulers are eminently concerned to maintain the purity of Religion, with all care and power; holiness, truth, and peace being much concerned herein. Hence again, all Rulers must be skillful in the Scriptures; they must read and meditate in the same all the days of their life, that thereby they may be enabled to do their Office faithfully, and religiously so long as they live.[2] 

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Civil Matters, and the Idolatry of Human Wisdom

The Puritan Cotton Mather writes this about John Eliot's view that Scripture is sufficient for civil government:
Such an opinion about the perfection of the scripture had he, that he thus expressed himself upon this occasion, God will bring nations into distress and perplexity, that so they may be forced unto the scriptures; all governments will be shaken, that men may be forced at length to pitch upon that firm foundation, the Word of God.[3] 
(The "occasion" that Mather speaks of is when Eliot helped Indians to establish a civil covenant, which we discuss later.)

For Eliot, Scripture is sufficient for civil government  even to the punishment of crimes:
It is also necessary to have persons, and all other Instruments, for the inflicting of all kinds of Punishments, which the Law of God appointeth.[4] 
Thus, to deny Sola Scriptura in matters of the state is to deny the sufficiency and the perfection of the Scriptures:
There is undoubtedly a form of Civil Government instituted by God himself in the holy Scriptures; whereby any Nation may enjoy all the ends and effects of Government in the best manner, were they but persuaded to make trial of it. We should derogate from the sufficiency and perfection of the Scriptures, if we should deny it. The Scripture is able thoroughly to furnish the man of God (whether Magistrate in the Commonwealth, or Elder in the Church, or any other) unto every good work.[5] 
Civil governments, Eliot maintained, should be based on the Lord's "Scripture-Government"not "that great Idol of Humane Wisdom."[6] And so elsewhere, while discussing his views on prophecy, he states:
[T]his is certain, that all forms and Laws of man's invention will shake, be unsettled; and many will doubt of subjecting to any way man can devise; and they will never rest till they come up to the Scriptures, and when they produce Scripture grounds for all they do, it will answer and satisfy all godly consciences, and awe the rest, and stop their mouths unless they will cavil against divine wisdom. It is the very reason why the Lord in this hour of temptation will bring Nations into distress and perplexity, that so they may be forced to the Scriptures; the light whereof hath sole authority to extricate them out of their deep perplexities; and therefore all Governments are and will be shaken, that men may be forced to pitch upon the firm and unshaken foundation, the Word of God ... [7] 
Eliot yearned for his native England to embrace the regulative principle of the state— where God's Word would be its "Magna Carta":
Oh my heart yearneth over distressed perplexed England, and my continual prayer unto the Lord for them is, that he would be pleased to open their hearts and eyes, and let them see their opportunity to let in Christ, and to advance his Kingdom over them; yea, my hope is, that he will not leave tampering with them until he hath brought it to pass; Oh the blessed day in England when the Word of God shall be their Magna Charta and chief Law Book; and when all Lawyers must be Divines to study the Scriptures; and should the Gentile Nations take up Moses' policy so far as it is moral and conscionable, make the Scriptures the foundation of all their Lawswho knoweth what a door would be opened to the Jews to come in to Christ ... [8]

Eliot on Bringing Biblical Civil Government to the Indians

Eliot's "unique and fascinating work" The Christian Commonwealth: or,The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ "has been called the first book of political theory written by an American."[9] Regarding the book, as "the Puritan missionary to the New England Indians, [Eliot] developed this plan of political organization for the Christianized tribes that he converted. In the late 1640s, he adapted it for English use ..."[10]

Eliot writes in the book,
I think it needful to insert this word of Apology for myself; That it pleased the Lord of his free mercy to me (in myself being no way fitted for such a work) to put me on, to instruct our poor, blind, and dark Indians, in the good knowledge of the Lord: who when (through grace) they tasted of the knowledge of God, of themselves, of Christ and redemption by him; they desired to leave their wild and scattered manner of life, and come under Civil Government and Order; which did put me upon search, after the mind of the Lord in that respect. And this VOW I did solemnly make unto the Lord concerning them; that they being a people without any form of Government, and now to choose; I would endeavor with all my might, to bring them under the Government of the Lord only: Namely, that I would instruct them to embrace such Government, both Civil and Ecclesiastical, as the Lord hath commanded in the holy Scriptures ; and to deduce all their Laws from the holy Scriptures, that so they may be the Lords people, ruled by him alone in all things.[11] 
In another work, he discusses taking counsel with John Cotton and others regarding the laws and kind of civil government the Indians should have. Like in the Christian Commonwealth, he states that they are to be governed by God's word in all things:
Now dear Sir, it may be you will desire to know what kind of Civil Government they shall be instructed in; I acknowledge it to be a very weighty consideration; and I have advised with Mr. Cotton and others about it, and this I propound as my general rule through the help of the Lord; they shall be wholly governed by the Scriptures in all things both in Church and State; they shall have no other Law-giver; the Lord shall be their Law-giver, the Lord shall be their Judge, the Lord shall be their King, and he will save them; and when it is so the Lord reigneth, and unto that frame the Lord will bring all the world ere he hath done, but it will be more difficult in other Nations who have been adulterate with their Antichristian or human wisdom; they will be loath to lay down their imperfect own Star-light of excellent Laws, in their conceits, for the perfect Sun-light of the Scripture, which through blindness they cannot see.[12] 
Similarly, he writes:
Touching the way of their Government, I also intimated the purpose of my heart, that I intend to direct them according as the Lord shall please to help and assist to set up the Kingdom of Jesus Christ fully, so that Christ shall reign both in Church and Commonwealth, both in Civil and Spiritual matters; we will (through his grace) fly to the Scriptures, for every Law, Rule, Direction, Form, or what ever we do.[13]

Eliot Works to Build Biblical Civil Government Among the Indians

On Eliot's labors to set up Christian civil governments among the Indians, Joel R. Beeke writes:
Eliot began to set up towns of praying Indians. Natick was the first (1651). By 1674, there were fourteen praying towns, with an estimated population of 3,600, approximately 1,100 of whom were converted. In each town, natives made a solemn covenant to give themselves and their children to be God's people in a new civil government. These towns were almost entirely self-governing, though major issues could be referred to the Massachusetts General Court. For the most part, the natives were expected to adopt the Puritan lifestyle along with the Christian faith.[14]  
According to Michael P. Clark, "the civil covenant formed by Praying Indians at Natick ... created the first community of Indian proselytes in New England."[15] Here, 
Eliot designed a system of government based on Exodus 18:17-26, where Moses's father-in-law Jethro suggests to Moses that he appoint a hierarchical system of leaders for his people based on groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and so on up to Moses at the top as the general ruler. With fewer than 150 people at first, Natick offered only a small-scale opportunity to test this theory, but the model was imposed, with the sachem Cutshamekin as the ruler of hundreds, and two rulers of fifties: the aging Totherswamp, and Waban, who also helped adjudicate minor legal matters among the Indians.[16] 
Under John Eliot's direction, the Natick Indians entered into the following covenant to serve God in all areas of life:
We are the sons of Adam; we and our forefathers have a long time been lost in our sins; but now the mercy of the Lord beginneth to find us out again; therefore the grace of Christ helping us, we do give our selves, and our children unto God, to be his people. He shall rule us in all our affairs; the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Law-giver, the Lord is our King; He will save us; and the wisdom which God has taught us in his book shall guide us. Oh Jehovah, teach us wisdom; send thy spirit into our hearts; take us to be thy people, and let us take thee to be our God.[17]
On the Indians' establishment of society on God's word, the Puritan Cotton Mather writes:
The little towns of these Indians being pitched upon this foundation, they utterly abandoned that poligamy which had heretofore been common among them; they made severe laws against fornication, drunkenness, and sabbath-breaking, and other immoralities; and they next began to lament after the establishment of a church-order among them, and after the several ordinances and privileges of a church-communion.[18]
One author discusses the establishment of laws following the work of Eliot in Natick (although I disagree with the author's use of the words "English law" and "English Christianity"):
Provincial magistrates also passed laws and made provision for the acculturation and conversion of "those poore, lost, naked sonnes of Adam." The subjection of the Indians to English law and their conversion to English Christianity were tasks central to the metropolitan New World vision. The establishment of "Praying Towns" in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beginning in 1651 with the founding of Natick under the supervision of John Eliot, combined both objectives in one program. Bay Colony magistrates expected the Algonquian bands to conform to Puritan proscriptions against blasphemy and idolatry, serious crimes whether committed by Indian or Englishman. Those practicing native religion within the colony or performing "outward worship of their false gods, or to ye devill," would be fined. These laws, "necessary & holesome" and intended "to reduce ym to civility of life," would be made known to the Indians through interpreters and ministers "chosen by ye elders of the churches every yeare, at ye Cort of Election."[19]


[1] John Wilson, The Life of John Eliot, the Apostle of the Indians (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1828), ix, x.
[2] John Eliot, The Christian Commonwealth: or,The Civil Policy Of The Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ, ed. Paul Royster (University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1659), 19. In all quotes from this work, we have modernized the spelling. 
[3] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620, Unto the Year of Our Lord, 1698, Volume 1 (Hartford, CT: Silas Andrus, 1820), 512. 
[4] Eliot, The Christian Commonwealth, 13. 
[5] Ibid., vii. 
[6] Ibid., xvi, xvii. 
[7] John Eliot, "of the Indians in New-England," in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Cambridge: Charles Folsom, 1834), 127. In all quotes from this work, we have modernized the spelling.
[8] Ibid., 131. 
[9] Eliot, The Christian Commonwealth, intro page.
[10] Ibid. 
[11] Ibid., viii, ix. 
[12] Eliot, "of the Indians in New-England," in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 127.
[13] Ibid., 131.
[14] Joel R. Beeke, "Reformed Orthodoxy in North America," in Herman Selderhuis, ed., A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition)(The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013), 338. According to Berlant, "Eliot himself purchased the land at Natick; he also purchased the materials the Indians would need to become self-governing and self-sufficient in these regenerate towns." Lauren Berlant, "Fantasies of Utopia in The Blithedale Romance," in Gordon Hutner, ed., The American Literary History Reader (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 19.
[15] Michael P. Clark, ed., The Eliot Tracts: With Letters from John Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood and Richard Baxter (Contributions in American History, Book 199) (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 15.
[16] Ibid., 15, 16.
[17] Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 512.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Michael Leroy Oberg, Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1585-1685 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 124.

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