In the 1640s, a few English nonconformists and Puritans who had migrated to the New World began to share the gospel with Native Americans around them. In 1646, Pastor John Eliot began to lead his Indian neighbors to a living faith in Christ, focusing on both “civilizing” and teaching them religion and leading ultimately to conversion and church membership. This resulted in the formation of 14 Native American “praying towns” by 1675.
Eliot also began the first Protestant missionary society, which continues today under the name “New England Company.” His translation of the Bible into Algonquian was the first Bible published in the New World in any language.
He pastored the Roxbury church near Boston for almost 60 years, and for more than 40 of those years he planted churches week after week among the Native Americans surrounding him. Scores of them became devoted believers, faithful until death. He was a gentle, loving man. In humility he wrote to a friend, “I am but a shrub in the wilderness.” And at the end of his life he said, “My Doings! Alas! They have been poor and small and lean. . . . I’ll be the man who shall throw the first stone at them all.”
Eliot was probably the very first Protestant cross-cultural missionary. Like everyone who goes into a foreign culture, he made mistakes. But he showed the way for thousands who followed. A leader among the “praying Indians,” Chief Wannalancet, said, “I have entered a new canoe,” and he stood firm in Christ until the end, refusing to enter a tragic war between New England settlers and Native Americans.
We know that beginning with Eliot, evangelical Christian mission to Native Americans was wrecked repeatedly by the savage greed of European immigrants. Nevertheless, this mission was birthed in prayer. It is no accident that the first Native American Christian villages were called “praying towns,” or that the first non-European Protestant believers were “praying Indians.”
In the 21st century, this tradition continues on the growing frontiers of the church.
In the global Anabaptist family, for example, the African church has blossomed rapidly into its largest continental member. When Western Mennonites ask African Mennonites the secret of their dynamic church life, the answer is invariably some form of, “We pray. God answers.”
Western Christians are seldom satisfied with that answer. We are sure there are other factors! Africans are naturally more “spiritual” than Westerners, we think. Or it must be the way the church is organized, how active they are in evangelism, how much Christians are persecuted, what percentage of its nation has not yet been reached, how economically underprivileged the people are, or how undereducated their nation is.
We think it must be too simple to say, “We pray a lot, and God answers.” And maybe we’re a little bit right. The world is complex, after all.
Yet the record stands. The leadership team of an African Mennonite college that trains hundreds of leaders spends a morning in prayer every week and goes on a prayer retreat every month. On Sunday morning, people swarm into the churches to pray before the formal service begins.
When my African friends call or text to talk, they usually end by saying, “Pray for me.” It’s strikingly different from most of my Western conversations.
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.