Praying Indian is a 17th-century term referring to Native Americans of New England, New York, Ontario, and Quebec who had converted to Christianity. While many groups are referred to by this term, it is more commonly used for tribes that were organized into villages, known as praying towns by those such as Puritan leader John Eliot, and Jesuit Missionaries of St. Regis and Kahnawake (formerly known as Caughnawaga) and as well as the missionaries among the Huron in western Ontario.
In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an "Act for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians". This act and the success of the Reverend John Eliot and other missionaries preaching Christianity to the New England tribes raised interest in England. In 1649 the Long Parliament passed an ordination forming "A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England" which raised funds to support the cause. Contributors raised approximately £12,000 pounds sterling to invest in this cause, to be used mainly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in New York. Reverend Eliot received financial aid from this corporation to start schools for teaching the Native Americans. The Indian nations involved appear to have included the Massachusett and the Nipmuc.
On October 28, 1646, in Nonantum (now Newton), Eliot preached his first sermon to Native Americans in their Massachusett language. This happened in the wigwam of Waban, the first convert of his tribe. Waban later offered his son to be taught the English ways and served as an interpreter. Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and published it in 1663 as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. By 1675 20% of New England's Natives lived in Praying Towns. Christian Indian Towns were eventually located throughout Eastern and Central Massachusetts. They included: Littleton (Nashoba), Lowell (Wamesit, initially incorporated as part of Chelmsford), Grafton (Hassanamessit), Marlborough (Okommakamesit), Hopkinton (Makunkokoag), Canton (Punkapoag), Mendon-Uxbridge (Wacentug), and Natick. Today only Natick retains its original name. Praying Indian Towns started by Eliot extended into Connecticut and included Wabaquasset (Senexet, Wabiquisset), six miles west of the Quinebaug River in present-day Woodstock, the largest of the three northeastern Connecticut praying towns.
These towns were situated so as to serve as an outlying wall of defense for the colony. That function came to an end in 1675 during King Philip's War. Praying Indians offered their service as scouts to the English in Massachusetts but were rejected. Instead, Praying Indian residents were first confined to their villages (thus restricted from their farms and unable to feed themselves), and many were confined on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. John Eliot tried to prevent it, but it is reported that it became dangerous in Massachusetts to talk in favor of any Native Americans. Probably this contributed to the initial successes of the Indian rebellion. The order for removal was passed in October 1675, and by December over 500 Christian Indians were brought to the island. When they were released in 1676, because of the harsh conditions only 167 had survived.
After the war, in 1677 the General Court of Massachusetts disbanded 10 of the original 14 towns and placed the rest under English supervision, but some communities were able to survive and retain their religious and education systems.
Criticism of these towns vary in degrees. Some believe that acculturation was imposed on the Natives and they had very little choice in the matter. However, the Praying Indian communities were able to exercise self-government and to elect their own rulers (sachems) and officials, to some extent exhibiting continuity with the pre-contact social system, and used their own language as the language of administration, of which a wealth of legal and administrative documents survive. However, their self-government was gradually curtailed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and their languages also became extinct around the same time. During that period, most of the original "Praying Towns" eventually declined due to epidemics and to the fact that the communal land property of others passed out of native control. The Indian-inhabited areas were eventually transformed into "Indian districts".
Descendants of the Praying Indians from Natick have organized as Praying Indian Tribe of Natick, currently under the leadership of Rosita Andrews or Caring Hands from Stoughton, Massachusetts, who received her title of chief from her mother. The Praying Indian members live within a radius of 20 miles (32 km) around Stoughton. According to Caring Hands, in 2011 there were just under 50 members of Natick Praying Indians. On 11 August 2012, members of the tribe celebrated a public service in Eliot Church, South Natick, the site of the original church of the Praying Indian town of Natick, for the first time after almost 300 years.
- Praying Towns; Nipmuc Indian Association of Connecticut; Historical Series Number 2 Second Edition 1995
- Blackwell Reference Online; A Dictionary of American Reference; Purvis, Thomas L. 1997
- Adams, James Truslow (1921). The Founding of New England. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press. p. 357.
- Biglow, William (1830). History of the Town of Natick from 1650 to 1830. Boston. p. 25.
- Gookin, Daniel (reprint 1972). An Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England in the Years 1675, 1676, 1677. New York: Arno Press. p. 436. Check date values in:
- Praying Towns, Blackwell Reference Online
- Goddard, Ives and Kathleen J. Bragdon (eds.) (1989) Native Writings in Massachusett. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. P. 14.
- Goddard, Ives and Kathleen J. Bragdon (eds.) (1989) Native Writings in Massachusett. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. P.2-15.
- "Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag (official web site)". Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Allan Jung (2007-02-07). "Family a chief concern for Praying Indians leader - Caring Hands, chief of the Praying Indians". Metrowest Daily News. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Bob Reinert (2011-11-17). "Natick observes American Indian Heritage Month". USAG-Natick Public Affairs. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- "Native American tribe worships in first public service in 300 years". Anna-Claire Bevan. 2012-08-16. Retrieved 2013-11-06.