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Praying towns were developed by the Puritans of New England from 1646 to 1675 in an effort to convert the local Native American tribes to Christianity. The Natives who moved into these towns were known as Praying Indians. Before 1674 the villages were the most ambitious Christianization experiment in English colonial America. John Eliot first preached to the Natives in their own tongue in 1646 at Nonantum, meaning “Place of Rejoicing,” which is now Newton, Massachusetts. This sermon led to a friendship with Waban, who became the first Native American in Massachusetts to convert to Christianity.
The idea behind the praying towns was that Natives would convert to Christianity and give up their old way of life. This included their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their clothing, rituals, and anything else that was seen as savagery. By 1660, Eliot had established seven praying towns. The Massachusetts General Court recognized the work of Eliot and helped add to the numbers of towns.
Fourteen praying towns
Some prominent praying towns in the Massachusett area were Gay Head, Christiantown (Okokammeh), Nantucket, Natick, Mashpee, Hassanamisco (Grafton), Herring Pond (Plymouth) and Nukkehkummees (Dartmouth). Three towns were created in Connecticut as well: Maanexit (Nipmuc word meaning “where we gather”) is believed to be in present-day Fabyan (Thompson, CT), Quinnatisset (meaning “little long river”) was located six miles south of Maanexit, and Wabaquasset (meaning “mats for covering the house”) is present-day Woodstock, Connecticut. These three towns held between 100 and 150 Nipmuc tribal members.
After King Philip's War in 1677 the General Court disbanded 10 of the original 14 towns and placed the rest under English supervision, but many communities did survive and retained their religious and education systems.
Comparison to Jesuits in Canada
The idea of a full conversion was a sharp contrast to the Christianization movements by the Jesuits in Canada, who were looking to add Christianity to the Natives' existing beliefs as opposed to replacing them. While some Natives were quick to take on the conversion some did not like the idea of a full conversion. The process was not always an easy one and there were many reasons for the conversions themselves.
Refuge from war
An important factor contributing to the conversion of Natives was the possibility to increase their legitimacy in the eyes of the English settlers and thus recognition of their rights to their land. Because of troubles between the tribes themselves and between the colonists and the tribes, some saw the praying towns as a refuge from war. Other tribes had been all but destroyed from disease and famine and possibly looked to Christianity and the Puritan way of life as an answer to their suffering, when their traditional beliefs did not seem to have the answers. Many Natives joined the towns simply because they had no other option economically or politically.
While the idea of praying towns was somewhat a success, they did not reach the level John Eliot had hoped for. While the Puritans were pleased with the conversions, Praying Indians were still seen as second rate citizens and never gained the degree of trust or respect that they had hoped the conversion would grant them. It has also been argued that the Natives had a difficult time adjusting to the impersonal English society, since theirs had been built upon relationships and reciprocity, while the English were more structured and institutionalized. According to this view, this difference made it hard for Natives to see the institutionalized structures as a whole, and John Eliot had failed to see the need for adaptations appropriate for smoother transitions.
Other authors point out the Praying Indian communities were able to exercise self-government by electing their own rulers and officials, and that this system did in fact exhibit a degree of continuity with their pre-contact social system. While English-style offices such as constables and Justices of the Peace were introduced, they were often designated with names identical to those of traditional offices, and the elected officials were often chosen from the ranks of the traditional tribal aristocracy; indeed, there were even cases of native hereditary rulers remaining in power. The communities also used their own language as the language of administration, producing an abundance of legal and administrative documents that survive to this day. However, their self-government was gradually curtailed in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and their languages eventually became extinct. Most of the original "Praying Towns" declined due to epidemics and to the fact that the communal land property passed out of native control at some point during the centuries after their foundation.
- The Praying Towns
- Praying Towns, Blackwell Reference Online
- Goddard, Ives and Kathleen J. Bragdon (eds.) (1989) Native Writings in Massachusett. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. P.2-15.
- "That Art of Coyning Christians:" John Eliot and the Praying Indians of Massachusetts, John Eliot and Kenneth M. Morrison, Ethnohistory, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 77-92
5.Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School. Documentary DVD Video. Rich Heape Films; 2008.