You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
—2 TIMOTHY 2:3
John Eliot was born in England, attended Cambridge, came to Christ under the ministry of Thomas Hooker, and emigrated to Boston, where the church of Roxbury hired him as pastor in 1632. He kept the job fifty-seven years. In 1646, when he was forty-two years old, Eliot grew burdened for nearby Native Americans and began studying one of the Algonquin languages (Wôpanâak). It was a daunting task, especially because of the length of the words. For example, the phrase “our lusts” was expressed:
Eliot persevered until he could speak the language well enough to preach with the help of an interpreter. Speaking of himself in the third person, Eliot later wrote of his first attempt:
In a short time, a number of Native Americans confessed Christ as Savior. The converts established their own village and named it Noonanetum, or Rejoicing. As time went by, other villages arose, and Eliot traveled up and down the coast, all the time maintaining his primary ministry as a pastor in Roxbury.
In a letter dated December 29, 1649, he wrote:
I was not dry night nor day from the third day of the week unto the sixth, but so travelled, and at night pull off my boots, wring my stockings, and on with them again, and so continued . . . yet God stept in and helped: I considered . . . 2 Tim. 2:3, “Endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ.”
We all should consider that verse. There’s nothing easy about life or about serving God in a hostile age or resistant environment. Paul was facing execution for his faith in Christ when he wrote those words to Timothy, and he wanted to impart tenacity and toughness into his young disciple.
Men and women who, like John Eliot, helped establish the gospel in America faced miserable conditions and great hardships. But they considered 2 Timothy 2:3 and persevered. Under Eliot’s ministry, Native American churches were planted in Natick, Plymouth, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. Eliot lived to see his ministry found fourteen praying villages, each with between twenty-five hundred and four thousand people, and twenty-four Native American preachers—all while serving his church in Roxbury. The school he founded, Roxbury Latin School, is today the oldest school in continuous existence in North America.
Eliot’s most prodigious feat was the production of the first Bible published in America, which was also the first Bible translation into a Native American language. The New Testament came out in 1661, and the Old Testament three years later. It’s hard to imagine how Eliot accomplished such a thing—reducing a near-impossible language to writing, training Native Americans to read, then translating the entire Bible for them. That in itself is ‘a work which excited the wonder and admiration of both hemispheres, and has rendered his name ever memorable in the annals of literature and piety.’
In his eighties Eliot grew too weak to preach at his church in Roxbury, and he asked the church to seek another pastor. “I wonder for what the Lord Jesus Christ lets me live,” he said. “He knows that now I can do nothing for him!” As he sought some final work to do for Christ, he heard of a youth who had fallen into a fire and been blinded. Eliot invited the child to live with him, devoting many hours to helping him memorize chapters of Scripture and learning to pray. Eliot was a man of prayer.
When confronted with distressing news, he would say, “Brethren, let us turn all this into prayer.”