The Eliot Church

 

In 1651, the “Praying Indians” of Natick, their leader Waban, and Rev. John Eliot erected their church in South Natick, on a well-traveled path we now call Eliot Street. The neat white church you see there today is the fifth building on that site, where good folks have worshiped for almost 370 years.

About 100 Nonantum Indians moved in family groups to South Natick in 1651 to create the first “Praying Indian” town in Massachusetts. Their first meetinghouse was “built after the English manner…the lower room is a large hall…the upper room is a kind of wardrobe, where the Indians hang up their skins and other things of value. In a corner of this room Mr. Eliot has an apartment…with a bed…” (From Daniel Gookin, Historical Collections of the Indians in New England, 1674). The first meetinghouse, with a protective wooden palisade, could be a refuge in times of danger.

The first church building lasted about 50 years, surviving Eliot who died in 1690. In 1702 an English carpenter, John Collar Jr., built a new meetinghouse on the site, and received 200 acres of land in payment. We have no sketch or description of what this church looked like.

During the next 20 years, the “Praying Indian” community and its church were obviously in decline, despite the efforts of Rev. Daniel Takawambpait, whom Eliot had ordained as the first Indian minister in America, and other Algonquian leaders, with assistance from neighboring English ministers like Daniel Gookin Jr. and Daniel Baker.

In 1721 a Harvard College graduate, 23-year-old Oliver Peabody, was assigned to the Natick congregation, and a third church structure was built to replace the meetinghouse that was in ruin, with shattered siding and broken windows. There is no surviving authentic image of the third church.

Eliot Church and the old burial ground.

Eliot Church and the old burial ground.

The location of the meetinghouse became an object of heated dispute in the growing town. The Rev. Stephen Badger, another young Harvard graduate, was ordained in 1753 and appointed to lead the South Natick church. Construction of the fourth meetinghouse was soon underway. In her 1869 book, Oldtown Folks (it was loosely based on real people in South Natick), Harriet Beecher Stowe described the “meeting-house” as “one of those huge shapeless, barn-like structures…two staring rows of windows, which let in the glare of the summer sun, and which were so loosely framed, that, in wintry and windy weather, they rattled and shook, and poured in a perfect whirlwind of cold air…”

 
 
 

The meetinghouse that now stands at 45 Eliot Street was built in 1828 for the South Congregational Society of Natick, in the newly formed South Parish. Nearby trees were cut for timber, and the new church bell was cast in Medway by G. H. Holbrook, who had been an apprentice to Paul Revere. The building had oil lamps for lighting and a wood stove, but, alas, no indoor plumbing.

Eliot Church as earlier generations saw it.

Eliot Church as earlier generations saw it.

The “Eliot Oak,” with the church building behind it.

The “Eliot Oak,” with the church building behind it.

 

Nearby stood the reputed “Eliot Oak,” a white oak tree that may have shaded Eliot when he did his earliest preaching to the “Praying Indians” in the mid-17th century.

 

 

Selected sources and additional reading:

Natick Historical Society collections.

Also:

Gookin, Daniel. Historical Collections of the Indians in New England. 1792. Reprint, Towtaid, 1970.

Morley, James W. From Many Backgrounds: The Heritage of the Eliot Church of South Natick. South Natick, MA: The Natick Historical Society, 2007.