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The Long Road to Sainthood: Indian Christians, the Doctrine of Preparation, and the Halfway Covenant of 1662

  • Gregory Michna (a1)


This essay explores the origins and expansion of New England Praying Towns in the context of the ongoing theological and religious debates of 1646–1674. This period spawned significant debates regarding the extent of the Abrahamic covenant, the requirements for church membership, and the nature of conversion. The ministers present at the Synod of 1662 gathered to settle the question of “extended baptism,” an issue where Indian and English concerns intersected. Reformers who promoted a generational vision of church membership emphasized the efficacy of spiritual preparation for younger generations and the power of a broader and more inclusive church covenant. This development benefitted Algonquians living in Praying Towns because theological preparation validated efforts to catechize and instruct Praying Indians in religious matters. Likewise, a broadening vision of church membership enabled some colonists to consider the possibility that Indians might be included within their religious communities. These projects, launched before the formalization of the Halfway Covenant in 1662, presented a tangible example of spiritual preparation in practice and served to validate the conversionary process within the colony at large. English observers found Indian conversion impressive (or reacted with intense skepticism) because most theologians considered Indians unlikely converts, especially in larger numbers. For Algonquians demonstrating an interest in English spirituality, church membership represented a degree of parity with their New England brethren. Tracing the development of New England missions, the pathway to church membership, and the debates on both missions and extended baptism reveals both the possibilities and limits to the inclusion of Indian Christians within New England's religious institutions.


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1 Shepard, Thomas, The Church Membership of Children and their Right to Baptisme (Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1663), 2.

2 Cogley, Richard W., John Eliot's Mission to the Indians before King Philip's War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 132133.

3 John Eliot, A further Account of the progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England, in The Eliot Tracts: With Letters from John Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood and Richard Baxter, ed. Michael P. Clark (Westport: Praeger, 2003), 363, 372–373; Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 134–135; and Henkel, Jacqueline M., “Represented Authenticity: Native Voices in Seventeenth-Century Conversion Narratives,” New England Quarterly 87, no. 1 (March 2014): 510, 24–25.

4 Eliot, A further Account of the progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England, 358–364, 376–381, 395.

5 Walker, Williston, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1893), 250. Mason I. Lowance Jr. suggests that the jeremiads of the 1660s and 1670s represent “a remarkable mythic, literary, and theological achievement” due to their effective creation of the “errand into the wilderness” attributed to the founding generation of puritans: Mason I. Lowance Jr., The Language of Canaan: Metaphor and Symbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 141–142.

6 Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Boston: Beacon, 1961), 97. Chapter 7 discusses the synod in detail.

7 Pope, Robert G., The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 812, 261–264.

8 Gura, Philip F., A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), 115.

9 Hall, David D., Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 152153.

10 Brown, Anne S. and Hall, David D., “Family Strategies and Religious Practice: Baptism and the Lord's Supper in Early New England,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. Hall, David D. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 5057.

11 Bremer, Francis J., The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, rev. ed. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995), 163165; Seligman, Adam, “Inner-Worldly Individualism and the Institutionalization of Puritanism in Late Seventeenth-Century New England,” British Journal of Sociology 41, no. 4 (December 1990): 541546; Gura, Philip F., “Preparing the Way for Stoddard: Eleazer Mather's Serious Exhortation to Northampton,” New England Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 1984): 240249; Beales, Ross W. Jr.The Half-Way Covenant and Religious Scrupulosity: The First Church of Dorchester, Massachusetts, as a Test Case,” William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 3 (July 1974): 468, 479; Moran, Gerald F., “Religious Renewal, Puritan Tribalism, and the Family in Seventeenth-Century Milford, Connecticut,” William and Mary Quarterly 36, no. 2 (April 1979): 238, 247252; Holifield, E. Brooks, “On Toleration in Massachusetts,” Church History 38, no. 2 (June 1969): 189191, 195; and Paul R. Lucas, “Presbyterianism Comes to Connecticut: The Toleration Act of 1669,” Journal of Presbyterian History 50, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 135–137.

12 Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 4–5, 20–34.

13 Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16–17.

14 Heather Miyano Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 96–97, 100.

15 Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2015), chaps. 2–3.

16 John Wood Sweet, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 7–10, 104–106.

17 Kathryn N. Gray, John Eliot and the Praying Indians of Massachusetts Bay: Communities and Connections in Puritan New England (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2013), 59.

18 David L. Parker, “Edward Taylor's Preparationism: A New Perspective on the Taylor-Stoddard Controversy,” Early American Literature 11, no. 3 (Winter 1976): 259–260.

19 C. John Sommerville, “Conversion versus the Early Puritan Covenant of Grace,” Journal of Presbyterian History 44, no. 3 (September 1966): 179–197; and Michael P. Winship, “What Puritan Guarantee?” Early American Literature 47, no. 2 (2012): 411–412.

20 David M. Scobey, “Revising the Errand: New England's Way and the Puritan Sense of the Past,” William and Mary Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1984): 8–9.

21 Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5–8, 86–88.

22 Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500–1643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 178–181; James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 131–143; Neal Salisbury, “Religious Encounters in a Colonial Context: New England and New France in the Seventeenth Century,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1992): 503–504; and Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 228–234.

23 Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 11–19, 27–40; Neal Salisbury, “Red Puritans: The ‘Praying Indians’ of Massachusetts Bay and John Eliot,” William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 3 (January 1974): 36–37; and Harold W. Van Lonkhuyzen, “A Reappraisal of the Praying Indians: Acculturation, Conversion, and Identity at Natick, Massachusetts, 1646–1730,” New England Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 1990): 398–400.

24 Charles L. Cohen, “Two Biblical Models of Conversion: An Example of Puritan Hermeneutics,” Church History 58, no. 2 (June 1989): 189–190.

25 Richard Sibbes, The Riches of Mercie: In two Treatises; 1. Lydia's Conversion. 2. A Rescue from death (London, 1638), 20–26; and Cohen, “Two Biblical Models,” 185–188. For secondary literature on contemporary ideas about civility and barbarism, see Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indians and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 15–24; Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 30–42; and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 178–186, 205–214.

26 Sibbes, Riches of Mercie, 53.

27 Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 9–17.

28 Linford D. Fisher, J. Stanley Lemons, and Lucas Mason-Brown, Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island's Founding Father (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), xi, 32–37, 40–43.

29 Gray, John Eliot and the Praying Indians, 63–65; Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 40–42; and Thomas Shepard, The Clear Sun-shine of the Gospel breaking forth upon the Indians in New-England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 120.

30 [Thomas Shepard?], The Day-Breaking, if not the Sun-Rising of the Gospell with the Indians in New-England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 83.

31 Eliot, A further Account of the progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England, 364–365.

32 [Shepard?], Day-Breaking, 99.

33 John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew Jr., Tears of Repentance: Or, A further Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New-England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 257; and David J. Silverman, “The Church in New England Indian Community Life: A View from the Islands and Cape Cod,” in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience, eds. Colin G. Calloway and Neal Salisbury (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2003), 265–267.

34 Joshua David Bellin, “‘A Little I Shall Say’: Translation and Interculturalism in the John Eliot Tracts,” in Calloway and Salisbury, Reinterpreting New England Indians, 52–83.

35 Daniel K. Richter, “‘Some of Them . . . Would Always Have a Minister with Them’: Mohawk Protestantism, 1683–1719” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1992): 472, 480–481; David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010), 51–53; and David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600–1871 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 38–39, 162–165.

36 Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 254.

37 Eliot, A further Account of the progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England, 360–361.

38 Richard Mather, Church-government and Church-covenant discussed: In an answer of the elders of the severall churches in New-England to two and thirty questions, sent over to them by divers ministers in England, to declare their judgments therein (London: Benjamin Allen, 1643), 87, 89–90; and Hall, Worlds of Wonder, 90–94, 216–217.

39 Henry Whitfeld, ed., The Light appearing more and more towards the perfect Day or a farther discovery of the present state of the Indians in New England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 201–203; Henry Whitfeld, ed., Strength out of Weaknesse: Or a Glorious Manifestation of the further Progresse of the Gospel among the Indians in New England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 231–232; and Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 266–267.

40 Whitfeld, Strength out of Weaknesse, 221.

41 Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 81–91.

42 Whitfeld, Strength out of Weaknesse, 226–227; and Richard W. Cogley, “A Presbyterian in Congregationalist New England?” Journal of Presbyterian History 77, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 71–73, 78.

43 Whitfeld, Strength out of Weaknesse, 227.

44 Charles M. Ellis, The History of Roxbury Town (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1847), 22–23; Gura, “Preparing the Way for Stoddard,” 241; and David A. Weir, Early New England: A Covenanted Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 3–9, 137, 170.

45 Whitfeld, Strength out of Weaknesse, 233.

46 Julius H. Rubin, Tears of Repentance: Christian Indian Identity and Community in Colonial Southern New England (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 60–63; and Sibbes, Riches of Mercie, 40–42.

47 Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 264.

48 Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 265.

49 Rubin, Tears of Repentance, 24–25, 56–58; Henkel, “Represented Authenticity,” 26–27; Kristina Bross, Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 76–83; and Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 272.

50 Eliot and Mayhew, Tears of Repentance, 279, 282–283.

51 Katharine Gerbner, “Beyond the ‘Halfway Covenant’: Church Membership, Extended Baptism, and Outreach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1656–1667,” New England Quarterly 85, no. 2 (June 2012): 285; and Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 14–15.

52 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 20–21; Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 129; and Richard Mather, A Catechisme: Or, The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion, set forth by way of Question and Answer [. . .] (London: John Rothwell, 1650), 44–45, 76.

53 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 22.

54 Cotton Mather, Ecclesiastes: The Life of the Reverend and Excellent, Jonathan Mitchel: A Pastor of the Church, and a Glory of the Colledge, in Cambridge, New England (Boston: B. Green and J. Allen, 1697), 74–75.

55 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 32–33.

56 John Eliot, A Late and Further Manifestation of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 304–307. Eliot did not name the examinees in this tract, collapsing their collective responses into a summary of questions and answers that shed no light on individual speakers or statements.

57 Eliot, Late and Further Manifestation, 308–317; and J. Rendel Harris, “Three Letters of John Eliot and a Bill of Lading of the ‘Mayflower,’” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 5, nos. 1–2 (1919): 10–11.

58 Eliot, Late and Further Manifestation, 318.

59 Eliot, Late and Further Manifestation, 318–319.

60 Mather, A Catechisme, 79–80.

61 Abraham Peirson, Some Helps for the Indians: Shewing them How to improve their natural Reason, To know the True God, and the true Christian Religion (Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1658), 7, 23, 26.

62 John Eliot, A further Accompt of the Progresse of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England: With Some Helps for the Indians by Abraham Peirson, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 332–339.

63 Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, 265.

64 [Richard Mather?], “A Disputation Concerning Church-Members and their Children, in Answer to XXI Questions,” in Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, 291.

65 [Mather?], “A Disputation Concerning Church-Members,” 295; and Newell, Brethren by Nature, 34–35, 45–49.

66 Mather, A Catechisme, 84.

67 Joseph Caryl, introduction to A further Account of the progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 359.

68 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 132–135; and Gerbner, “Beyond the ‘Halfway Covenant,’” 290, 298.

69 Seligman, “Inner-Worldly Individualism,” 541, 544–546.

70 John Davenport to William Goffee, 1662, in Letters of John Davenport: Puritan Divine, ed. Isabel MacBeath Calder (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1937), 199–201; and John Davenport to William Goodwin, 1665, in Calder, Letters of John Davenport, 256–257.

71 John Davenport, Another Essay for Investigation of the Truth: In Answer to Two Questions [. . .] (Cambridge, 1663), v–vi, 23; and William J. Scheick, “An Inward Power and Authority: John Davenport's Seditious Piety,” Religion and Literature 33, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 2.

72 Davenport, Another Essay, xi–xiii, 19.

73 Davenport, Another Essay, 7.

74 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 75, 97.

75 John Davenport to John Winthrop Jr., 1666, in Calder, Letters of John Davenport, 263.

76 Newell, Brethren by Nature, 50, 63, 65, 97–98; and Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright, 2016), 59–64.

77 Richard Mather, A Defence of the Answers and Arguments of the Synod Met at Boston in the Year 1662 [. . .] (Cambridge, 1664), xi, xiii–ix, 99–100. The numbering of this tract is inconsistent, so for the sake of clarification I have labeled the first sequence of numbers with roman numerals to denote their introductory status within the document.

78 Mather, A Defence, xxiii, 11.

79 Walker, Creeds and Platforms, 331.

80 Shepard, Church Membership of Children, 13. Gerbner asserts that this description of the “covenant seal” was “laden with ambiguity”: Gerbner, “Beyond the ‘Halfway Covenant,’” 284.

81 Shepard, Church Membership of Children, 12–13; and Michael McGiffert, God's Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard's Cambridge, rev. ed. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 10–19.

82 Shepard, Church Membership of Children, 17.

83 John Allin, Animadversions Upon the Antisynodalia Americana, A Treatise Printed in Old England: In the Name of the Dissenting Brethren In the Synod held at Boston in New England 1662 (Cambridge, 1664), 3, 38.

84 Allin, Animadversions Upon the Antisynodalia Americana, 51–52; and Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, 328.

85 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 152–165.

86 Pope, Half-Way Covenant, 170–177; and Louise A. Breen, “Praying with the Enemy: Daniel Gookin, King Philip's War, and the Dangers of Intercultural Mediatorship,” in Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600–1850, eds. Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 106.

87 Breen, “Praying with the Enemy,” 106–107.

88 John Oxenbridge, A Seasonable Proposition of Propagating the Gospel by Christian Colonies in the Continent of Guaiana: Being some gleanings of a larger Discourse drawn, but not published (London, 1670).

89 William Durrant Cooper, “The Oxenbridges of Brede Place, Sussex, and Boston Massachusetts,” in Sussex Archaeological Collections: Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County (London: John Russell Smith, 1860), 12:219.

90 Topically, each chapter examines prophecies drawn from a particular part of the Bible: Chapter 2 concerns Mosaic prophecies, chapters 3 and 4 Psalms, chapter 5 Isaiah and Song of Solomon, chapter 6 looks at the remainder of Isaiah, chapter 7 the remainder of the Old Testament prophets, and chapter 8 gives New Testament conversionary examples. This concern for continuity with the Old Testament also appeared in arguments favoring extended baptism by highlighting the Abrahamic covenant. Scobey, “Revising the Errand,” 16–17.

91 John Oxenbridge, “Conversion of the Gentiles, ca. 1670,” Ms. Sbd-56, pp. 11, 13, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

92 Oxenbridge, “Conversion of the Gentiles,” 48.

93 Oxenbridge, “Conversion of the Gentiles,” 70–71.

94 Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 201.

95 Breen, “Praying with the Enemy,” 104–109. Breen suggests that opposition to the Halfway Covenant may have stemmed from Gookin's promotion of the practice with Indians. I intend to offer more concrete proof that this was the case through the earlier examples from oppositional pamphlets. Katherine Gerbner's analysis of Jonathan Mitchel's implementation of extended baptism at Cambridge similarly asserts that his principle application of the doctrine was to “expand the reach of the church to unchurched families in the community”: Gerbner, “Beyond the ‘Halfway Covenant,’” 283.

96 Gookin, Daniel, Historical collections of the Indians in New England: On their Several Nations, Numbers, Customs, Manners, Religion and Government, Before the English Planted There (Boston: Apollo, 1792), 3.

97 John Eliot, A Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New-England, in the Year 1670, in Clark, Eliot Tracts, 400–401.

98 Eliot, Brief Narrative, 401, 403, 405–406; John Eliot to Robert Boyle, Roxbury, 30 September 1670, in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Series 1 (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1810), 3:177–178; John W. Ford, ed., Some Correspondence Between the Governors and Treasurers of the New England Company in London and the Commissioners of the United Colonies in America, The Missionaries of the Company and Others: Between the Years 1657 and 1712; To Which Are Added the Journals of the Rev. Experience Mayhew in 1713 and 1714 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1896), 27, 45; and Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 155–167.

99 Gookin, Historical collections, 45; and Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 142–143.

100 Gookin, Historical collections, 29.

101 Gookin, Historical collections, 42.

102 Cogley, John Eliot's Mission, 170.

103 Ford, Some Correspondence Between the Governors and Treasurers, 38.

104 Ford, Some Correspondence Between the Governors and Treasurers, 32–33.

105 Fisher, Lemons, and Mason-Brown, Decoding Roger Williams, 38, 163–167.

106 For more on Stoddard and the impact of the open table policy on Native Americans, see Gregory A. Michna, “A Communion of Churches: Indian Christians, English Ministers, and Congregations in New England, 1600–1775” (PhD diss., West Virginia University, 2016), 236–261.

107 Goetz, Baptism of Early Virginia, 1–12, 22–29, 86–92; Laura M. Stevens, The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 162–173; Mandell, Daniel R., Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 57, 24–30; and O'Brien, Jean M., Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 412.

108 John Eliot, “Letter of the Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury to the Reverend Thomas Shepard of Charlestown, August 22, 1673 concerning the state of the gospel work among the Indians,” Box-L 1952, pp. 1–2, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

109 Eliot, “Letter of the Reverend John Eliot,” 1–2; and Ford, Some Correspondence Between the Governors and Treasurers, 39–40.

110 Cotton Mather, India Christiana (Boston: B. Green, 1721), 39; Mandell, Behind the Frontier, 59–60; and Fisher, Linford D., “Native Americans, Conversion, and Christian Practice in Colonial New England, 1640–1730,” Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 1 (January 2009): 110111, 122–123.

111 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 67, 12–19.


The Long Road to Sainthood: Indian Christians, the Doctrine of Preparation, and the Halfway Covenant of 1662

  • Gregory Michna (a1)


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