Mary Rowlandson: Captured by Indians – Preserved by God

Title page of the 1173 edition, which inaccurately represents Rowlandson defending her home with a rifle.

The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed (1682) by Mary Rowlandson

“I cannot but admire at the wonderfull power and goodness of God to me, in that, though I was gone from home, and met with all sorts of Indians, and those I had no knowledge of, and there being no Christian soul near me; yet not one of them offered the least imaginable miscarriage to me.”

An important piece of Early American literature, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God is a true, first-person narrative account of a 17th century Puritan woman whose village was attacked by Indians in 1676. Mary Rowlandson’s family was massacred, and she and three of her children were taken captive. Of the 37 in her household, 24 were captured and 12 killed, with only one escaping. Her two older children, ages 10 and 12, were separated from Mary and her six-year-old child, who died nine days later.

It’s helpful to know something about the background and setting of this incident. The first generation of colonists which settled in Plymouth (ie. the Pilgrims) made a treaty of peace with Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag people which lasted about 50 years. By 1675, the English and Indians had lived as neighbors for 30-40 years in the New England colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, trading, working, and even socializing together. However the interaction and influence of these two groups was not reciprocal in nature. Occasionally Indians attended school or church with the English. Many Indians learned at least some English (even writing it), while few colonists learned any Indian language. Some Indians worked as servants and laborers for the English, but the reverse did not occur. Approximately one to two thousand Indians converted to Christianity; these were sometimes referred to as “Praying Indians.” However the English did not convert to the Indian religious beliefs. While the English held the Indians to their colonial laws, typically they would not submit to Indian laws.

Engraving of King Philip (Metacom) by Paul Revere, 1772

After Massasoit died and his son Metacom (“King Philip” to the English) took his place as chief tensions began to rise between his people and the English colonists (leading to what is known as King Philip’s War). Neil Salisbury explains in his Introduction that, according to Metacom himself, “English cheating, discrimination, and pressures to sell land, submit to Plymouth colony’s authority, convert to Christianity, and consume alcohol had undermined a half-century of friendship and driven the Wampanoags…to the point of war.” Generally speaking, the English considered the Indians savage barbarians and inferiors. Mutual animosity built up over time.

Rowlandson’s account is often considered the first “Indian captivity narrative” and established sort of a formula which would be copied by later captivity narrators. As a literary genre, the typical captivity narrative has three parts:

1) The Capture. This part provides the circumstances, place, etc. where the capture occurs, describing an individual being culturally removed from all that is familiar to him or her.

2) The Transformation. This part describes incidents that test and strengthen the character and faith of the captive, often stressing the difference between the savage and the civilized.

3) The Return. The last part describes the circumstances surrounding the captive’s return and sets forth the intention to have the incident and experiences recorded and published for the purpose of sharing with others the lessons learned from the experience.

The opening scene of Rowlandson’s narrative is very dramatic and graphic — barbaric, chaotic, and hellish, as she describes it. Throughout the account various epithets are used to describe the Indians: hell-hounds, ravenous beasts, barbarous creatures, murderous wretches, merciless heathen, and wolves. Some people may object to this “name-calling” as offensive and even racist, but I believe it is ignorant of readers to say this is a racist account. The writer speaks with emotion while describing her personal feelings and actual experiences as a witness of the horrific scene that takes place before her eyes. She then spends about three months with the Indians before being returned, during which time she is in genuine fear for her life and doing what she can to survive. During much of her captivity she doesn’t know where her other two children were taken, and she often wonders if she will ever be restored to her family and people. Rowlandson makes a distinction between the savage, cruel Indians and those who extended kindness and generosity to her. She makes it clear that during this time, no one ever offended or violated her. Eventually the Indians offered to return her in exchange for a ransom payment.

Rowlandson gives us insight into the Puritan mind. For example, she considers the possibility that the Indians were being used by God as a “scourge” to discipline His people. Rowlandson’s narrative is often cited as an example of a jeremiad – a form usually associated with second generation Puritan sermons but which is also relevant to many other kinds of Puritan writing. Drawing from the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Isaiah, jeremiads lament the spiritual and moral decline of a community and interpret recent misfortunes as God’s just punishment for that decline. But at the same time that jeremiads bemoan their communities’ fall from grace, they also read the misfortunes and punishments that result from that fall as evidence of God’s love and dealings with His children. According to this view, God wouldn’t bother chastising or testing people he did not view as special or important to his divine plan. Rowlandson believed that God uses suffering to teach His children certain lessons and to strengthen their trust and faith in Him.

According to the author of the Preface (probably Increase Mather), Rowlandson’s purpose for publishing the account was to testify to God’s providence and preservation through her trial, and as a “memorandum of God’s dealing with her.” As a Puritan, she viewed every aspect and incident in life as coming from the hand of God for His purpose, and she trusted Him with the outcome, whatever might happen. Throughout the narrative she quotes scripture to remind herself of God’s protective care and purposes. At one point she comments,

Here I may take occasion to mention one principall ground of my setting forth these Lines: even as the Psalmist sayes, “To declare the Works of the Lord,” and His wonderfull Power in carrying us along, preserving us in the Wilderness, while under the Enemies hand, and returning of us in safety again. And His goodness in bringing to my hand so many comfortable and suitable Scriptures in my distress.

And consider these words of reflection at the very end of her account:

Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over; yet I see, when God calls a Person to any ting, and through never so many difficulties, yet he is fully able to carry them through and make them see, and say they have been gainers thereby. And I hope I can say in some measure, as David did, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (Ps. 119:71).

The entire narrative is only about 40 pages long, including the Preface to the Reader, which is worth reading. There are different editions of this work available; I recommend the Bedford Series publication, which includes a lengthy Introduction that provides in detail much of the important background that I briefly gave here. The narrative is divided up into sections called “Removes” (First Remove through Twentieth Remove), indicating each time Mary is moved by her captors to a new location. I suggest that as you read through the narrative, you might pay attention to: 1) Rowlandson’s view of God and His dealings with His children; 2) The descriptions and epithets she uses for the Indians, and her changing attitude towards them; and 3) Her many references to scripture, and how she compares her life and circumstances to biblical passages, drawing on scripture for comfort, understanding, and hope. I believe Rowlandson’s adventurous account provides us with some insight into this period of our history. But more importantly, may her story of courage and faith inspire and challenge you to look for the hand of God in every circumstance of your life.

Note: This text is included on my list of historical works I believe every Christian should read.

Can you recall an incident in your life in which God’s providence was clearly evident?

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