In what ways does Mary Rowlandson’s Indian captivity narrative indicate how Puritan colonists saw theirrole in British North America?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Perhaps the most well-known captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promise Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682 has gone through thirty editions since its publication.  During the most serious conflict between the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and several tribes of indigenous people (the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuck), now known as King Phillip's War (1675-78), Mary Rowlandson was taken captive during an attack on Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1676, and ransomed eleven weeks later on May 2, 1776.

One of the most important aspects of the Puritan view of indigenous people is so foreign to us today that it is difficult to understand, but no less true.  First and foremost, Puritans perceived American Indians as instruments of Satan, as worshipers of Satan, as Satan's allies against "God's Children," as Puritans often referred to themselves.  Because the Puritan belief system included the firm belief that Satan is physically and spiritually present in their lives, Puritans could easily believe that the Indians who lived in the surrounding forests comprise Satan's forces, constantly working against "God's Elect" to establish a "shining city on a hill."  Mrs. Rowlandson's description of her initial capture makes it clear that she is in the hands of fiends:

[describing her fellow settlers and family members] All of them stript naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting and insulting, as if they would have torn our hearts out. . . .  (Rowlandson, introduction)

Rowlandson's characterization of Indians as "hell-hounds" is not merely description language: to the Puritans, especially those close to the first colonization, most, if no all, Indians were literally allied with Satan and therefore hounds from hell.

A second, but equally important, belief that informs the Puritan belief system, and is a critical theme in Rowlandson's account, is that, just as the Indians are instruments of Satan, they are equally instruments of God's will.  Rowlandson, as other captives acknowledged, expresses the conviction that the captivity experience is another way of God's testing, instructing, and punishing the faithful.  After several weeks with her captors and watching numerous captives murdered, Rowlandson comments

God did not leave me to have my impatience work towards himself, as if his wayes were unrighteous.  But I knew that he laid upon me less than I deserved (Rowlandson,the Thirteenth Remove).

In other words, Rowlandson comforts herself with the beliefs that God's ways--testing his children with captivity and brutality--are not "unrighteous" and, perhaps more important, that the trials of Rowlandson's captivity are "less than [she] deserved," which expresses the Puritan conviction that all mankind is inherently sinful and carries the guilt of Adam and Eve.  In essence, then, the captivity is both a test and a punishment of a sinful being (all Puritans, including Rowlandson).

Rowlandson concludes her narrative with the comment that "now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me."  Even though Rowlandson has characterized the Indians throughout the narrative as brutal children of Satan, one cannot help but conclude that the Puritan relationship with God is actually the core of the narrative and that Rowlandson's captivity is merely a means to an end--the end being Rowlandson's realization that she deserved to go through this particular test.

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