Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative – Applied Puritan ideology?

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Motivation for writing

3. The Significance of Affliction

4. Puritan Perception of the Indians
4.1 The Puritan Concept of Indian liability

5. The Indian Experience .
5.1 The Incompatibility of Rowlandson’s behavior in captivity and Puritan Ideology
5.2 The Compatibility of Rowlandson’s behavior in captivity and Puritan Ideology
5.3 The Incompatibility of Indian demeanor and Puritan Ideology

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The way the Puritans approached, valued and treated the Indians in America is intrinsically tied to their religious belief and the religious concepts they applied to order the world they lived in. With an authentic non-fictional account of a Puritan minister’s wife about her captivity among Indians, as delivered by Mary Rowlandson, there is the unique chance of analyzing the application of Puritan principles of belief in time of hardship as well as Puritan reception of the Indian American. The following pages will attempt to interpret Rowlandson’s behavior in captivity and her description of the natives against the background of her religion. The focus will be placed on the way Rowlandson employs Puritan ideology in order to make sense of the world and especially of her experiences in Indian captivity. More precisely, this essay intends to answer the following central questions: Firstly, how and to what degree does Rowlandson actually succeed in explaining the happenings to herself and fellow Puritans, or to put it differently – how does she deal with inconsistencies between religious doctrines and reality? Secondly, does Rowlandson succeed in living according to Puritan principles while in captivity? Lastly and on the findings of the previous answers, does her captivity among the Indians cause any alteration in her attitude towards them?

2. Motivation for writing

Mary Rowlandson’s narration “combined high adventure, heroism, and exemplary piety and is the first and, in its narrative skill and delineation of character, the best of what have become popularly known as ‘Indian captivities’.”[1] This classification, as given in the introduction to the author Mary Rowlandson in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, is sufficient to provide the reader with a basic grasp of what her story entails and which genre it can be attributed to. For the following analysis however it is of importance to look a bit closer into the genesis of this narration.

Rowlandson’s motivation for documenting her experiences in Indian captivity was not to create a piece of entertaining literature. The full title of the narrative reveals the intention behind the publication of her ordeal in Indian captivity:

“The sovereignty and Godness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promise displayed; being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commenced by her, to all that desires to know the Lord’s doing to, and dealings with her. Especially to her dear children and relations. The second Addition Corrected and amended. Written by her own hand for her private use, and now made public at the earnest desire of some friends, and for the benefit of the afflicted.”

Her goal was thus to show the sovereignty and goodness of God for the benefit of the afflicted. Her experiences as well as her dealings with the Indians are therefore neither recounted to present the reader with an authentic picture of Indian culture nor to convey historical knowledge about King Philip’s War. Her narrative is meant to assist fellow Christians in comprehending God’s ways and to provide a model for the right behavior in times of affliction. This is important to note, as later interpretations of Rowlandson’s style must be seen against the background of its purpose – the illustration of God’s workings.

3. The Significance of Affliction

In Rowlandson’s narrative, God’s intervention is omnipresent. Everything that happens to her or to any other human being for that matter is caused by God and has an inherent meaning. God controls all worldly events and determines their outcomes. Rowlandson applies this Puritan principle in every circumstance of her captivity. Accordingly, she is not largely astounded or aggrieved when her sister, during the attack on Lancaster, is struck by a bullet after she asked God to let her die with her beloved.[2] Her death is interpreted as God’s answer to her plea. Rowlandson’s abduction into the wilderness is consequently also attributed to God’s will and therefore entails a certain meaning or message. Rowlandson does not take long to make sense of what happened. She remembers the many Sabbaths she lost and misspent.[3] She was careless in her worshipping and her captivity is brought about by God to make her aware of her misconduct in order to get her back onto the right path. With personal suffering and hardship interpreted as God’s attempt to make an individual sheep or his whole flock aware of derivations from his will, affliction becomes meaningful. Earthquakes, food shortages, diseases, Indian attacks and all other dreadful difficulties the Puritans encountered in the New World were thus interpreted as communication from God. From a Puritan point of view, misery meant that God had an ongoing interest in the fate of the afflicted individual or community. Furthermore, affliction was considered to be a prerequisite for salvation.[4] Puritans assumed that since the fall of man all human beings had been innately depraved. Man could not redeem himself. Saving grace was only conceded to some – the chosen ones. Suffering was seen as a sign for election as it led to conversion of the individual and thus paved the way to forgiveness and salvation.[5] The meaning of affliction determined the Puritan attitude towards suffering. Affliction was seen as a blessing and was therefore to be welcomed with open arms. In Puritan society one did not only endure affliction, but longed for it. In Rowlandson’s case it was even a source of envy. She says:

“Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it. When I lives in prosperity, having the comforts of the world about me, my relations by me, my heart cheerful, and taking little care for anything, and yet seeing many, whom I preferred before myself, under many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the world, I should be sometimes jealous, least I should have my portion in this life, [...].”[6]

As a consequence of the major importance of being afflicted, Puritans had to accept any ordeal without resistance. To actively do something in order to overcome one’s suffering would ultimately be an interference with God’s divine plan. Accordingly, in times of affliction, the Puritan was condemned to passivity as can be illustrated with Rowlandson’s account of the attack on Lancaster. She recounts: “We had six stout dogs belonging to our garrison, but none of them would stir, though another time, if any Indian had come to the door, they were ready to fly upon him and tear him down.”[7] The dogs, animated by divine spirit, give her a sign of what God expects from her – not to stir and to accept her fate. Rowlandson conviction that God wants her and the other captives to endure their hardship can be confirmed once more in the narrative. When goodwife Joslin plans to run away, Rowlandson strongly advises her against it, quoting the Bible: “Wait on the Lord, Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart, wait I say on the Lord.”[8] In addition to this code of conduct while suffering there were also certain patterns of behaviour which Puritans displayed after the suffering had ceased. In order to confirm their status as chosen, they were eager to display the appropriate behavior of the elected. They therefore tried to “demonstrate in their new lives a reformed character, marked by sober, obedient, godliness”[9]. As a result Puritan society was clearly divided between those who could produce a conversion experience and were thus enhanced in their status inside the community and the common sinners, who were still waiting for affliction.[10] This again explains why Rowlandson had envied the ones “under many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the world”[11] before she herself was afflicted. It also shows that there was an attitude in Puritan society, which considered immense suffering to be beneficial and inherently positive. The focus was put on the religious meaning and not on the psychological consequences of a terrible experience such as Rowlandson’s time in captivity. The mental strain was left to the individual to cope with.[12] A digestion of the experience was therefore hardly possible in Puritan society. That is why Rowlandson has difficulties to sleep although she received a sign of God to be among the chosen. She says: “I can remember the time when I used to sleep quietly without the workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me.”[13]


[1] Rowlandson, M. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. A. 6th edition. Ed. N. Baym et. al. New York and London: Norton, 2003, 309.

[2] Cf. Rowlandson, 310.

[3] Cf. Rowlandson, 313.

[4] Cf. Ebersole, G. L. Captured By Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity. Chalottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995, 58.

[5] Cf. Bremer, F. J. The Puritan Experiment. New England society from Bradford to Edwards. Hanover and London: Univ. Pr. New England, 1995, 18 f.

[6] Rowlandson, 340.

[7] Rowlandson, 310.

[8] Psalm 27, Verse 14. In: Rowlandson, 315.

[9] Bremer, 1995, 23.

[10] Cf. Bremer, 1995, 23.

[11] Rowlandson, 340.

[12] Cf. Derounian K. Z. “Puritan Orthodoxy and the ‘Survivor Syndrome’ in Mary Rowlandson’s Indian Captivity Narrative”. Early American Literature. Vol. 22.1, 1987, 83.

[13] Rowlandson, 340.


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University of Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
Mary Rowlandson’s Applied Puritan Hauptseminar Literaturwissenschaft Conceptualizing Ethnic Perspectives Early American Literature Bradford Hermann Melville)




Title: Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative  –  Applied Puritan ideology?