Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

An Unexpected Coda for the Early American Captivity Narrative: A Letter from a Romish Priest

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

An Unexpected Coda for the Early American Captivity Narrative: A Letter from a Romish Priest

Article excerpt

The publication of Mary Rowlandson's The Soveraignty & Goodness of God in Boston in 1682 marked the beginning of a new and vital literary genre in colonial America, the Indian captivity narrative.(1) The text, which appeared in fifteen editions before 1800, recounts in a clear and straightforward manner the eleven-week captivity of Rowlandson at the hands of Narragansett Indians during Kin Philip's War (1675-1676) before she was ransomed in the spring of 1676. As presented, her story established the main outlines of the captivity narrative as it would develop over the next two hundred years in far different American locales: capture, suffering, endurance, rescue and redemption. True to her own Puritan culture and beliefs, Rowlandson saw God's Providence at work in her circumstances, a righteous work primarily intended to chastise her, but also through her to teach a surrounding New England society the necessary lessons of dependence and obedience, and the dire consequences of disobedience: "I have seen the extreme vanity of this world. One hour I have been in health and wealth, wanting nothing, but the next hour in sickness and wounds and death, having nothing but sorrow and affliction." Ultimately, however, God's mercy was far stronger than any human misery, any human troubles, a moral really experienced by the now doubly-redeemed Rowlandson:

I can remember the time when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me. When all are fast about me and no eye open but His who ever waketh, my thoughts are upon things past, upon the awful dispensation of the Lord towards us, upon His wonderful power and might in carrying of us through so many difficulties in returning us in safety and suffering none to hurt us.(2)

For the next several generations, the fundamental import of the captivity narrative remained true to its Puritan foundation: the retelling of a human experience which included an invitation to a more profound conversion on the part of its readers, and an exhortation to a deeper appreciation of an edifying lesson that spoke not only about God's righteous wrath toward a once-Godly community now in religious declension, but a lesson that dealt ultimately with God's mercy. Over time, however, other contemporary elements available in several of the earliest narratives, but of apparently secondary importance, began to dominate the genre. What had seemed at one time to be at heart a deeply personalized Puritan jeremiad, or a call to individual and community repentance and spiritual renewal, had become by the mid-eighteenth century a significant propaganda initiative specifically directed against Indians, but especially against the French and Roman Catholicism.(3) The original prominence of the Spirit in Puritan New England was not only being visibly modified by impulses toward secularization in what was now perceived as the land of the Yankees, but was also giving way to an awareness more focused upon the additional political and religious meanings imbedded in the continued warfare between the French in Canada, and their Indian allies, and the English (1689-1763).

An early example of this ancillary, but significant anti-Catholic element may be found in John Williams' The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion (1707), a captivity narrative nearly as popular as Mary Rowlandson's Soveraignty & Goodness of God.(4) Taken captive at Deerfield in February, 1704, along with his wife and five children, the Puritan minister was especially sensitive during his two-and-one-half-year stay in Canada to the earnest proselytizing efforts of French Catholic priests. His sensitivity extended even to the composition of a poem, included in his text, about the situation of his fellow captive Englishmen:

After a tedious journey some are sold, Some kept in heathen hands; all from Christ


fold By popish rage and heathenish cruelty Are banished. …

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