December 13, 2012
Freedom Through Faith:
Puritanism as a Means for Female Autonomy in Soveraignty and the Goodness of God
In Soveraignty and Goodness of God Mary Rowlandson (d. 1711) offers a striking account of her captivity amongst Native Americans during King Philip’s War. Rowlandson was taken from her home in Lancaster, Massachusetts on 10 February 1976. She remained in captivity for eighty-three days before being released (Leach 352). As the wife of a Puritan minister, Rowlandson was very pious and loyal to her faith throughout the duration of her captivity. Although given many opportunities for escape, Rowlandson placed her fate and ultimately her redemption into the hands of God. Moreover, she chose to remain captive until released willingly by her captors. Her story conveys a woman, one who was not afforded much freedom, finding opportunity to exercise her agency while being held prisoner. Additionally, she provides insight into differences between the natives and colonial settlers and illustrates the importance of faith and predestination to the Calvinist settlers of America. Her tale offers opportunities for wonderful analysis, both historical and literary, as she weaves a tale of loss and restoration through her faith and virtue.
Rowlandson’s account is important because it is a fascinating account of the strength of faith in Puritan America. Her religious beliefs provide meaning and reason behind all of the harrowing trials she endures throughout her captivity. Through her faith, Mary is able to subvert the implications of her captivity and instead makes a conscientious choice to place her fate in God’s hands, believing that His “providence” would deliver her from this trial unscathed. This mindset provides insight into the machinations that propelled the beliefs of America’s earliest settlers; the Puritans believed that God would protect those he favored and that “Divine Providence” would deliver those individuals from pain and suffering (Rowlandson 5).
Rowlandson’s narrative opens with a recollection of the Battle of Lancaster, during which she lost her sister and much of her other family. If not for Rowlandson’s memoir, the intricacies of this skirmish would likely have been forgotten (Hamilton 287). Rowlandson remembers the last moments of her sister’s life and her own initial captivity:
. . . the bulletts flying thick, one went through my side, and the same (as would seem) through the bowels and hand of my dear Child in my arms. One of my elder Sisters Children, named William, had then his Leg broken, which the Indians perceiving, they knockt him on head. Thus were we butchered by those merciless Heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels. My eldest Sister being yet in the House, and seeing those wofull sights, the Infidels haling Mothers one way, and Children another, and some wallowing in their blood: and her elder Son telling her that her Son William was dead, and my self was wounded, she said, And, Lord, let me dy with them; which was no sooner said, but she was struck with a Bullet, and fell down dead over the threshold. I hope she is reaping the fruit of her good labours, being faithfull to the service of God in her place. (Rowlandson 14)
Rowlandson has experienced great pain and suffering; she has seen her family slain around and she and her youngest child survived a bullet wound. She contrasts the domesticity and docile nature of her family with the savage and “merciless Heathen”. Throughout this chaotic and harrowing ordeal, Rowlandson finds strength and comfort in God and places her fate in his hands. Rowlandson’s sister, on the other hand, asks God for guidance in a different way. She prays to be stricken down after bearing the loss of her child and the fear of losing her sister; in Rowlandson’s eyes, this prayer is answered in the form of a bullet that leads her sister to eternal peace and happiness. These women have both used their faith in God to provide guidance and make separate decisions following their suffering and loss. Their Puritan ideology that God will provide for his people is seen in this moment, and throughout the rest of Rowlandson’s recollection. This account of The Battle of Lancaster provides the modern reader with a slice of Early American life, where tensions between early colonists and the nation’s natives were high and often resulted in bloody battles and also provides insight into the belief that God would provide for His people in any way they required.
Rowlandson notes that this harsh trial gave her a chance to make decisions in the face of God, “I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should chuse rather to be killed by them then taken alive but when it came to the tryal my mind changed; their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous Beasts, then that moment to end my dayes” (Rowlandson 16). This initial decision is followed up by many others during the period of her captivity where she actively chooses to take on roles and responsibilities to earn her way to freedom, rather than sit passively by and wait for outside forces to act upon her (Hamilton 296).
As Rowlandson begins her journey, she views her captors as savage, brutal, and immoral. By highlighting the differences between their values and her own, she highlights the virtue of a Puritan background and Puritan society to her colonial audience. This places her as a more virtuous and trustworthy woman, contrasted against the Native American women depicted in her text (Potter 155). She contrasts herself and the people of her Puritan community against the natives, and asserts their powerlessness against the Will of God:
That God is indeed the supream Lord of the world, ruling the most unruly, weakening the most cruel and salvage, granting his People mercy in the sight of the unmercifull, curbing the lusts of the most filthy, holding the hands of the violent, delivering the prey from the mighty, and gathering together the out casts of Israel. Once and again you have heard, but hear you may see, that power belongeth unto God; that our God is the God of Salvation, and to him belong the issues from Death. (Rowlandson 10)
Despite their ability to capture and rule over her, she has been redeemed through the guidance of God and has been favored by providence. For Rowlandson, her captors and their culture exude a veritable laundry list of sinful rule and action. This elevates the status of her people and their culture and way of life – for a people who built their “City on a Hill” to look down upon those outside of their culture, Rowlandson’s story portrays “sense of superiority” and privilege that Puritans felt towards outsiders. They were the chosen, and would be protected and saved by God to live eternally, those outside of their culture were prone to sin and unredeemable (Potter 155). This illustrates the source of tension between Puritan settlers and the natives: an ingrained sense of difference between people of unfamiliar races and cultures. The Puritan belief that white settlers were inherently superior to their native counterparts pervades this text and provides context to this piece as well as other Early American pieces. This belief pervades the texts of 17th Century America and will be echoed throughout the nation’s literary history in the form of texts that grapple with issues like slavery and colonization that still affect the cultural fabric of America today.
Rowlandson again notes in her conclusion that in order to survive her trial, she had to place her fate in the hands of God, “the Lord hath shewed me the vanity of these outward things. That they are the Vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit; that they are but a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance. That we must rely on God himself, and our whole dependance must be upon him” (Rowlandson 71). The things she has lost were merely vanities, but she has come out with a greater understanding of God’s plan. She cannot question His acts now, but she has passed this trial put in place by God and she reconciles the experience as a part of God’s plan for her. She could have taken her fate into her own hands and left at any number of times, but she believed that her Lord would redeem her. Rowlandson uses this experience to exercise her agency, practice her religion, and exert her beliefs of superiority over the natives. Her narrative illustrates tension between two clashing cultures and exhibits early American Puritan ideologies. This tale positions a woman in a place where she is held prisoner and is unable to escape from the expectations of her status in a particular society, but shows how she can subvert that within her new role and then bring those experiences back to Puritan society. Mary Rowlandson’s tale provides opportunity to experience her individual spiritual trial and shows how one can subvert patriarchy and imprisonment through strength of faith.
One should walk away from Mary Rowlandson’s Soveraignty and the Goodness of God with a greater understanding of the ties that held Early American culture together – these people were not only adhered to one another their shared faith, but driven by a fear unknown and “savage” cultures. Religious belief implied that these natives were members of the Other and that their existence was irreconcilable with the ideals of America’s earliest colonists. To exist among them and return to Puritan society, restored to one’s former position would have been to overcome the harshest trial of the New World. This text captivated Rowlandson’s Early Modern audience and is relevant to understanding the religious and racial dynamics that today’s America was founded on.
Hamilton, Amy, and Tom Hillard. "Before the West Was West: Rethinking the Temporal Borders of Western American Literature." Western American Literature 287.307 (2012): n. pag. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Leach, Douglas. "The 'Whens' of Mary Rowlandson's Captivity." New England Quarterly 34.3 (1961): 252-63. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Potter, Tiffany. "Writing Indigenous Femininity: Mary Rowlandson's Narrative of Captivity." Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.2 (2003): 153-67. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Rowlandson, Mary. "Soveraignty and Goodness of God: An Electronic Edition." Early Americas Digital Archive. N.p., 2002. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://mith.umd.edu/eada/html/display.php?docs=rowlandson_narrative.xml>.