The Chosen People of God:
Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative

Caroline Gleason

From the violent and brutal clash between Indians [1], and British colonists in Massachusetts during King Philip's War (1675-6) grew a new literary genre. After their redemption, some colonists who had been prisoners of the Indians wrote autobiographical accounts of their experiences. These captivity narratives developed a large audience, and interest in the narratives continued into the nineteenth century.[2] After her capture and redemption, Mary Rowlandson published what some historians call "America's first best seller," entitled Narrative Of the Captivity and Restoratio;t of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.[3] Through her use of scripture and portrayal of the relationship between the Indians and Puritan colonists, Rowlandson reinforced the traditional concept of providence preached by the founding Puritans fortv years earlier.

Mary Rowlandson relied on her faith in the providence of God to sustain herself during her period of captivity. Indians ransacked the town of Lancaster in February of 1675. Rowlandson, the wife of a minister, was one of twenty-four townspeople taken captive.[4] Separated from her husband and all but one of her children, during her captivity she depended upon a Bible obtained from an Indian's plunder for spiritual survival.[5] Her eventual redemption and reunification with her surviving children and husband affirmed her faith in the providence of her God.

The founding Puritans based their concept of divine providence on a special covenant with God. John Winthrop, in "A Modell of Christian Charity," expressed the belief that the Puritans were the chosen people of God. In 1630, when Winthrop spoke to Puritaii colonists sailing to the New World on the ship Arbelia, he referred to God as "Our God" and to the Puritans as "his oune people." He remin ied his fellow colonists: "We are entered into Covenant with Him. ... wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us."[6] Winthrop believed that the Puritans had a duty tc) fulfill their covenant with God bv serving as an example of an ideal Christian community to the world. In return, God would protect his chosen people. In "God's Promise to His Plantations," John Cotton, one of Winthrop's contemporaries, explained that "what hee [God] hath planted he will maintain ... his owne plantation shall prosper, & flourish." Cotton urged Puritans to "Have speciall care that you have had the ordinances [of God] planted amongst you," because "As soon as God's ordinances cease, yor security ceaseth likewise."[7] Cotton warned his fellow Puritans that breaking the covenant with God would result in a loss of his protection for his chosen.

By quoting the scriptural story of Joseph, Rowlaridson illustrated her belief that the Puritans were the chosen people of God. When pondering the timely attack of the Indians on Lancaster, which took place shortly after the troops protecting the town left for want of provisions, she wrote that God "orders all things for his holy ends":

 Shall there be evil in the city find the Lord hath not done it? They are not grieved           for the affliction of Joseph; there fore they shall go captive with the first that go captive.  It is Lord's doing and it should be marvelous in our eyes.[8]

God punished Joseph's brothers, who lacked remorse for selling Joseph into slavery, by making them the unknowing captives of Joseph years after they had committed their sin. By referring to this biblical story, Rowlandson compared the sinful brothers of Joseph to the sinful Puritan colonists of New England. When the Indians forbade Rowlandson to visit her daughter Mary, she began to reflect on her "one child dead, another in the wilderness I knew not where, the third they would not let me come near to." She recalled the woe of Jacob, who said to God "Me (as he said) have ye bereaved of any children; Joseph is not; Simeon is not; and ye will take Benjamin also."[9] By likening her separation from her children and her captivity to the story of Joseph, Rowlandson linked the Puritan colonists to God's first chosen people of the scriptures, the Israelites.

Rowlandson believed that God was punishing his people for breaking their special covenant as his chosen people. She described the relationship between the Indians and the colonists as one orchestrated by God. As she surveyed her home after the attack bv the Indians, she credited the destruction not to the Indians, but to God, when she quoted "Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He has made in the earth-"[10] When pondering the escape of the Indians, weighed down with the burden of their wounded captives, from the English army, Rowlandson concluded that "God strengthened [the Indians] to be a scourge to His people." Rowlandson believed that "our perverse and evil carriages in the sight of the Lord have so offended Him that, instead of turning his hand against [the Indians], the Lord feeds and nourishes them." She reinforced her conviction that God punished her people through the Indians by quoting the scriptural voice of God saying "Oh, that my people had harkened to me, and Israel had walked in my ways; I should soon have subdued their enemies and turned my hand against their adversaries."[11] The Indians' success over the Puritans was a result of the failure of the Puritans to uphold their covenant with God. The warning that John Cotton preached over forty years earlier, that if the colonist, "degenerate, to take loose courses, God will surely plucke you up," had become prophetic to Mary Rowlandson.[12]

Rowlandson's Puritan-centered perception of her captivity revealed that she perceived the Indians as mere instruments used by God within the terms of his covenant with the Puritans. Throughout the narrative, Rowlandson referred to the New England Puritans, and never the Indians, as motivation for God's actions. When the Indians were successful, Rowlandson believed this success came not from the merit of the Indians but from the sins of the colonists. After Rowlandson's redemption and reunification with her daughter, she wrote:

          Now I have seen that scripture also fulfilled....If any of thine be driven out to the
          outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee. . . .And           thine God will put all these curses upon thine enemies, and on them that hate thee, which
          persecuted thee.[13]

Thus, Rowlandson revealed her belief that God would act against other people simply because they were enemies to the Puritans. Rowlandson believed that the sins of the colonists, which deviated from their covenant with God, led God to use the Indians as a means for punishment.

Quoting scripture in her narrative, Rowlandson concluded that God had orchestrated the events of her captivity, and, as an omnipotent being controlling all humanity, had acted with special purpose. God manipulated the relationship between the Indians and the Puritan colonists, favoring the Indians when the colonists had fallen to sinful ways, then favoring the colonists when they began to recognize their dependence on God. God was neither punishing nor rewarding the Indians, who were merely agents whom God controlled as a manifestation of his wrath on the New England Puritans. Rowlandson believed that the punishment that God had inflicted on the colonists via the Indians was a manifestation of his love: "For whom the Lord lovethe he chasteneth, and scourge every son he receiveth."[14] Because Rowlindson believed in the covenant between the Puritans and God, she strove to live by the scripture and fulfill her side of the covenant. Her eventual redemption affirmed her faith in God's special relation- ship with his chosen.


1. I chose the word Indians to write of the Native Americans to be consistant with Mary Rowlandson's choice of words.

2. David Freeman Hawke, The Colonial Experience (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 307.

3. John Demos, "War and Captivity," Remarkable Providences, ed. John Demos (Boston: North Eastern UP, 1991), 344.

4. Mary Rowlandson, "Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson: Extracts," Remarkable Providences, 347.

5. Ibid., 347.

6. John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity," Settlements to Society: 1607-1763, ed. Jack P. Greene. (New York: Norton, 1975), 68.

7. John Cotton, "God's Promise to His Plantations," Settlements to Society, 65-6.

8. Rowlandson, 364.

9. Ibid., 351.

10. Ibid., 346.

11. Ibid., 355.

12. Cotton, 65.

13. Rowlandson, 369-70.

14. Ibid., 371.

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