John Williams (1664-1729)
Rosalie Murphy Baum
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The popularity of the captivity narrative during the Puritan period
is being repeated today among students who vicariously enjoy the narrators'
experiences and realize the effect such narratives have had on popular
frontier and Wild West adventure stories. To many students already familiar
1682 Narrative, John Williams's 1707 narrative is especially welcome--not
simply because it offers a male version of captivity, but also because
it describes captivity both by the Indians (for eight weeks) and by the
French (for two years). The primary difficulty students have in reading
the narrative lies in their lack of knowledge of the French and Indian
War and of the differences between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism.
Background information about the relationship between the French and
English in North America can eliminate this difficulty and give students
a more accurate idea of colonial history. To be stressed first is the fact
that the hostilities between the French and the English in North America
began as early as 1613 and that the period between 1613 and the Peace of
Paris in 1763 was one in which some six extended conflicts, or "wars,"
resulted in captives, usually women and children, being taken from New
England to Canada.
Students also need to be reminded of the theological and ritualistic
differences that distinguished the Puritans from the Established Church
of England. Roman Catholicism represented a structure and theology even
more pernicious to Puritans than the structure and theology of the Church
of England. In such a context, Williams's strong reaction to the Indians'
taking him "to a popish country" (Québec) and to the efforts
of the French Jesuits to convert him to Roman Catholicism becomes clear.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The Redeemed Captive is, then, an excellent work to dramatize
for students what the French and Indian Wars were about and to clarify
the antagonism between Catholics and Puritans during this period. It is
also a form of the jeremiad more readable and interesting to modern students
than most of the Puritan sermons, histories, or personal narratives.
In addition, it illustrates "the significant mythic experience
of the early white-Indian relationship" (Louise K. Barnett, The
Ignoble Savage ) and the "Puritan myth of `America,' " "the
first coherent myth-literature developed in America for American audiences"
(Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence ). Students can
see in both Williams's and Rowlandson's
narratives the way in which such accounts typically open with an Indian
raid in which white settlers are brutally massacred and then proceed to
describe the inhuman hardships Indians inflict upon their captives. The
concept of the Indian is that of satanic beast. No attempt is made in these
narratives to indicate that the Indian aggression is a part of the hostilities
of decades and may have been provoked or equaled by white aggression. Little
note is made of the decency or kindnesses of the Indians: such good fortune
as the captive may experience is never attributed to the customs or virtue
of the Indian but to God. Living conditions that are everyday parts of
the Indian life or result from the normal state of travel at that time
are regarded by captives as horrendous personal injuries being deliberately
and cruelly inflicted upon them by the Indians. Clearly no cognizance is
taken of the inherent difficulties that arise when two such disparate cultures
come together under conditions of warfare.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Of particular interest to many students will be the subject of the captivity
narrative as a genre particularly American in its subject matter years
before American writers--like Freneau,
and James --became concerned
about the question of an inherently American literature. This genre
was clearly, in its early stages, a religious statement, emphasizing redemptive
suffering, with the captivity being either a test that God had set for
his people or a punishment to guide them from their evil ways. Williams's
narrative was such an excellent example of the type that Sunday School
versions appeared as late as the 1830s and 1840s (e.g., Titus Strong's
The Deerfield Captive: an Indian Story, being a Narrative of Facts for
the Instruction of the Young ).
Students should be reminded too, of course, that Williams is writing
for a Puritan audience. Thus, for a people familiar with the jeremiad,
he emphasizes God's wrath against his people for their shortcomings, but
also rejoices in God's mercy and goodness toward his people. (See Sacvan
Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, for a study of the negative and
positive sides of the jeremiad.) He assumes the satanic nature of the Indians,
particularly fearsome creatures by which God tests his people or punishes
them. And he stresses the diabolical nature of the Jesuits, who, in their
zeal to convert him to Roman Catholicism, make him attend a Latin Mass,
urge him to pray to the Virgin Mary, and try to force him to kiss a crucifix.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
For their writing assignments, some students may wish to read other
captivity narratives either to compare narratives of redemptive suffering
or to trace the changes in the genre emerging during the propaganda and
fictionalized thriller stages. Wilcomb E. Washburn's Narratives of North
American Indian Captivities offers facsimile reprints of 311 such narratives
dating from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century.
But even without such additional reading, the possibilities for essays
based upon Williams's narrative are considerable. Students may wish to
discuss Williams's The Redeemed Captive as a jeremiad, comparing
it to jeremiads they have read in other genres. They may wish to examine
Williams's narrative techniques, especially with a view to the contribution
the genre has made to the horror story or thriller. Students interested
in women's studies or feminist criticism may wish to consider conceptual
and stylistic differences between the narratives of Rowlandson
and Williams. Students interested in Indian studies can compare attitudes
toward the Indians in Williams and other authors studied (e.g., in Bradford,
or, moving into a later period, Franklin,
Students familiar with Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces
can consider the archetypal nature of The Redeemed Captive, perhaps
in the light of other works they have read.
Of particular value as background reading for teaching The Redeemed
Captive is Wilcomb E. Washburn's "Introduction" to Narratives
of North American Indian Captivity: A Selective Bibliography (1983),
xi-lvv, and Edward W. Clark's "Introduction" to The Redeemed
Captive by John Williams (1976), 1-25.