John Williams (1664-1729)

    Contributing Editor:
    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 with Rowlandson's 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, Bryant, Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, 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 ).

    Original Audience

    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, Williams, Cotton Mather, Rowlandson, or, moving into a later period, Franklin, Freneau, Bryant, Cooper, Melville). 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.