The Religion and Rhetoric of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

In the opening selections of the captivity narrative, “Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” Mary Rowlandson creates a dialogue of sympathy and empathy that is based on a religious rhetoric, using religious language and invoking quotes from the Bible to underlie and support her cries for narrative approval. In this way, Rowlandson writes for the white subjects of the British empire, creating a narrative which dehumanizes mostly, although there are punctuated moments of social empathy.

In the opening paragraph and first remove of her narrative, Rowlandson employs a specific Christian rhetoric to advance the ideological goals of her problematic text. In a quote from Deuteronomy 32.39, the editor places a quote which validates Rowlandson’s journey through slavery: “See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me, I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.” While this quote is sort of confusing, it is imbued with violent, warlike rhetoric. What is interesting about this quote is its context, where 2 verses later He states: “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever, when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment; I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me” (Deuteronomy 32:40-41; my emphasis).

This vengeful rhetoric, the smiting of foes, is directly related to Rowlandson’s narrative. Revealingly, this relates to Thomas’ ruminations on the “City Upon a Hill,” where he states that: “the colonists celebrated their victory, and affirmed their religious fanaticism, declaring the Pequot extinct, and explained their victory once again as an act of God: ‘Let the whole Earth be filled with his glory! Thus the lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.'”

While Rowlandson’s narrative is interesting in the way that it infrequently humanizes the American Indians, one can’t help but isolate the beginning passages that describe being “butchered by those merciless heathen,” and the quotes from the first remove which describe the “yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.” This language, undoubtedly moving for the British or colonist reader, is the real source of rhetorical violence which occurs in this text. Rowlandson conjures the imagery of hell, the absolute, immoral sphere of existence: diametrically opposed to serenity and righteousness of heaven. While it is important to understand the context in which Rowlandson is writing, that being her forced removal from her settlement and the death of her family, our post-colonial frame of reference does not allow this to go unnoticed. Rowlandson tactically uses Christian rhetoric to undermine the humanity of Native Americans, entirely reducing them an enemy. This is a classic ideological strategy for validating war, and, in the worst cases, genocide.

This dehumanizing, demonizing way of writing reduces the natives to mere immoral Others. In the second Chapter of The Second Treatise of Government, Locke explains that the state of nature is “a state of equality, in which no-one has more power and authority than anyone else; because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status… should also be equal” (3). Where is the state of nature in Rowlandson’s narrative to be found? Overall, the overarching portrayal of American Indians in this narrative is a hideous one, which affirms the narrative of American genocide broached in Thomas’ post.

—Nathaniel Schwass

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2 thoughts on “The Religion and Rhetoric of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

  1. In your fourth paragraph, you say that Rowlandson’s narrative humanizes the natives, I’m hoping it’s a typo, but I doubt it is. We can agree that she might have tried to do so, but the reality of it is that she didn’t, throughout her whole text when she referenced them and/or tried to make them seem like humans, she was more offensive than anything else. It’s like a saying “this creature is humanlike,” the fact is, you’re still calling them a creature… I don’t know if that makes sense, hopefully, it was a typo after all.

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    • You seem to have glossed over the rest of my post and centralized a minute point I made in passing. While there are moments in which examples of domesticity humanize American Indians, it is overall a dehumanizing narrative. To answer your question, no, it was not a typo.

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