When tragedy befalls a person, friends and family are likely to ask why that tragedy had to happen. There is no easy answer to that question, but I believe there is one possible rationale. I believe that God may allow bad things to happen in order to teach people that He is in control of every situation, both good and bad, and they need to rely on Him alone for strength. During the seventeenth century, there was an American colonist who found herself in one of the most difficult circumstances any colonist could face. Having nowhere else to turn, she threw herself on the graciousness of God and sought comfort in the Holy Scriptures. God rewarded her trust in Him and brought her through the ordeal. She later wrote a book praising Him for his goodness to her. Her name was Mary Rowlandson. This is the story of how God gave her the strength to survive her captivity by Native Americans.
Mary Rowlandson’s early life experiences helped shape her into a woman who was able to survive the worst that life could throw at her. She was born Mary White in Somerset, England around 1637, though the precise date remains unknown. Little is known of her early life except that she and her family immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony while she was still fairly young. Life in those early colonial days was anything but safe, easy or comfortable. The family initially settled in Salem before moving to the frontier town of Lancaster, where Mary’s father established himself as the wealthiest man in town. In 1656 she married Joseph Rowlandson, a graduate of Harvard and Lancaster’s new Puritan minister. The couple had four children together, but their firstborn, a daughter named Mary, died as an infant. Except for these few facts, the next two decades of Mary’s life remain obscure. She performed household chores like sewing, cooking, and gardening and raised her three surviving children. She also looked out for the perils that accompanied frontier life. It would not be long before one of the greatest perils, an Indian raid, afflicted Mary and the other inhabitants of Lancaster. The settlers’ faith and fortitude, particularly that of Mary, would soon be tested beyond all comprehension.
In early 1675 fifty years of peace between the colonists and the Indians came to an end as the colonists pushed deeper into Indian territory. Chief Metacomet of the Wampanoag, or King Philip as the whites called him, united the local tribes and led them in a series of attacks on frontier towns in a bloody conflict that came to be infamously known as King Philip’s War. Mary’s husband traveled to Boston to petition for a military presence in Lancaster, but at dawn on February 10, 1675, while he was away, the Indians attacked. Entering the town, they burned homes and killed several villagers. They soon targeted the two-story Rowlandson home where many villagers had sought safety. The Indians took cover and fired their muskets so rapidly that, in Mary’s words, “the bullets seemed to fly like hail.” Three of the home’s defenders were killed in a two-hour firefight before the Indians set fire to the house. Mary ran out of the house with her children, only to have a bullet hit her in the side and then hit her six-year-old daughter Sarah in the abdomen. At the same time, she watched the Indians kill her sister, brother-in-law and nephew. In total, thirteen inhabitants of Lancaster were, in Mary’s own words, “butchered by those merciless heathens.” Twenty-four others, including Mary and her children, were taken captive. As the Indians carried Mary away, she clung desperately to the only thing that could then sustain her — her faith in God.
As Mary and the other prisoners were dragged west along the Connecticut River, she pleaded with God to show her favor. Being a devout Puritan, she believed that He was the only one able to give her the strength to survive. She began to view the beatings and the mocking, as well as her separation from her two oldest children, as God’s punishment for her wicked ways. Then she had to endure the death of her six-year-old daughter Sarah from the wounds received in the raid. Mary’s own wounds healed and she remained relatively healthy as she consumed Indian rations, but she still needed God’s spiritual and emotional healing. In desperation, she called out to God for help, and in her words, He “renewed my spirit” with the knowledge that He was right there beside her during her suffering. He also showed her grace when He compelled an Indian to provide her with a Bible taken in one of the raids. Mary kept the Bible with her as she was moved from camp to camp, at one point even meeting King Philip himself. As she travelled, she read the Bible and meditated on the promises that God revealed to her.
As weeks turned into months, Mary Rowlandson searched the pages of her Bible to ease her anguish. She read of the sufferings of Job and began to see the parallels with her own losses, including the death of her young daughter and the destruction of her home. Like Job, she refused to abandon her faith or blame God for her troubles. Instead, she drew hope from the verse in Jeremiah that promised an ultimate reward for one’s struggles and the verse in Psalms that commanded her to remember that God was firmly in control. The verses reassured her that she would not be overwhelmed by her circumstances. Rather, she blessed the Lord for “His goodness in bringing to my hand so many comfortable and suitable scriptures in my distress.” She treasured the stories that told of King David and other heroes of the faith who underwent experiences similar to her own. She fully comprehended that Isaiah and Psalms were correct when they described how God’s ways and thoughts are far superior to those of humans. God used her captivity to remind her that He was in supreme control and He had the ability to sustain her, even in the middle of so desperate a plight. God’s plan did include a happy ending for Mary though. She was finally released in May 1675 after three months of brutal captivity.
As word of her horrific experiences and miraculous survival spread throughout New England, Mary Rowlandson became widely known. After reuniting with her husband and her two surviving children, she briefly settled in Boston. When asked about her captivity, she credited God with sustaining her and protecting her, just as He had protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The family soon moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut where Mary’s husband served as the local minister. He died in 1678, three days after preaching a sermon in which he discussed his wife’s captivity. Mary married Captain Samuel Talcott a year later, and in 1682, she published an autobiography entitled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, describing her experiences as a captive. Some scholars have described it as one of the first American bestsellers. She gained recognition for her work, but except for a few brief court testimonies in 1707, little else is known about her later life. Mary Rowlandson died in 1710 or 1711.
Mary Rowlandson’s life reminds us that tragedies do happen in life. The issue is how we deal with them. For Mary, she survived the ordeal, physically and psychologically, by trusting that God had supreme authority over her life. Through her darkest hour she clung to the belief that God would never leave her nor forsake her. With that belief she gained comfort, strength and hope. Without it, she would have succumbed to despair and loss. Mary Rowlandson could not control any part of her time in captivity, but God could and did. She simply had to “let go and let God.” From this colonial woman’s incredible story of faith and survival perhaps we too can learn to triumph over adversity.