English Class: American Literature

Cotton, Winthrop, and Rowlandson

Three well-known Puritan figures in the 1600s were John Cotton (1585-1652), John Winthrop (1588-1649), and Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711). John Cotton gave his notable sermon God’s Promise To His Plantation in 1630 to a group of Puritan colonists who were about to sail to the New World under John Winthrop’s governorship. John Winthrop also gave a sermon before or during their crossing, A Model Of Christian Charity (1630). In 1682, Mary Rowlandson published her book, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, which was about her captivity by the Native Americans during King Philip’s War and her eventual release. Cotton and Winthrop talked about the Puritans’ role in the untamed wilderness of New England, while Rowlandson wrote about how uncivilized and backward the wilderness seemed to her. While Cotton and Winthrop encouraged the Puritans to settle the wilderness, Rowlandson wanted to return to Massachusetts and to civilization.

In his sermon Cotton encouraged the Puritans to view the wilderness as a blessing from God and as an opportunity to witness to the natives. He says in his sermon:

“Offend not the poore Natives, but as you partake in their land, so make them partakers of your precious faith: as you reape their temporalls, so feede them with your spiritualls: winne them to the love of Christ, for whom Christ died.”

New England was a blessing for the Puritans who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. There they could find the freedom and peace they longed for while back home in England. In New England the Puritans could have their own land, raise their families according to their beliefs, and set up their own government. Although it was known to be a very difficult and dangerous life, with none of the common English comforts, the Puritans were challenged to settle New England. John Winthrop’s hope for the New England wilderness can be seen in his sermon, A Model Of Christian Charity, where he writes:

“He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The idea that what the Puritans were doing would be watched by the world gave extra significance to their mission. John Winthrop warns in his sermon that the if Puritans did not remain faithful to God and to their purpose in New England, God would punish them and their legacy would be tainted.

“So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”

This shows us how serious the colonization of New England was to the Puritans. Their mission to civilize the Native Americans and tame the wilderness left no room for failure.

Mary Rowlandson saw the wilderness in a different light compared to Cotton and Winthrop. As a woman who had lived in a civilized city in New England and who was torn from her family and plunged into the harsh wilderness, she did not embrace it the way Cotton and Winthrop did. Her experiences with the wilderness left her without much desire to conquer the wilderness or bring the light of Christianity that Cotton and Winthrop set out to do. We can see her despair in being taking into the wilderness in her book where she writes:

“But now, the next morning, I must turn my back upon the town, and travel with them into the vast and desolate wilderness, I knew not whither. It is not my tongue, or pen, can express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit that I had at this departure:”

All three of them saw the New World as uncivilized. Cotton and Winthrop felt it was their duty to bring the light of Christ to the wilderness, whereas Rowlandson desired to remain in a civilized city.

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