John Williams was born in Roxbury,Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1683 and taught school for two years before he was asked to go to the frontier town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, and serve as its first pastor.
Williams arriving at Deerfield in 1686, and was formally ordained in 1688. In the interval, he married Eunice Mather, daughter of an important minister of Northampton, Massachusetts, and a cousin of the influential Mather family. John and Eunice had a largefamily, and they became known as models of faith in the little town.
Tragedy struck Deerfield in the early morning hours of February 29, 1704. A largewar party of French Canadians and Abenaki Indians attacked the town. The blow came as a great surprise to the villagers. They had believed they were safe that winter, due to the huge snow drifts; they did not anticipate that their enemies would use snowshoes to make their way south from Montreal.
The raiders took 109 prisoners andkilled 44 others; 133 people managed to escape. Williams, his wife, and several of their children were seized in their house. The victorious French and Indians then marched their captives north to Canada.
Only a few miles out of Deerfield, Williams’s beloved wife Eunice was killed; she had given birth only sevenweeks earlier and was not strong enough to make the march. Most of the other captives, including the rest of the Williamses, survived the grueling march to Fort Chambly, just over the border in Canada.
For the next two years, Williams worked hard to keep his family and his flock together. He sternly resisted all efforts by the French to convert him to Catholicism, but he suffered intense grief when his 15-year old son Stephen converted. \ Stephen Williams later returned to the Puritan faith.
Governor Joseph Dudley of Massachusetts made every effort to ransom the captives. His efforts were finally successful in November 1706, when Williams and 59 of the Deerfield captives returned to Boston by ship. Another 29 captives remained in Canada; most of them never returned. One such captive was Williams’s youngest daughter, Eunice Williams, who married a Caughnawagna Mohawk Indian and chose to stay in Canada.
Williams wrote the story of his ordeal, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, while he was recovering in Boston. He then returned to Deerfield and resumed his place as the minister. He married Abigail Bissell in 1707. Williams’s book—read by thousands of people during the 18th century—ensured his place in Puritan history.