Monday, April 19, 2010

Puritan Bestseller

Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom was America’s first bestseller, rivaled only by the Bible and the Bay Psalm Book.  First published in 1662, it went through three to five American editions and three in England.  One source estimates that one out of every two New England families owned a copy! 
The introduction to my edition tells me that Michael Wigglesworth was born in England in 1631.  When he was six, he moved to New Haven, CT.  Later, he studied at Harvard—first, medicine, then switching to divinity.  He became pastor to the church in Malden, Mass.  Throughout his life, Wigglesworth struggled with depression, doubts, and physical weakness, as well as conflicts within his church’s leadership.
Reading The Day of Doom was challenging, to be honest.  Within a few stanzas, the horrors of the Last Days began to come alive.  The subject is not geared toward modern sensibilities, and as a poem, it is not a beautiful specimen.  It is more of a theological treatise in verse form, a dramatic interpretation of central Puritan beliefs. 
Once I let go of the poetic shortcomings, however, and took the poem as it was, I began to see its value—and the spiritual challenge it raises.  Rather than a tool for self-expression, this poem is directed at the reader.  Like a sermon, it is an arrow aimed at one’s spiritual center, to strike at doubts and expose the need for self-evaluation.  This poem is written to provoke admissions and questionings: “I am a sinner!  Have I obtained pardon through Christ’s blood?  Or shall I suffer for eternity?  Am I among Christ’s sheep, or am I among the hypocritical goats?”  While immersed in The Day of Doom, it is impossible for the reader to ignore the call of Christ.  One must face the unequivocal presentation of Christ as the only way to heaven—and either reject or accept Him. 
So, why was the poem so popular?  The answer could be that, in that culture, the question of salvation trumped word choice.  “For Puritan readers, theological truth was beauty,” concludes Hammond (Sinful Self, Saintly Self).  The art that appealed to early America’s Christian culture was an art designed to save souls. 
In subject matter and wording, The Day of Doom follows the Biblical prophesies pertaining to Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment at God’s throne, along with frequent retellings of Christ’s sacrifice.  Through dialogue and narration, two main ideas develop: the unregenerate will suffer forever in hell, and those who are bought with Christ’s blood will rule with Him in heaven.  Wigglesworth adds to these themes detailed Biblical theology.  Perhaps the longest section is God’s response to religious hypocrites.  God explains His seeming harshness of punishment; expounds free will, predestination, and original sin; muses for pages on the horrible fate of the damned (stanzas 203-205 are most intense); and concludes with a short, joyous description of heaven. Attached to the end are a short poem about eternity and an ending address to the reader, mirroring a similar opening address.  Throughout the work, the ideas, words, and phrases are basically a reformulation of the Bible.  In fact, a column of Scripture references runs along the margin of the poem—one to four references per stanza.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Meditation 1

Edward Taylor's own words introduce him better than I could, so allow me to share a beautiful poem written by him...

What Love is this of thine, that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn'd?
What hath thy Godhead, as not satisfide
Marri'de our Manhood, making it its Bride?

Oh, Matchless Love! filling Heaven to the brim!
O're running it: all running o're beside
This World! Nay Overflowing Hell; wherein
For thine Elect, there rose a mighty Tide!
That there our Veans might through thy Person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy Love might overflow my Heart!
To fire the same with Love: for Love I would.
But oh! my streight'ned Breast! my Lifeless Sparke!
My Fireless Flame! What Chilly Love, and Cold?
In measure small! In Manner Chilly! See.
Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bradstreet & Balance

Anne Bradstreet particularly addresses one of the questions I asked during my reading: How did the Puritans integrate spiritual values with the demands of day-to-day life?  Must a Puritan renounce all things of the world?  On one hand, Bradstreet fights temptations to value too highly her worldly possessions and to pursue “fleshly” desires.  As she describes dramatically in “The Flesh and the Spirit,” the spirit should always win over the flesh in internal struggles.  On the other hand, she dearly loves many things in the earth, especially her family and her home.  
Her poetry shows that the divide between flesh and spirit is complex.  While she yearns for heaven and rejects the earth, she still cherishes her loved ones, her possessions, and her own health.  For instance, she writes passionate poems to her husband.  The balance lies in making God the priority, a balance achieved through continual self-examination.  One must ask: do I still love God more than all?  And, will I surrender willingly whatever he wishes to take away? 
The test, Bradstreet discovers, is whether she continues to praise God in times of loss.  She expresses palpable grief and real discouragement, yet she stirringly turns bad situations into professions of faith.  She sincerely ascribes to the Puritan belief that afflictions are a form of God’s love, to draw one closer to Him.  Affliction is the rod of a loving Father, wielded out of love and for her good.
What shall I render to my God
For all His bounty showed to me?
Even for His mercies in His rod,
Where pity most of all I see.
-“Deliverance from Another Sore Fit”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Dudley Bradstreet was the first American colonist to have a volume of poems published.  Born in 1612 in England, Anne Dudley was married at age 16 to Simon Bradstreet and, not long after, traveled to New England on the Arbella.  Arrived in America, they experienced firsthand the hardships of founding a new colony, and Bradstreet expressed many of her experiences in verse.  In 1650, her brother-in-law took her manuscripts overseas and had them printed as The Tenth Muse—without Bradstreet’s knowledge!  In response to this unexpected exposure of her work, Bradstreet composed a humorous poem, “The Author to Her Book.”  Despite her humble “blushing” at the faults she saw in the poems, Bradstreet’s work was immediately popular in England.

In the early years, Bradstreet versified ancient history and composed lengthy meditations on topics like the stages of life.  Later, she noticeably shifted to personal and religious themes—and it is these works that gather the most attention today.  Her meditations on love for family, struggles with worldliness, and praises to God are not only relatively easy to relate to, but they also highlight the hopes, fears, beliefs and priorities of a New England woman in the 17th century.  Besides being a pleasure to read, Bradstreet's poetry illumines the internal life of the Puritan colonists.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Ah, poetry! I am entering on a brief study of three early American poets—Anne Bradstreet, Michael Wigglesworth, and Edward Taylor. Bradstreet seems like an old friend, for I have read and written about her before, exploring the relation of earthly and heavenly concerns in her poetry. Of the questions I asked at the beginning of this semester, here are some that the poetry may address:

What was most important to the Puritans?
What was the nature of community and family interactions?
How did the Puritans integrate spiritual values with the demands of day-to-day life?
What was the role of words—written and oral, prose and poetry—in their culture?
And I’ll add: How does the congregation examine themselves and their commitment to God?

As pre-reading, I chose a volume by Jeffrey Hammond called Sinful Self, Saintly Self. Rather than putting modern constructs on writing that is so different from our own, Hammond asks: How did the Puritans write, read, and experience their own verse? I’d like to keep some of his points in mind as I read.
1. Remember that to us moderns, the Puritans are “the other”—their culture and worldview are foreign to modern America. Poems that seem grim and grave today may have been a “source of delight” to the Puritans.
2. There is apparently a debate about whether most Puritan poetry can qualify as art. Did Puritan poets sacrifice art to their religious didacticism? On this charge, many poets have been dismissed, with the exception of some of Bradstreet’s and Taylor’s works. However, it’s important to consider whose definition of art we are using.
3. The Bible was the basis for both writing and reading in that era. Poets often modeled their work after Biblical poetry like Psalms or Song of Solomon. Further, readers of the Bible were expected to judge their own hearts against Scripture. A religious poem was like “an index of spiritual condition”—if your heart responded fervently, it was an indication of your nearness to God.