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.