Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Next Steps

This semester-long reading project has officially come to an end, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve committed to a year-long reading/writing project on the American Puritans.  I will continue to explore the themes in my last post and eventually find a narrower focus.  So my next step is to decide what to read in the coming weeks.  I have these books in mind, since it’s time to familiarize myself with the literature written about the Puritans:

  • Michael Colacurcio, Godly Letters: the Literature of the American Puritans, for close readings of the first generation writings. 
  • Harry Stout's New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. Parts I & II deal with sermons, 1620-1700. 
  • Susan Hardman Moore, Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home. Moore addresses the motivations for migration, then shows the viewpoint of those who decided not to stay (people who left New England during the British Civil Wars and Interregnum, 1640–1660).
  • Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were is more cultural than literary: it uses extensive excerpts from Puritan writings to show their views on various topics.

These books on literary criticism & cultural commentary will help with big themes, and I have a couple of other books that will address poetry. I can later narrow to articles about specific works.
I appreciate other reading suggestions, themes to explore, and general observations!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Semester in Review

So, what have I learned about the witch-burning, shoe-buckled, solemn Puritans? 
In my first post back in February, I posed several questions about these colonists, with the overarching goal of overcoming stereotypes by reading their own works.  Here I cull through my answers, as well as reflect on new themes that have emerged.  This is not a final commentary, but a pulling together of what I’ve learned thus far.  My intertwining thoughts follow a sort of “idea chain,” as you will see below…
My reading encompassed a variety of genres—sermon, ecclesiastical history, poetry, and personal narrative—which illumine the role of words in New England culture.  Sermons are highly structured presentations, easy to remember and repeat, voicing a message around which the community could gather, especially on noteworthy dates like election-day.  The jeremiad functioned as a call to renew the covenant with God.  As Bercovitch pointed out, jeremiads are forward-looking; condemnation is always followed by a call to renewal.
Sermons were not the only words meant to stir the people’s covenantal memory.  Mather emphasized remembering the covenant in the Magnalia, his work of ecclesiastical history.  With public agreements like the Salem Covenant of 1629, the colonists founded their communities on a covenant to live holy lives before God.  They continually affirmed these compacts through church and sermons, reminders in the church calendar, and home worship.  As the children born to original settlers grew older, however, they lost sight of what their parents taught.  Many did not “own” the covenant personally, so they lacked the passion for holiness.  I wrote that they needed to be reminded of the covenant, their history as a people, and their charge to live for God’s glory. Danforth used sermons and Mather used history to re-instill Christian commitment in those who were “lukewarm.” 
What did it mean for some Puritans to not “own” the covenant?  Christians needed to have a personal experience of salvation and profess their faith publicly in order to “own” the covenant.  Thus, Puritans were very concerned with the state of their souls, ascertained through self-examination.  Self-examination could be public, through sermons and covenant-readings, or private, as seen in devotional poems (Taylor and Bradstreet) or Rowlandson’s experiences.  Taylor and Bradstreet work through their spiritual struggles in verse form, praying and quoting Scripture to themselves.  Danforth presents self-examination as a remedy to spiritual lukewarmness.  From his sermon, I noted that self-examination is based not on empty meditation, but on specific remembrance.  The mind is focused on God’s mercies, as well as on life purpose and a comparison with former spiritual diligence.  These meditations convict and restore the soul.  I wrote, “A life lived fully in God’s service, such as Danforth and his congregation desired, is not achieved by default. Self-examination and remembrance—leading to renewed vision—were keys to the Puritans’ perseverance through horrible circumstances.” 
For Rowlandson, self-examination was linked with the Bible, the central Puritan text upon which all other texts are based.  Rowlandson’s meditation spiraled into negativity, until Scripture came to mind and gave her hope.  Quiet moments with her Bible enabled her to survive mentally and emotionally.  This semester’s writers all drew heavily on Scripture.  Some modeled Biblical forms, like the jeremiads.  Others were particularly heavy in Biblical allusions and illustrations, like the Magnalia.  Much of Puritan poetry is a reformulation of Scripture, particularly Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom, or another bestseller I didn’t write about, The Bay Psalm Book.  Further, the Bible was the source of Puritans’ self-definition as a people: the Israelites, the wilderness, and the Promised Land.
The Puritans identified themselves strongly with the ancient Hebrews, God’s chosen people who wandered through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  This explains why the Puritans called their enterprise “an errand into the wilderness.”  But why exactly did they board ships to America?  Danforth and Cotton Mather both address this issue.  In his sermon “An Errand into the Wilderness,” Samuel Danforth identifies the cause of emigration as liberty of conscience and purity of religion.  Similarly, according to Mather, they came to “seek a Refuge for their Lives and Liberties, with Freedom, for the Worship of God, in a Wilderness, in the Ends of the Earth."  Mather also emphasizes historical context: the Reformation and Protestant in-fighting. The American Puritans wished to be an example of pure Reformation to the European Protestants, to establish what John Winthrop called “a city upon a hill,” shining its beacon across the Atlantic.  I have purposefully left alone the most popular Puritan topics—witch hunts and heretical disputes.  Now that I have a basic understanding of the Puritans’ concern for purity of religion and for God’s wrath and mercy, I’m interested in dealing with their infamous shortcomings.
By reading their own words, I am gaining insight on how the Puritans saw themselves and their God.  Wrath and mercy are inseparable concepts.  Both Danforth’s “Errand” and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” contain sections detailing the two concepts.  On the other hand, Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom is all about the wrath to come, in which there will be no mercy.  So how is that consistent with mercy?  Like the jeremiads, this poem ends with a fervent call to readers: come now to the merciful God, while you can still obtain pardon! 
Yes, the Puritans admit, we have sinned.  But He has promised pardon. The promise is central—to heal (Danforth), to restore (Rowlandson), to make of you a great nation and a light to the world (Magnalia).  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God” is an Old Testament promise to which this community clung (Ezek. 36:28).  “God is but waiting for an opportunity of our thankfulness and humility,” cried Hubbard, “to turn his face toward us that we may be saved” (“The Happiness of a People” 53). To enter into God’s promises, a people must humble themselves and live a pure religion of Christian charity.
Pardon from sin is not exemption from life’s hardships.  Even in the midst of war, famine, and sickness, Puritan writers point out the reality of affliction, as well as its attendant blessings!  The jeremiads are expressions of hope in the mercies of a fatherly God, who sends afflictions not to destroy but to correct.  For Bradstreet, in the battle between “flesh and spirit,” balance requires loving God more than all; afflictions are the test that shows whether we do.  She further believes that hardships are a form of God’s love, to draw one closer to Him.  Mary Rowlandson, too, turns her story of affliction into a lesson on gratitude.
Puritan writing is noticeably affective, or reader-oriented.  Every Puritan text asks for reader response at the heart/soul level.  Mather’s “Life of John Winthrop” calls readers to examine their lives, whether they are as godly and loving as Winthrop.  Even Rowlandson’s first-person narrative was more about impacting readers with God’s goodness than about recording a war experience.  Wigglesworth’s poem was aimed at convicting his readers and drawing them to the mercy-seat.  The personal and devotional poems of Taylor and Bradstreet are perhaps the least reader-oriented, for they focus on the writer’s soul experiences.  Yet, as Jeffrey Hammond explains, Puritan readers would meditate on these poems with eyes focused inward, applying the truths to their own Christian experience. 
Puritan writing is an integral part of remembering and personally fulfilling the covenant, an act of self-examination for both writer and reader.  In public sermons and personal texts, Puritan writers exhort patience in affliction, fear of God’s wrath, trust in His mercy, and faith in Biblical promises.  What attracted me to this community are qualities that are rare today: strong personal discipline, covenantal community, and the willingness to be quiet with one’s own soul. 
As the settlers cultivated the harsh New England wilderness using saws and hoes, many among them wielded pens to tame the wilderness of the soul.  And, centuries after the Puritans writers wielded their pens, I approach their texts with a willing mind and humble pen, aware that I’ve cleared only a corner of the wilderness.  At times I feel like an Israelite wanderer, but golden glimpses of the Promised Land of learning quicken my steps.  Hesitant to push the metaphor any further, I lay down my pen [laptop] for now, “blushing” like Bradstreet at this “ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain.” 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Native American Language

While on the topic of Native Americans, I want to recommend a little volume written by Roger Williams, called A Key into the Language of America (1643).  Williams spent many years living with the Narragansett tribe and learning their language.  He then wrote this key to their language, divided into vocabulary sections like "Of the seasons of the Yeere" and "Of Fish and fishing," interspersed with interesting and sometimes entertaining details about Indian customs.
 1681 painting of a Narragansett chief

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Captured by Indians

In 1675, during the bloody Puritan-Indian conflict known as Metacom’s War, the town of Lancaster is sacked by Pequot warriors.  Amidst burning buildings and the slaughter of family members, Mary Rowlandson is carried off.  That’s how her captivity narrative begins…
In the following pages, Rowlandson candidly expresses her hardships through the lens of her Puritan worldview.   Her narrative is a fitting end to the semester, because it brings out several of the main themes I’ve focused on, including Puritan attitudes toward self-examination, the Bible, and affliction.
Rowlandson not only chronicles events, but also candidly shares developments within her soul—hope and fear, suffering and anguish, and deep communion with God.  She is honest about discouragement, homesickness, and grief.  She sees her times of solitude cooped up with the Indians as an opportunity for spiritual growth: “Now had I time to examine all my ways…” (13).  She expresses her true situation, exposing all her weakness and doubts, and then measures her thinking against God’s word.  Her self-examination never ends in condemnation but in hope and comfort through the Scriptures. 
“This was a sweet cordial to me when I was ready to faint,” she writes (4), also calling the Scripture “my guide by day and my pillow by night” (12).  Rowlandson’s source of guidance and comfort in all circumstances is the Bible.  After observing its importance as a source for the sermons and poetry I’ve read, through Rowlandson I see the Bible in action in a Puritan’s life, reviving her hopes and giving her the eyes of faith in hardship.  “Some Scriptures we don’t understand until we’re afflicted,” Rowlandson reflects (15). 
Her narrative is an example of the Puritan attitude toward affliction as a source of sanctification.  Of a small mercy, she writes, even while her child is dying in her arms, “As he wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other” (3).  Her terrible sufferings have spiritual benefits for her soul, and she sees God’s mercies in the small blessings afforded even in extreme situations.  She realizes the need for gratitude in times of peace and plenty: “So little do we prize common mercies when we have them to the full!” (19).
In recording violence, bereavement, solitude, and fear during the bloodiest war of New England, Rowlandson’s ultimate aim is to set down “the sovereignty and goodness of God,” especially in sustaining and encouraging her through Scripture.  She ends the narrative with her hope to now live differently: “If trouble with smaller things begin to arise in me, I have something at hand to check myself with, and say, why am I troubled?...I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles, and to be quieted under them.”
*The numbers cited refer to the “removes” into which Rowlandson divides the book.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Poetry, Mr. Wigglesworth?

I have compared Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom to a sermon, for it has a “preacherly” function. Using paraphrased Scripture set to ballad meter, the poem is meant to expound doctrine, prompt self-examination, and draw readers to repentance.  So, why didn’t Wigglesworth just use the sermon form?  Why switch to verse?
In Wigglesworth’s case, the catalyst seems to be a combination of life circumstances and concern for readers.  For significant periods of time, Wigglesworth was unable to man his pulpit due to physical infirmity.  In the prefatory poem to Day of Doom, excerpted to the left, he explains his poetry by the fact that he was physically unable to preach.  Poetry provided a way to share the message he was so passionate about—a way that would reach a wide audience. 
The reading experience was what counted in the Puritan writing aesthetic.  The truth had to be accurate, clear, and accessible.  Even for the Puritans, who were accustomed to hearing and reading sermons, I think poetry was more accessible as home reading.  Poems would also be more readily received by non-church-members. 
Rhythm and meter can be catching, but the key to Wigglesworth’s accessibility is dramatic portrayal of theological truths.  Unlike the sermon form, his poems are stories, with characters and dialogue.  Jeffrey Hammond points out that the readers could see themselves in the sinners who plead before the Judgment seat—the hypocrites, the reliers on works, the misguided, etc.  Further, the character of Christ the Judge would prompt a reader to seek Christ the Merciful while there is yet time.
I can see Wigglesworth, languishing in his sickbed, yet so full of urgency for the unregenerate that he could not rest with a stopped tongue.  He unleashed the truth, instead, through his pen, in a form that he thought would speak directly to readers’ souls.