Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.
Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 16501710
MICHAEL WIGGLESWORTH, the most popular of early New England poets, was born in England, probably in Yorkshire in 1631, and died in 1705, at Maiden, Massachusetts, where he had been for nearly fifty years pastor. He was of sturdy Puritan parentage, was brought by his father to Charlestown when he was but seven years old, and soon taken thence to New Haven. Here he was fitted for Harvard, from which he graduated in the class of 1651. He taught there as tutor till 1654, preaching occasionally in Charlestown and in Maiden. He was called to the latter place in 1654, but not actually ordained till two years later. Meantime his father had died. The son in his autobiography pays a warm tribute to the father’s self-sacrifice and pious trust in devoting him to the ministry. “God let him live to see how acceptable to himself this service was in giving his only son to God and bringing him up to learning.”
The father’s health had been frail, and the son seems to have inherited a feeble constitution. Ill-health delayed his ordination as we have seen, and it frequently interrupted his ministry. It was during these periods of enforced leisure that he composed his doggerel epitome of Calvinistic theology, The Day of Doom or a Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment. This was first published in 1662, and attained immediately a phenomenal popularity. Eighteen hundred copies were sold within a year, and for the next century it held a secure place in Puritan households. As late as 1828 it was stated that many aged persons were still alive who could repeat it, as it had been taught them with their catechism; and the more widely one reads in the voluminous sermons of that generation, the more fair will its representation of prevailing theology in New England appear. It satisfied for that age a taste for the shudder in literature, a taste not schooled in New England to demand the artistic expression which had been given to allied themes by Dante and by Milton. It is one of the strange ironies of literature, that the fierce denunciations of the reprobate, and the terrible images of damnation with which the poem abounds, should have been penned by a man whom we know to have been in life a frail and genial philanthropist, so cheerful that some of his friends thought he could not be so sick as he averred. Dr. Peabody used to call him “a man of the beatitudes,” ministering not alone to the spiritual but to the physical needs of his flock, having studied medicine for that purpose. He found favor even with the gentler sex, for he was at least thrice married, to Mary Reyner, Martha Mudge, and Sybil (Avery) Sparhawk. His descendants played an honorable part in the history of New England.
Beside the Day of Doom, Wigglesworth wrote God’s Controversy with New England, and a very popular meditation on the “Necessity, End, and Usefulness of Affliction,” which he called Meat out of the Eater, The following epitaph upon him is attributed to Cotton Mather:—
“His pen did once Meat from the Eater takeAnd now he’s gone beyond the Eater’s reach.His body once so thin was next to noneFrom hence he’s to unbodied spirits flown.Once his rare skill did all diseases healAnd he doth nothing now uneasy feel.He to his paradise is joyful comeAnd waits with joy to see his Day of Doom.”
The Day of Doom.
To the Christian Reader.READER, I am a foolAnd have adventurèdTo play the fool this once for Christ,The more his fame to spread.If this my foolishnessHelp thee to be more wise,I have attainèd what I seek,And what I only prize.Thou wonderest, perhaps,That I in print appear,Who to the pulpit dwell so nigh,Yet come so seldom there.The God of Heaven knowsWhat grief to me it is,To be withheld from serving Christ;No sorrow like to this.This is the sorest painThat I have felt or feel;Yet have I stood some shocks that mightMake stronger men to reel.I find more true delightIn serving of the Lord,Than all the good things upon Earth,Without it, can afford.And could my strength endureThat work I count so dear,Not all the riches of PeruShould hire me to forbear.But I’m a prisoner,Under a heavy chain;Almighty God’s afflicting handDoth me by force restrain.Yet some (I know) do judgeMine inabilityTo come abroad and do Christ’s work.To be melancholy;And that I’m not so weakAs I myself conceit;But who in other things have foundMe so conceited yet?Or who of all my friendsThat have my trials seen,Can tell the time in sevèn yearsWhen I have dumpish been?Some think my voice is strong,Most times when I do preach;But ten days after, what I feelAnd suffer few can reach.My prison’d thoughts break forth,When open’d is the door,With greater force and violence,And strain my voice the more.But vainly do they tellThat I am growing stronger,Who hear me speak in half an hour,Till I can speak no longer.Some for because they see notMy cheerfulness to fail,Nor that I am disconsolate,Do think I nothing ail.If they had borne my griefs,Their courage might have fail’d them,And all the town (perhaps) have known(Once and again) what ail’d them.But why should I complainThat have so good a God,That doth mine heart with comfort fillEv’n whilst I feel his rod?In God I have been strong,But wearied and worn out,And joy’d in him, when twenty woesAssail’d me round about.Nor speak I this to boast,But make apologyFor mine own self, and answer thoseThat fail in charity.I am, alas! as frail,Impatiènt a creature,As most that tread upon the ground,And have as bad a nature.Let God be magnified,Whose everlasting strengthUpholds me under sufferingsOf more than ten years’ length;Through whose Almighty pow’r,Although I am surroundedWith sorrows more than can be told,Yet am I not confounded.For his dear sake have IThis service undertaken,For I am bound to honor himWho hath not me forsaken.I am a debtor, too,Unto the sons of men,Whom, wanting other means, I wouldAdvantage with my pen.I would, but ah! my strength,When trièd, proves so small,That to the ground without effectMy wishes often fall.Weak heads, and hands, and states,Great things cannot produce;And therefore I this little pieceHave publish’d for thine use.Although the thing be small,Yet my good will thereinIs nothing less than if it hadA larger volume been.Accept it then in love,And read it for thy good;There’s nothing in’t can do thee hurt,If rightly understood.The God of Heaven grantThese lines so well to speed,That thou the things of thine own peaceThrough them may’st better heed;And may’st be stirrèd upTo stand upon thy guard,That Death and Judgment may not comeTo find thee unprepar’d.Oh, get a part in Christ,And make the Judge thy friend;So shalt thou be assurèd ofA happy, glorious end.Thus prays thy real friendAnd servant for Christ’s sake,Who, had he strength, would not refuseMore pains for thee to take.
[Dooming the Reprobate Infant.]
THEN to the Bar all they drew nearWho died in infancy,And never had or good or badeffected pers’nally;But from the womb unto the tombwere straightway carrièd,(Or at the least ere they trangress’d)who thus began to plead:“If for our own transgressi-on,or disobedience,We here did stand at thy left hand,just were the Recompense;But Adam’s guilt our souls hath spilt,his fault is charg’d upon us;And that alone hath overthrownand utterly undone us.“Not we, but he ate of the tree,whose fruit was interdicted;Yet on us all of his sad fallthe punishment’s inflicted.How could we sin that had not been,or how is his sin our,Without consent, which to preventwe never had the pow’r?“O great Creator, why was our naturedepravèd and forlorn?Why so defil’d, and made so vil’d,whilst we were yet unborn?If it be just, and needs we musttransgressors reckon’d be,Thy mercy, Lord, to us afford,which sinners hath set free.“Behold we see Adam set free,and sav’d from his trespass,Whose sinful fall hath split us all,and brought us to this pass.Canst thou deny us once to try,Or grace to us to tender,When he finds grace before thy facewho was the chief offender?”Then answerèd the Judge most dread:“God doth such doom forbid,That men should die eternallyfor what they never did.But what you call old Adam’s fall,and only his trespass,You call amiss to call it his,both his and yours it was.“He was design’d of all mankindto be a public head;A common root, whence all should shoot,and stood in all their stead.He stood and fell, did ill or well,not for himself alone,But for you all, who now his Falland trespass would disown.“If he had stood, then all his broodhad been establishèdIn God’s true love never to move,nor once awry to tread;Then all his race my Father’s graceshould have enjoy’d for everAnd wicked sprites by subtile sleightscould them have harmèd never.“Would you have griev’d to have receiv’dthrough Adam so much good,As had been your for evermore,if he at first had stood?Would you have said, ‘We ne’er obey’dnor did thy laws regard;It ill befits, with benefits,us, Lord, to so reward?’“Since then to share in his welfare,you could have been content,You may with reason share in his treason,and in the punishment,Hence you were born in state forlorn,with natures so depravèdDeath was your due because that youhad thus yourselves behavèd.“You think ‘If we had been as hewhom God did so betrust,We to our cost would ne’er have lostall for a paltry lust.’Had you been made in Adam’s stead,you would like things have wrought,And so into the self-same woeyourselves and yours have brought.“I may deny you once to try,or grace to you to tender,Though he finds grace before my facewho was the chief offender;Else should my grace cease to be grace,for it would not be free,If to release whom I should pleaseI have no liberty.“If upon one what’s due to noneI frankly shall bestow,And on the rest shall not think bestcompassion’s skirt to throw,Whom injure I? Will you envyand grudge at others’ weal?Or me accuse, who do refuseyourselves to help and heal?“Am I alone of what’s my own,no master or no lord?And if I am, how can you claimwhat I to some afford?Will you demand grace at my hand, andchallenge what is mine?Will you teach me whom to set free,and thus my grace confine?“You sinners are, and such a shareas sinners may expect;Such you shall have, for I do savenone but mine own Elect.Yet to compare your sin with theirwho liv’d a longer time,I do confess yours is much lessthough every sin’s a crime.“A crime it is, therefore in blissyou may not hope to dwell;But unto you I shall allowthe easiest room in Hell.”
[Dissolving Domestic Ties.]
Unto the Saints with sad complaintsshould they themselves apply?They’re not dejected nor aught affectedwith all their misery.Friends stand aloof and make no proofwhat prayers or tears can do;Your Godly friends are now more friendsto Christ than unto you.Where tender love men’s hearts did moveunto a sympathy,And bearing part of others’ smartin their anxiety,Now such compassion is out of fashion,and wholly laid aside;No friends so near, but Saints to heartheir Sentence can abide.One natural brother beholds anotherin his astonied fit,Yet sorrows not thereat a jot,nor pities him a whit.The godly wife conceives no griefnor can she shed a tearFor the sad state of her dear matewhen she his doom doth hear.He that was erst a husband pierc’dwith sense of wife’s distress,Whose tender heart did bear a partof all her grievances.Shall mourn no more as heretofore,because of her ill plight,Although he see her now to bea damn’d forsaken wight.The tender mother will own no otherof all her num’rous broodBut such as stand at Christ’s right hand,acquitted through his Blood.The pious father had now much ratherhis graceless son should lieIn hell with devils, for all his evils,burning eternally.Than God most High should injuryby sparing him sustain;And doth rejoice to hear Christ’s voice,adjudging him to pain.