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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Michael Wigglesworth
Upon Michael Wigglesworth’s death in 1705, his gravestone was inscribed, “Here lies Intered in Silent Grave Below / Mauldens Physician For Soul and Body too.” Wigglesworth served as minister and physician in the Massachusetts town of Malden for over fifty years, but poems rather than sermons would sustain his reputation throughout the colonies during the seventeenth century. The Day of Doom and Meat Out of the Eater, both bestselling expressions of conservative Puritan theology, urged Puritans to repent their sins and to seek redemption. Presenting the basic tenets of Puritan belief in a jogging verse form called “fourteeners,” The Day of Doom was purchased, memorized, and recited by Puritans throughout the colonies and England. Today, Wigglesworth’s candid diary and persuasive poetry serve as fascinating glosses on Puritan experience.

Born in Yorkshire, England in 1631, Wigglesworth was raised by devout parents who left England in 1638 to join the growing community of Puritans in Massachusetts Bay. He excelled in his studies from a young age, and his parents eventually sent him to the newly established Harvard College in 1648. Arriving at Harvard with thoughts of studying medicine, he soon began to struggle with, define, and express the religious and philosophical ideas that would form the substance of his writings and make him an influential minister and poet. Reflecting on God’s grace and examining his own soul—an experience of salvation central to Puritan theology—Wigglesworth postponed his medical studies to prepare for the ministry. He rejected several ministerial positions, however, in order to remain at Harvard for his master’s degree and as a tutor. Intensely devoted to his students, Wigglesworth struggled endlessly to place God foremost in his mind at all times.

Wigglesworth’s Diary records his thoughts and conversations with God during his tutoring years at Harvard, his marriage to a cousin, Mary Reyner, and his agonizing decision to accept a pastorship in Malden. The diary reveals the Puritan’s constant self-scrutiny and unceasing search for signs of God’s favor or displeasure. He returns again and again to his most unrelenting sins: pride, lack of affection for his parents, especially his father, and attachment to things of the world rather than the divine. With remarkable emotional intensity, he describes his worries about his sexuality and his frequent bouts of illness. Exhaustion, weak lungs, and a chronic sore throat kept Wigglesworth from performing his full duties as pastor of Malden. He compensated for this shortcoming by becoming active in his community as a physician and as a poet. After the death of his wife, he began writing verse, preaching to the world through a medium kinder to his malady. He responded to his frustrated parishioners in the preface to The Day of Doom:

Some think my voice is strong,
Most times when I do Preach:
But ten days after what I feel
And suffer, few can reach.
In The Day of Doom, Wigglesworth sought to make more present that day that should never leave the Puritan mind: the Day of Judgment. The Last Judgment comes without warning in the poem, instructing readers that they must constantly ready themselves for God by considering each action in life in the light of God’s judgment in death. The fervency of Wigglesworth’s literary plea for rectitude was, in part, a response to the growth of materialism and the decline of spiritualism in the colonies. Through a poetic parable of goats (the damned) and sheep (the saved), Wigglesworth delineated punishments for the wicked and rewards for the virtuous, balancing God’s mercy and justice. Easily accessible and directed at a broad audience, The Day of Doom provided comfort to many generations of believers. The first edition, published in 1662, sold out within a year, and the volume was reprinted many times in both America and England. Unable to lecture consistently in his own parish, Wigglesworth preached compellingly to an enormous audience throughout the colonies. His next publication, Meat Out of the Eater, fell just short of the popularity of his first book. The title derives from the Biblical story of Samson and suggests that blessing arises from suffering, a theme perpetually present in Wigglesworth’s own life as he attempted to turn physical ailment into spiritual health. Wigglesworth’s jeremiad about the colonies’ spiritual apathy, “God’s Controversy with New-England,” was written in 1662 but remained unpublished for two centuries.

Wigglesworth became embroiled in his own New England controversy when he married his unbaptized servant, Martha Mudge, in 1679. His influence in the colony, however, continued unabated. In the latter part of his life, Wigglesworth’s health improved and he became a more vigorous spiritual leader. After Martha Mudge’s death, he married for a third time, became a Fellow at Harvard, and began preaching more often and energetically. As the colony as a whole grew less orthodox and wavered in its respect for members of the clergy, Wigglesworth still claimed considerable admiration. He continued to heal both body and soul through his medicine, his ministry, and his poetry until his death in 1705.

Danielle Hinrichs
Claremont Graduate University

In the Heath Anthology
from The Diary (1653 - 1657)
A Song of Emptiness (1657)

Other Works
The Day of Doom (1662)
Meat Out of the Eater (1670)

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"God's Controversy with New England"
The text of Wigglesworth's 1662 jeremiad.

The Poetry of Michael Wigglesworth
The texts of The Day of Doom, A Short Discourse on Eternity, Vanity of Vanities and more of Wigglesworth's writing.

Secondary Sources

Alan Bray, "The Curious Case of Michael Wigglesworth," A Queer Word, ed. Martin Duberman, 1997: 205-215

Eva Cherniavsky, "Night Pollution and the Floods of Confession in Michael Wigglesworth's Dairy," Arizona Quarterly (45)2, 1989

Richard Crowder, No Featherbed to Heaven: A Biography of Michael Wigglesworth, 1961

Robert Daly, God's Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry, 1978

Jeffrey A. Hammond, Sinful Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry, 1993