| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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.
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,
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.
Most times when I do Preach:
But ten days after what I feel
And suffer, few can reach.
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.
Claremont Graduate University
In the Heath Anthology
from The Diary
(1653 - 1657)
A Song of Emptiness
The Day of Doom
Meat Out of the Eater
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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.
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