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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day of Doom: Visible saints and a call to repentance

Pilgrims Going to Church by George Henry Boughton

In Michael Wigglesworth’s day the people living in New England were second and third generation puritans. Church congregations were dwindling (comparatively) and becoming more female-centric; the reason being that only “visible saints” were considered actual members. Visible saints were people who had publicly declared their faith, had a written conversion experience, and then had been voted into the congregation by its members. Second and third generation puritans didn’t have the same conversion experiences as their pilgrim forefathers and had a harder time becoming members of the church. This was a problem because 1. Only fully fledged members could have their children baptized and 2. It discouraged people from trying to join the church in the first place, even if they were otherwise leading pious, Christian lives.
This was partially resolved by the Halfway Covenant in 1662. The Covenant allowed for partial church membership where halfway members could still baptize their children and aspire to full membership if they could put forth evidence of a conversion experience.
But, of course, this didn’t fix everything. The idea was that the halfway members would see the benefits of full membership and desire it. At the same time, they would still be able to attend church services and be exposed to spiritual experiences--and to perhaps have that conversion experience necessary to become a true member. It pretty much flopped though because the real members thought they were lowering God’s standards and a lot of the people who would be halfway members didn’t want to take what they viewed as a short-cut. You can read more about visible saints and the halfway covenant here.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that 1662 also happens to be the year that Wigglesworth wrote and published The Day of Doom, or that it became an immediate bestseller. Church leaders, including Wigglesworth, worried about their decreasing congregations and The Day of Doom is an obvious call to all Christians to repentance and to come back to the church. His first poem is addressed "To the Christian Reader" after all, not "To official members of the church and no one else".
Critics of the early 20th century really have a beef with Wigglesworth, especially a gentleman named Moses Coit Tyler. He claimed that Wigglesworth made God “a character the most execrable and loathsome to be met with, perhaps in any literature” and that in his “intense pursuit of what he believed to be the good and true, he forgot the very existence of the beautiful” (Hammond). What Tyler and his contemporaries mostly complain of is Wigglesworth's clumsy way of going about poetry. But they're missing the point, especially within the context in which it was written. Puritans totally rejected anything flowery or showy because it detracted from the religious message and it also was seen as prideful. And The Day of Doom isn't supposed to be this beautiful work of art but rather a warning about what would happen if a person didn't humble themselves and prepare for the last days: "That Death and Judgment may not come, And find thee unprepar'd" (119-20). You could argue that there are poetic elements in it so therefore Wigglesworth is recognizing the “existence of the beautiful”; but the internal rhyme was probably mostly an aid to memorization and the ballad meter was simply typical for disaster pieces. Technically, everything Tyler said about this poem is true; Wigglesworth makes God into a terrifying monster. But that's just his way of scaring them straight. Go to church and repent or you'll kill yourself trying to escape a vengeful God. 

1 comment:

  1. In looking at today's world can we really blame the Puritans for rejecting things that were overly flowery and excessive. In our society today, people get ahead based on how they present themselves and not on their own knowledge and merit and we have people who are willing to do bad things because they feel justified because they are beautiful. I'm not saying we need to live like the Puritans, but maybe they had a point.