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Friday, January 21, 2011

Michael Wiggelsworth’s Wiggly Disposition

There seems to be a disparity between what people say about Wiggelsworth’s cheerful disposition and the darkness and sorrow found in his writings. Wiggelsworth claims that he is a happy person, in his introduction of the Day of Doom which is titled "To the Christian Reader," he makes some remarks on his weak physical state and how because he is a cheerful person people often do not believe that he is ill. Lines 58-62 exemplify this best as it states, “Some for, because they see not/My chearfulness to fail,/Nor that I am disconsolate,/Do think I nothing ail”(58-62). Here it is obvious to see that at least Wigglesworth believes himself to be a cheerful person, but it was more than just his own self image. Other people in Wigglesworth’s community truly believed him to be an extremely cheerful person, so much so that they indeed did not believe that he was as ill as he claimed to be. In the Colonial Poetry and Prose he was called a “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.”(47-48). Dean John Ward’s article also emphasizes the cheerful nature of Wigglesworth despite his illnesses. However, this cheerfulness is greatly contrasted by the message of his epic poem.

Some parts of the poems found in The Day of Doom could be considered pleasant to read, as Wiggelsworth does believe that the select will be saved and loved by god for eternity, but the overall theme of the poems is the fear and dread of those who are damned. Much of "A Short discourse on Eternity" is extremely sardonic. At times the reader is hopeful and happy thinking of the bliss of heaven. Then the poem transitions to how terrible hell is. According to Wigglesworth and Puritan teachings, those who are damned are damned for eternity. Reading these poems and seeing just how sardonic and depressing they really are I wonder how a supposedly cheerful person can write on such topics.

Wigglesworth focuses about half of his poems on the negative aspects of his religion specifically the fate the wicked will suffer at the second coming and hell. The only explanation I have found justifying this disparity in personality versus preaching is in statistics of people’s reasons for modern religion. People choose to be religious for a few reasons including out of tradition or familial obligation, spiritual belief, and hope or faith that they will be saved for their belief. Out of these reasons hope and faith are some of the strongest motivators. Wigglesworth obviously believed that he was among the elect who was going to be saved. It is also safe to assume that the individuals who were buying and reading the Day of Doom believed that they too were among the elect and would be saved. If we assume these two things then it makes sense that Wigglesworth was able to write about the suffering of the sinners the way he did because he did not fear that he would be included among the suffering but rather he found hope and joy in the idea of being able to be with god again and feel his love for eternity. Most of the people who were purchasing the Day of Doom also would have thought themselves among the elect. So instead of simply thinking they must have been a group of masochists it is safe to assume that they also found the poems to be inspirational as the majority would have associated themselves with the pleasant imagery of heaven and God’s love.


Dean, John Ward. Sketch of the life of Rev. Michael Wigglesworth, A.M., author of the Day of doom.Albany, 1863. 20pp.

Trent, William P. and Wells, Benjamin W., Colonial Prose and Poetry: The Beginnings of Americanism 1650–1710, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1903 single-volume edition, pp. 47–48.


  1. That's a great poster about Calvinism. I thought that was interesting too. When I was doing research a lot of people said he was a happy guy but if you read some of the excerpts from his diary he seemed like a pretty tormented soul. There's a lot of stuff about how he had trouble with "sinful thoughts", which he was filled with self-loathing about.

  2. I think a lot of people have different personalities when they're passionate about something that means a lot to them. Politics, for one, transforms many of my friends. "Going green," gay rights, the teapart, or any other issue can change a normal human into a rabid werewolf in .2 seconds. I'm the same way about some things. Like Indiana Jones, for example. LOVE IT OR DIE.

  3. Those "sinful thoughts" involved nocturnal emissions, a condition that Wigglesworth might have known from his medical studies as "spermatorrhea," although that term wasn't widely used until the 18th century.