New England Puritan Female Experience: Anne Bradstreet
In 1568 there was a number of the Anabaptists congregations in London, known as “Puritans” or “the unspotted lambs of the Lord”. During the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) the Puritans grew significantly emphasising the unique Christian values: commitment to Scripture, explanatory preaching, pastoral care, and godliness in every field of life. The word “Puritan” commenced to be used for the people who were rigid about their way of living. Those who cared about the gospel (gospellers) and whose objective was to disseminate it were Puritans. The Scriptures warn that the godly can expect persecution because of their lifestyles. Puritans were ridiculed as killjoy (Hulse 2000: 12).
A new meaning developed due to Calvinism. The name “Puritan” has been a subject of a mockery. In 1641 Henry Parker wrote: “Papists, bishops, court flatterers, stage-poets, minstrels, jesting buffoons, all the shameless rout of drunkards, lechers, and swearing ruffians, and many others took delight in deriding people as puritans” (Hulse 2000: 13). The Puritan claimed that godly people were sober, hard working, and responsible. According to the Puritans foreign influences corrupted society and caused disorder so it needed to be purified. Catholicism had eroded the foundation of the relationship between God and people (Feldmeth 2004: online).
The Calvinist believed in the “Doctrine of the Elect”. It claims that people are doomed to eternal damnation as they are burdened with original sin. According to Calvin people could not be saved apart from a few whom God decided to spare. This group was known only to God. It was called “The Elect”. A member of The Elect could be “dropped” by God if his/her life was improper and deprived of hard work and expiation. If one were the Elect, he would not lose this position (Pidgeon 2007: 178).
The congregation of saints chose its members, hired and fired its ministers, and recognized no other religious authority. Worship should be plain and focused on God with no decorations, instrumental music, or art, however there were much value of education. Every error should be opposed and removed (Feldmeth 2004: online).
The 17th century settlers expected to have a better life than the one they used to have in Europe. They left their countries due to religious persecution, political oppression and poverty. They desired to achieve the personal freedom, self-fulfilment and happiness (Pidgeon 2007: 178).
When the Puritans came to America they brought with them their religion. They also attempted to learn more who the Elect were. They believed that the possession of material things might be an indication. They thought that one who had such items must have had a special God's blessing due to hard work and praying. Affluence became a sign of goodness and proved membership in the Elect.
Wealth did not serve the desire of comfortable life but to erase original sin and earn eternal salvation (Pidgeon 2007: 179).
The Puritans considered order in their communities as a proper way of withholding evil, safeguarding freedom and preventing crime. They believed that freedom was equal to the liberty of doing the right thing and not whatever one pleased. According to the Puritans, people perceived their liberty as protected by boundaries and influenced by responsibility. Children should be submissive to parents, wives to husbands, husbands to Christ and citizens to governments and it was not considered bondage but rather safety and security (Hall 2011:8).
The Puritans of colonial America are studied in all history. The important reason for this attention is a belief that studying Puritanism allows to uncover the roots of American culture. Puritanism, has always struggled to impose its cultural standards. However, in American history there have been many who have considered themselves non-Puritans or anti- Puritans. American Puritanism has been engaged in dialogue with one or more adversaries, such as Anglicanism, the Enlightenment, or southern slave system. Puritanism was one of the strong cultural impulses from which Amcrica historically derived. The Puritans have been Pilgrim Fathcrs to patriotic teachers, courageous rebcls to radical abolitionists, and prudish villains to H. L. Mencken and Hugh Hefner (Howe 1988: 1057).
Historians have made an attempt to consider the mind of a Puritan woman in the seventeenth and eighteenth century America.There are several answers to these questions. Feminist historiography analyses the Puritan woman within the patriarchal system.
An appropriate understanding of a Puritan woman is basic in history of America. Without this understanding, an awareness of American heritage is lost. A historian stated, “Without some understanding of Puritanism, it may safely be said, there is no understanding of America.” The first European-American women are the carriers of significant messages and legacy for their offspring. Primary sources help to understand the women such as Lady Hoby, Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Goodhue and Margaret Winthrop. These women were represented of the Puritan females experience. The fullest descriptions are written by women who delighted in their families and God (Hall 2011: 2).
The Puritan social gospel imposed severe limits on their lives and activity. They were considered inferior parts of every relationship. Those restrictions resulted from Puritan males' belief that they were not only physically but also mentally stronger than women, and their mental capabilities were more appropriate for managing their families, performing ministerial duties and shaping colonial social and political reality. Due to their assumed inborn mental inferiority, women were recognized to be less capable to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual development than men. They were not able to benefit political rights, to speak in public, or to express themselves in writing in a publishable form. Women did not attend colleges, which prevented them from access to a formal education. Differences in education determined a woman's environment, reducing it to the household and its surrounding. Although her position was defined by her husband's social and economic status, in general terms it was usually similar. Puritan daughters were educated by their mothers in housekeeping as well as reading for religious purposes, mainly for studying the Bible. Young girls were sent as servants to other families in order to learn reading and household skills. A popular assumption that women's involvement in mental activities e.g., reading and writing, could be harmful physically and mentally, was clearly expressed by John Winthrop in his 1645 account (Chylińska 2012: 194 -195).
Modesty, charity, Bible reading, prayer and labour protected women from humiliation and accusations of adultery, heresy or witchcraft. Cotton Mather paid special attention to women, and comprised the female social roles within the popular myth of Bathsheba. Mather emphasised the mental and spiritual potentiality of virtuous women who could not not speak in the church and their intellectual activities were limited but due to their piety and industrious labour they responded to the Scriptures and praised Proverb 31. The Puritan preacher recommends women to express their fear of God in all spheres of their lives in order to achieve happiness in this world and ineternal life.
The female emotions were strictly controlled but also their attires which were long, dark and unpretentious. They should cover women's hair and arms. Bright colours and decorative elements were not allowed as well as any jewellery, including a wedding ring (Chylińska 2012: 196).
Gender, apart from race, economic status, age, and religion were the most important categories that determined the New England colonial past; it identified and assessed the role and position of women in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Puritan America, and it significantly defined their place in a history of American women, and in broader terms, in the history of western civilization. Female in early Puritan New England had to follow strictly the godly pattern, established by a Biblical proverb of "a capable wife," which defined the virtues and nature of the ideal housewife (Chylińska 2012: 158).
However, Puritan women did not perceive their roles as bondage. Contrary to many scholars' arguments, most Puritan women were happy, fulfilled and perceived a significant objective in “traditional women’s roles”. After serving Christ, a woman recognized a husband and approved a man’s role as leader, protector and provider. Raising children was joyous privilege. The Puritan woman involved her skills in the home, however, sometimes in education and writing poetry (Hall 2011: 10).
Anne Bradstreet's (1612-1672) was born in England. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was the manager of the estate of the Puritan earl of Lincoln, She received an education which was not available to most of young women of the time. When she was sixteen she married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Cambridge University, who was also a Puritan involved in management of the earl of Lincoln's estate. A year after the marriage her husband was appointed to assist in the preparations of the Massachusetts Bay Company so that the Bradstreets and the Dudleys sailed to America. When Bradstreet "came into this country" she "found a new world and new manners," at which her "heart rose" in resistance. "But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined the church at Boston"(Baym 2003: 115).
We know very little of Bradstreet's daily life, except that it was a hard existence. The wilderness, Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, "made men stern and silent, children unruly, servants insolent" (Baym 2003: 115).
Anne Bradstreet created many poems regarding hardship or tragedy. Her poetry served her to focus on God and his love for her. Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman and she understood fire of her house as a lesson from God. who took all of her material items away. God punished her because she must have been materialistic and did not rely on God as much as she should. God showed her that she needed to focus on Him and her faith by removing all of her distractions with the house fire (Anne Bradstreet; Puritan Wife & Mother: online)
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram'd by the mighty Architect
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent though this be fled
It's purchased and paid for too
By him who has enough to do
A Price so vast as is unknown
Yet,by his Gift,is made thine own.
There's wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell my Self, farewell my Store
The world no longer let me love
My hope and Treasure lies Above
Anne's father and her husband Simon Bradstreet were very much engaged in the public affairs of Massachusetts Bay Colony and also served as governors so that Anne's household was an influential one. In spite of her daily duties, Anne found time to write poetry. She began to write poems as a young girl to please her father. After she had been married she continued her poetic works. A few of her poems were devoted to her husband and expressed her love and longing for him while he was abroad. He left for England for several months as Massachusetts' representative to the king, Charles II (Baym 2003: 115):
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if ye can.
I prize thy love more than whole
Mines of gold, or all the riches that the East doth hold.
Anne and Simon had eight children. Many of her poems have a character of the prayers in the daily routine of her active family's life. e. g.,:
"Upon my Daughter Hannah Her Recovery from a Dangerous Fever":
Bles't be thy Name who did'st restore To health my Daughter
dear death did seem ev'n to approach And life was ended near.
Grant she remember what thou'st done And celebrate thy praise And let her Conversation say She loves thee all her Days.
Bradstreet's statements in her poems address her husband and are connected with her children. He might remarry after her death so she considers them with love:
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains
And if thou love thyself, or loved'st me,
These protect from step-dame's injury.
She refers to her "little babes", describing them as her "dear remains". Bradstreet emphasizes that her children are apart of her in the physical sense. She asks her husband to protect them "from step-dame's injury" (Major 2005:116).
Anne Bradstreet like any good Puritan added the examination of her conscience to the daily routine. She tells us in one of the "Meditations" written for her children e.g.,:
A ship that bears much sail, and little ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering. The finest bread has the least bran; the purest honey, the least wax; and the sincerest Christian, the least self-love.
Sweet words are like honey; a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach. Divers children have their different natures: some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar. Those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature.
She was distracted many times about the truth of the Scriptures because she never saw any convincing miracles, and was troubled if those of which she read "were feigned." But the evidence of her own eyes prove that God exists e.g.,:
Some time now past in the Autumnal Tide,
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o'er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seem'd painted, but was true
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue,
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.
I wist not what to wish, yet sure, thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high!
Whose power and beauty by his works we know;
he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,
That hath this underworld so richly dight:
More Heaven than Earth was here, no winter and no night.
She is the first among American poets who found their consolation not from theology but from the "wondrous works," as she wrote, "that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end"(Bradstreet in Baym 2003: 115).
Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, pastor of the Andover church, brought to London a manuscript of her poetry which was printed there in 1650. The Tenth Muse was the first published poems written by a resident in the New World and soon became very popular. Anne Bradstreet probably took greatest pride in her meditative poems on humankind and on the seasons. However, the more intimate ones which reflect her concern for her family, home and the pleasures of everyday life are the most attractive for contemporary readership. Bradstreet, a firm believer in the Puritan experiment in America, was a poet whose works were based on English religious, political, and cultural history (Baym 2003: 115).
The Puritans were a group of people who grew discontent in the Church of England and worked towards religious, moral and societal reforms. The writings and ideas of John Calvin, a leader in the Reformation, gave rise to Protestantism and were pivotal to the Christian revolt. They contended that The Church of England had become a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines. The Puritans were one branch of dissenters who decided that the Church of England was beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, they came to America.
The Puritans believed that the Bible was God's true law, and that it provided a plan for living. The established church of the day described access to God as monastic and possible only within the confines of "church authority". Puritans stripped away the traditional trappings and formalities of Christianity which had been slowly building throughout the previous 1500 years. Theirs was an attempt to "purify" the church and their own lives.
What many of us remember about the Puritans is reflective of the modern definition of the term and not of the historical account. Point one, they were not a small group of people. In England many of their persuasion sat in Parliament. So great was the struggle that England's Civil War pitted the Puritans against the Crown Forces. Though the Puritans won the fight with Oliver Cromwell's leadership, their victory was short-lived; hence their displacement to America. Point two, the witchcraft trials did not appropriately define their methods of living for the 100+ years that they formed successful communities. What it did show was the danger that their self-imposed isolation had put them in.
Most of the Puritans settled in the New England area. As they immigrated and formed individual colonies, their numbers rose from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs. Since God was at the forefront of their minds, He was to motivate all of their actions. This premise worked both for them and against them.
The common unity strengthened the community. In a foreign land surrounded with the hardships of pioneer life, their spiritual bond made them sympathetic to each other's needs. Their overall survival techniques permeated the colonies and on the whole made them more successful in several areas beyond that of the colonies established to their south.
Each church congregation was to be individually responsible to God, as was each person. The New Testament was their model and their devotion so great that it permeated their entire society. People of opposing theological views were asked to leave the community or to be converted.
Their interpretation of scriptures was a harsh one. They emphasized a redemptive piety. In principle, they emphasized conversion and not repression. Conversion was a rejection of the "worldliness" of society and a strict adherence to Biblical principles. While repression was not encouraged in principle, it was evident in their actions. God could forgive anything, but man could forgive only by seeing a change in behavior. Actions spoke louder than words, so actions had to be constantly controlled.
The doctrine of predestination kept all Puritans constantly working to do good in this life to be chosen for the next eternal one. God had already chosen who would be in heaven or hell, and each believer had no way of knowing which group they were in. Those who were wealthy were obviously blessed by God and were in good standing with Him. The Protestant work ethic was the belief that hard work was an honor to God which would lead to a prosperous reward. Any deviations from the normal way of Puritan life met with strict disapproval and discipline. Since the church elders were also political leaders, any church infraction was also a social one. There was no margin for error.
The devil was behind every evil deed. Constant watch needed to be kept in order to stay away from his clutches. Words of hell fire and brimstone flowed from the mouths of eloquent ministers as they warned of the persuasiveness of the devil's power. The sermons of Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan minister, show that delivery of these sermons became an art form. They were elegant, well formed, exegetical renditions of scriptures... with a healthy dose of fear woven throughout the fabric of the literary construction. Grammar children were quizzed on the material at school and at home. This constant subjection of the probability of an unseen danger led to a scandal of epidemic proportions.
Great pains were taken to warn their members and especially their children of the dangers of the world. Religiously motivated, they were exceptional in their time for their interest in the education of their children. Reading of the Bible was necessary to living a pious life. The education of the next generation was important to further "purify" the church and perfect social living.
Three English diversions were banned in their New England colonies; drama, religious music and erotic poetry. The first and last of these led to immorality. Music in worship created a "dreamy" state which was not conducive in listening to God. Since the people were not spending their time idly indulged in trivialities, they were left with two godly diversions.
The Bible stimulated their corporate intellect by promoting discussions of literature. Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid were taught, as well as poetry and Latin verse. They were encouraged to create their own poetry, always religious in content.
For the first time in history, free schooling was offered for all children. Puritans formed the first formal school in 1635, called the Roxbury Latin School. Four years later, the first American College was established; Harvard in Cambridge. Children aged 6-8 attended a "Dame school" where the teacher, who was usually a widow, taught reading. "Ciphering" (math) and writing were low on the academic agenda.
In 1638, the first printing press arrived. By 1700, Boston became the second largest publishing center of the English Empire. The Puritans were the first to write books for children, and to discuss the difficulties in communicating with them. At a time when other Americans were physically blazing trails through the forests, the Puritans efforts in areas of study were advancing our country intellectually.
Religion provided a stimulus and prelude for scientific thought. Of those Americans who were admitted into the scientific "Royal Society of London," the vast majority were New England Puritans.
The large number of people who ascribed to the lifestyle of the Puritans did much to firmly establish a presence on American soil. Bound together, they established a community that maintained a healthy economy, established a school system, and focused an efficient eye on political concerns. The moral character of England and America were shaped in part by the words and actions of this strong group of Christian believers called the Puritans.
Prepared by Kay Kizer