In her roles as mother, teacher, and poet, Anne Bradstreet emerged as a chief voice of a remarkable generation that exercised lasting influence over the American colonies and later over the American Republic.
In June 1630, an eighteen-year-old woman aboard a ship called the Arbella listened with her shipmates to a series of sermons by John Winthrop that would eventually be published under the title, A Model of Christian Charity. Though we might be tempted to think of her almost as a child, Anne Bradstreet had already been married for two years at that point, and her formal schooling exceeded that of all but the most highly educated people today. Her initial reaction to life in the New World was one of skepticism. Like most of her fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists, she left a rather comfortable life in Britain to carve a new community out of a veritable wilderness. With time, however, Bradstreet warmed to her new life in the colony and became a significant voice for the Puritan outlook, both in the colonies and back in Britain.
Anne Bradstreet was the first female poet of note in the New World and the first woman to be published in both the colonies and Britain. Her position as a woman from a significant family back in the motherland but also close to the colonial leadership both by birth and by marriage makes her a unique spokesperson for the colonial Puritan perspective that eventually helped shape the growth of the American Republic. Bradstreet’s work offers a forthright and illuminating entrée into the colonial expression of the Puritan mind, as distinct from its Old World manifestation.
The colonial precursors to the American Founding are numerous of course, but two colonies in particular did much to define the early American experience: Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. The two were initially quite different enterprises. The original Virginia charter refers to the first inhabitants as consisting of “certain Knights, Gentlemen, Merchants, and other Adventurers.” Contrast that with the staid middle-class families, including many wives and children, who made up the first waves of immigrants to Massachusetts Bay. Likewise, the “Adventurers” who founded Virginia did so with the unabashed intention of getting rich. The Virginia Company was most certainly operated for profit. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, on the other hand, sought to build a community where they could exercise their religion and worship God in the manner of their choosing without what they perceived to be the corrupting influence of the Old World surrounding them. The two colonial outlooks coexisted for a time, but in the course of American history, the families and communities of New England came to displace the “Adventurers” and stockholders of the Virginia Company.
The Puritan mind was, of course, not without its contradictions. Nor should the Puritans of the American colonies be equated with their Puritan cousins who remained behind in Britain. By definition, both groups wanted to “purify” the Church, but by choosing emigration abroad over political and social reform at home, the colonial Puritans set themselves on a much different path than that of their co-religionists back home. For example, while both groups were strongly anti-Catholic, the American Puritans were generally supportive of Charles I throughout the English Civil War, chiefly because they perceived Charles as having afforded them the latitude they needed to govern their colonies in a righteous manner without undue influence from the Crown or Parliament.
Contradictions aside, Bradstreet helps us identify four distinct principles that were dear to the Puritan colonists and which came to have a significant influence on the development of the American Republic. These are the notion of “covenant,” the balance between individual and community, the identity of a “chosen people,” and an abiding sense of optimism. Each of these, in turn, is worthy of a brief review.
Perhaps the single most important political and social concept in all of Puritan theology is that of the covenant. Modern readers often conflate the notion of covenant with the more widely understood notion of contract. A contract is a legal document between two or more parties that defines a quid-pro-quo exchange between them. For example, Party A might enter into a contract with Party B to mow his grass each week for fifty dollars. The two parties negotiate a price, terms of service, and other details and then bind themselves to the contract. The contract is legally enforceable should one party violate the terms.
A covenant is quite different. The covenant is a biblical concept and many examples can be found on the pages of Scripture. All covenants have certain common characteristics. First, a covenant is always made between God and people, as opposed to a contract which is made simply between people. Next, the terms of a covenant are non-negotiable. Whereas the parties to a contract typically collaborate on mutually acceptable terms, the terms of a covenant are dictated by God Himself and are not subject to amendment. Finally, a covenant is permanent, in many cases extending beyond the lifetimes of the initial generation of subscribers. Whereas a contract ordinarily concludes when the relevant parties have fulfilled their obligations to one another, a covenant has no earthly expiration date.
To further illustrate this principle, consider an example from the Old Testament. God famously enters into a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. In declaring this covenant, the Lord issues the terms to Abraham: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you… And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning.” For their own part, Abraham and his descendants (none of whom were even born yet) are to worship God and circumcise their children as a sign. And of course, several times throughout the chapter, God calls this Abrahamic covenant “an everlasting covenant,” an indication of its permanency.
Even those unfamiliar with the Scriptures, however, may nevertheless recognize another biblically-based covenant that the Puritans observed, the marriage covenant. Contemporary views of marriage have drifted over time toward the contractual, but a more traditional view underscores its covenantal origins. For example, the pledge of marriage is not traditionally understood as an agreement between a man and a woman, but rather a commitment to God that a man and woman undertake together. In other words, the traditional vows are made before and to God Himself. And again, God and not man actually dictates the terms of traditional marriage. The duties of a husband to his wife (and vice versa), as well as the requirement of strict fidelity to one another, are covenantal terms of marriage not open to renegotiation.
Like most other American Puritans, Bradstreet absorbed the principle of the covenant into nearly every aspect of life. “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” Bradstreet’s most well-known poem, practically shouts out a covenantal understanding of marriage. The unity of husband and wife (“If ever two were one, then surely we…”), the requirement of exclusive devotion (“My love is such that rivers cannot quench…”), and the permanence of the marital relationship (“…when we live no more we may live ever”) are all emphasized in this one brief poem.
Individual vs. Community
Bradstreet is best known as a poet, but she also wrote a series of short, aphoristic-style “Meditations” in prose. In one of these “Meditations,” Bradstreet examines the injunction found in Proverbs 22, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” She focuses on the phrase “the way he should go,” that is, it behooves parents to discern the differences among their children and guide them appropriately. “Diverse children have their different natures,” she writes, “some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction, some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar.” Education and childrearing, thus, are not one-size-fits-all.
Bradstreet here captures something of the balancing act the Puritans performed between the autonomy and affirmation of the individual and the needs of the larger community. Of course, every culture must deal with this same problem, finding an acceptable equilibrium between the parts and the whole. Indulge too much individualism, and a society quickly declines into anarchic uncertainty. Subsume individual interests too much into the whole, and oppressive tyranny is never far behind.
The Puritans, not surprisingly, looked to the example of the Bible for guidance in balancing the interests of the one with the interests of the many. The Old and New Testament alike are replete with messages of individual salvation. Each and every one of us, we are told, will be judged by God for our personal sins, and only those meriting forgiveness through Christ the Son of God will be saved. Obviously, the needs, interests, and duties of the individual are critically important in the Christian economy. However, despite the fact that clergy and laymen of many stripes ignore it, the Bible also reveals God’s interest in larger groups, communities, and nations. A careful reading of the Old Testament, the Puritans often pointed out, shows many instances of both judgment and blessings poured out on whole cities and nations. “[T]he day is coming… to cut off from Tyre and Sidon every helper that remains,” Jeremiah warns, for example. Israel itself goes through cycles of collective judgment and redemption. And, of course, the collective destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is still a well-known Old Testament story. But the New Testament also indicates God is attentive to groups as well as individuals. In Revelation 2-3, for example, we see the Holy Spirit pronouncing judgments and blessings on the seven churches of the ancient world, suggesting that God certainly places value on both individuals and communities.
The American Puritans took to heart such passages, placing due emphasis on the individual’s need for salvation and the community’s need to maintain its shared obligations to God. Hence, Puritan colonists enjoyed a great deal of latitude in matters of politics and the disposition of property compared to their brethren in Britain. But Puritan communities also insisted on the necessity of maintaining proper order, especially when it came to worship. Their notion of religious liberty was not hyper-individualistic. The individual had the autonomy to engage in false or heretical acts of worship if he chose to (and to personally suffer God’s wrath for doing so), but the community had no obligation to permit false worship in its midst. In fact, the community could be held accountable for tolerating such behavior. Still, despite popular misconceptions, very few heretics died at the hands of Puritan colonial governments. But a number of offenders were banished from Puritan colonial communities. In essence, the Puritan view was, “You may worship God in whatever manner you please, but if you insist on rejecting our community standards, you must do it somewhere else.” In a place like the New World, where space was readily available, this proved a workable solution to the individual vs. community problem. And the idea of ostensibly offensive individuals establishing new communities remained a part of American life until the eventual closing of the western frontier.
A Chosen People
A critical piece of the Puritan colonists’ self-image was derived from the Old Testament narrative, particularly the story of the Exodus. With remarkable regularly, Puritan leaders from John Winthrop to Cotton Mather invoked biblical language of escape from Egyptian slavery, crossing the Jordan, taming Canaan, and inheriting the Promised Land to describe their own “errand into the wilderness.”
“Metaphor” would not be the correct term to represent how these Puritans understood their Exodus-like endeavor, however. In a very real sense, they thought of themselves as a new Israel, a people chosen by God to achieve His historic ends. Just as the Israelites escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness before entering into the land God had promised, the colonists saw themselves as escaping a kind of cultural bondage in England, fleeing into the wilderness of the New World, and seeking one day a New Testament version of the Promised Land. In this way, they quite literally thought of themselves as a new Chosen People, uniquely tasked by God to be an example to other believers. Winthrop explicitly made just such an assertion in “A Model of Christian Charity”: “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” He was hardly the last public man to make the connection, and one can still find evidence of this Puritan self-consciousness manifested to this day in some of the place-names established by New England colonies, such as Providenicetown or New Canaan.
While it does not directly address this notion of a Chosen People, Bradstreet’s lengthy historical poetic quartet, “The Four Monarchies,” nevertheless stands as a reminder of what happened to the Israelites in their own promised land when they failed to maintain God’s law and their devotion to Jehovah. Most of Bradstreet’s corpus consists of poems of personal reflection or pieces memorializing specific people in her life. “The Four Monarchies,” however, takes a much larger social and theological view.
The poem’s first quarto in particular, “The Assyrian Being the First,” highlights the wickedness the crept into the line of the kings of Israel, as the original Chosen People turned away from their God. As God’s new Chosen People, colonial Puritan readers could easily project themselves into the narrative. Bradstreet’s contemporaries, feeling the collective weight of their “chosenness,” no doubt understood her thinly veiled warning.
Perhaps the greatest historian of the American Puritans was the late Perry Miller. Miller wrote and edited several volumes on various aspects of the Puritan experience in the colonies and became intimately, if rather objectively, acquainted with his subject. In so doing, he made the following observation: “The most persistent misunderstanding of the Puritan mind is that which charges it with ‘fatalism.’ Modern sensibility supposes that believers in predestination must necessarily give over exertions.” That is to say, the Puritan theological doctrine of predestination, or what they more often called election, did not cause its adherents to “give up” and passively accept events that unfolded around them. Rather, confident in the truth that God ordains events and outcomes, the Puritans felt liberated to pursue seemingly implausible, even outrageous, courses of action and empowered to endure nearly any setback. If God willed the endeavor, however unlikely it seemed, it could not fail.
The very audaciousness of the Puritans’ colonial enterprise reflects this theologically-inspired optimism. The first (and smaller) wave of Puritan immigrants to the New World, the one’s we call “pilgrims” and celebrate on Thanksgiving, were a small, poorly-funded, and rather desperate band. They had suffered some genuine persecution in both Britain and Holland, and one might say that it was need that drove them to the shores of New England. But the second wave of Puritan immigrants, those who founded the successful Massachusetts Bay colony and of which Bradstreet was a part, found themselves in quite different circumstances. They were a larger and better-financed band of colonists. In fact, most of them came from relatively well-to-do families and enjoyed comfortable lives, as Bradstreet had. They did not leave Britain in desperation; they left because they were fed up and believed God had called them to the task of establishing a new society in a New World.
Seen in this light, Miller’s observation becomes clearer. There was nothing fatalistic in the Puritan mind, at least not in these early generations. Instead, they could turn away from comparative wealth and ease and embrace all manner of struggle and challenge for the sake of a cause that they whole-heartedly believed God had ordained. To be sure, the colonists experienced a variety of setbacks, from disease to foul weather to violence, but they generally remained optimistic throughout.
Bradstreet again illustrates the American Puritan outlook in her poetry. At one point she and her family suffered a devastating loss when a fire destroyed their home. The material loss was nearly total. Bradstreet reflected on the episode in another of her most memorable poems, “Upon the Burning of Our House.” After a series of verses recounting all the joyful sounds and activities that would now never happen within the house’s burned-out walls, she castigates herself and refocuses her thoughts on her more Heavenly purpose:
In silence ever shalt thou lye;
Adieu, Adieu; All’s vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent tho’ this bee fled.
As time passed, this same optimism found its way into the broader American mind. The notion that somehow things will work out right in the end has been a consistent cornerstone of American society since the colonial period. A similar optimism has driven pioneers to the frontier, explorers to the Earth’s remotest regions, and even astronauts to the surface of the moon. The intervening years have not rendered the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” any less outrageous, but they have added a great many more items to the collection of “outrageous things Americans have done.”
The eighteen-year-old Anne Bradstreet who disembarked from the Arbella may have had her misgivings, but the mother, teacher, and poet she emerged as a chief voice of a remarkable generation that exercised lasting influence over the American colonies, and later over the American Republic. The Puritans do not enjoy much favor among historians today, deservedly so perhaps, at least in part. But it is also difficult to imagine America without its covenantal political heritage, its careful balance between the individual and the community, its tradition of exceptionalism, and especially its undaunted sense of optimism, each derived to some degree from Bradstreet and her shipmates.
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The featured image is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.