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Michael Wigglesworth

(1631-1705)
by Danielle Hinrichs
Claremont Graduate University
Houghton Mifflin Company
2004


Upon Michael Wigglesworths 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, Wigglesworths 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
Gods grace and examining his own soulan
experience of salvation central to Puritan
theologyWigglesworth postponed his medical
studies to prepare for the ministry. He rejected
several ministerial positions, however, in order
to remain at Harvard for his masters degree and
as a tutor. Intensely devoted to his students,
Wigglesworth struggled endlessly to place God
foremost in his mind at all times.

Wigglesworths Diary 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
Puritans constant self-scrutiny and unceasing
search for signs of Gods 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,
Most times when I do Preach:
But ten days after what I feel
And suffer, few can reach.

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 Gods judgment in
death. The fervency of Wigglesworths 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 Gods 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
Wigglesworths own life as he attempted to turn
physical ailment into spiritual health.
Wigglesworths jeremiad about the colonies
spiritual apathy, Gods Controversy with
New-England, was written in 1662 but remained
unpublished for two centuries.

Wigglesworth became 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,
Wigglesworths health improved and he became a
more vigorous spiritual leader. After Martha
Mudges 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.

Texts

In the Heath Anthology
from The Diary (1653 - 1657)
A Song of Emptiness (1657)

Other Works

The Day of Doom (1662)
Meat Out of the Eater (1670)

Links

"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.

Secondary Sources

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
















 

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