American Literature Michael Wigglesworth
by
Adrian Weimer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0056

Introduction

The most well-known poet in early New England, Michael Wigglesworth (b. 1631–d. 1705) enjoyed greater popular appeal than the erudite Anne Bradstreet or the private Edward Taylor. In 1638, at the age of six, Wigglesworth emigrated with his family from England to New Haven colony. There he flourished as a student of Greek and Latin, entering Harvard College in preparation for a career in medicine. Over the course of his studies, Wigglesworth felt a call to the ministry, although medicine continued as an interest. Graduating in 1651, he first served as a tutor at Harvard College before receiving an invitation to minister to the church in Malden, Massachusetts Bay colony. Recurrent illness left Wigglesworth often unable to preach or travel. Out of long hours of sad convalescence was born his career as a poet. At sixty-one Wigglesworth provoked scandal by marrying the much younger Martha Mudge, his housekeeper, an event that precipitated a return to health and a season of leadership in colonial affairs. An intellectual, Wigglesworth wrote for a broad audience. His major poems, Meat out of the Eater and The Day of Doom, were colonial bestsellers, with copies eagerly purchased, read aloud among families, and gifted to friends. Wigglesworth viewed his poetry as a contribution to the public good. The poems, he hoped, might make difficult theological concepts clear to laypeople and aid Christians in diagnosing and relieving their spiritual maladies. Further, they might provide fresh, accessible language to help men and women evaluate their responsibilities to God and to the broader community. In addition to ballads, elegies, and other verse, Wigglesworth also wrote letters, a brief autobiography, two Latin orations on eloquence, a two-volume diary, printed and manuscript sermons, at least one court petition, and an election sermon (1686, not extant). Scholars used to routinely denigrate Wigglesworth’s work as gloomy or unsophisticated, but recent interest in lived religion, reading practices, and a more democratic artistic milieu has provoked a reassessment of the poet and his influence. Questions remain in Wigglesworth studies. The Boston Atheneum holds a tightly scribbled volume of sermons attributed to Wigglesworth that has barely been studied. Little has been done with the second volume of the diary, extending from 1658 to 1683 and exhibiting a more mature approach to marriage, desire, and the spiritual life, with shorthand passages in process of being deciphered. Although scholars beginning with Perry Miller have noted that the poem God’s Controversy with New-England helped to establish the jeremiad tradition and was influential on later election sermons, it has received comparatively little attention. And the shorter poems painstakingly edited by Ronald Bosco await sustained interpretation. Still, Wigglesworth’s life and work have formed the basis of several rich veins of scholarship, drawing historians, literary scholars, and theologians into an increasingly shared conversation about Puritan aesthetics, spirituality, sexuality, and communal ideals.

Older Biographies

Mather 1705 identifies in Wigglesworth a paragon of faithfulness, even when illness kept him from public church service. The poems drew readers longing “for Truth’s dressed up in a Plain Meeter.” Admired and used extensively in his own day, Mather expected they would last for generations (p. 24). Mather’s biography of Wigglesworth became a paradigm of pastoral diligence, comparable to that of Richard Baxter’s ministry in Kidderminster: “It was a surprize unto us, to see a Little Feeble Shadow of a Man, beyond Seventy, Preaching usually Twice or Thrice in a Week; Visiting and Comforting the Afflicted; Encouraging the Private Meetings; Catechising the Children of the Flock; and managing the Government of the Church” (p. 26). Mather also acknowledged Wigglesworth’s “Publick Usefulness” in his later years, an understudied topic. The 19th-century bookbinder John Ward Dean undertook a full-length biography of Wigglesworth, based in part on Mather 1705 and Alexander McClure’s Bi-centennial Book of Malden (Boston, 1850) as well as a range of manuscripts. An antiquarian active in the New England Historical and Genealogical Society as well as the Prince Society, Dean was interested in Wigglesworth’s ancestry and descendants, his Harvard and ministerial career, and his late and seemingly happy final marriage. Dean 1871 includes letters and lengthy extracts from the longhand of Wigglesworth’s diaries, which he calls “commonplace books,” and a catalogue of his library.

  • Dean, John Ward. Memoir of Rev. Michael Wigglesworth: Author of the Day of the Doom. Albany, 1871.

    An expanded edition of Dean’s essay in the April 1863 New England Historical and Genealogical Register, this biography also includes in its appendix Wigglesworth’s brief autobiography and a bibliography of his works.

  • Mather, Cotton. A Faithful Man Described and Rewarded. Boston, 1705.

    A funeral sermon, with a preface by Increase Mather and an appendix of selections from Wigglesworth’s papers. Reprinted in 1849 by Alexander McClure and Dolly Upham.

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