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Explicit accounts of hellfire and damnation may not be the hallmarks of contemporary popular novels, but America’s first bestseller was full of such shocking imagery. Graphic illustrations of the Christian faith’s Judgment Day saturate Michael Wigglesworth’s poem, “The Day of Doom.” Published in 1662, this piece is the highlight of his anthology of the same title, which includes three additional religious poems. New England readers devoured the first edition; it is approximated by historians that one in every thirty-five American households owned a copy of Wigglesworth’s book in the 1660s. The poem was written in direct accordance with the most intimidating passages from the Bible, and it reports the frightening consequences of the end of the world. Contemporary readers might find it odd that such a disturbing literary work would be so popular. However, the severity of Wigglesworth’s poem was embraced in its day. By considering this text in its historical context, it is evident that the demonstrated motives, effects, cultural perspectives, and symbols are products of the Puritan worldview that was prevalent in the 17th century.
The poem is written as a Christian narrative of Judgment Day. Pocked with verses directly from the Bible, the reader is given a guided chronological tour of the events that could occur when God comes to Earth and presents Armageddon. Wigglesworth begins by describing the serenity of Earth prior to God’s intervention: “Still was the night, serene and bright, / when all Men sleeping lay; / Calm was the season, and carnal reason / thought so ‘twould last for ay” (Norton, 293). The verses describe the ignorant sinners, bathing in the luxuries of sin and unaware of their impending doom. The poem then takes a jolting turn as it depicts the sudden appearance of God. The night turns to a garish day, and the people are faced with their Creator and Judge. God’s voice comes as a noise greater than thunder, and the mightiest men of the land cower in submissive fear. The sea rises, and the animals die. There is no place to hide.
The climax of the poem depicts the horror of Judgment. God rejects the sinners’ pleas for mercy and condemns them to the eternal lake of fire. The tortures endured by the sinners are described in gruesome detail: “Their pain and grief have no relief, / their anguish never endeth. / There they must lie and never die, / though dying every day” (Norton, 306). To counter such horror, the reader is reminded of the pleasures of Heaven and the place for the righteous. The greatest reward for the pious is the honor of meeting God and experiencing his tangible love. Wigglesworth expresses this clearly: “O glorious place! Where face to face / Jehovah may be seen / ? / For God above in arms of love / doth dearly them embrace” (Norton, 307-308). The poem concludes poignantly on this happy note, with an image of the saints and angels rejoicing the damnation of the sinners and living eternally in God’s love.
Wigglesworth provides this captivating depiction of Doomsday as a religious testimony. As a Puritan minister in Massachusetts, he saw first-hand the growing pervasiveness of sin and ungodliness in the New World. He crafted his poetry to inspire people to resume godly lifestyles and flee apostasy. If he could prompt readers to fear the wrath of a judgmental God, then he could motivate them to live in accordance with the Puritan church and God’s literal Word. The poem rewards piety and punishes transgression by illustrating the consequences of each.
The influence of this religious function on the poem is apparent in its language. Wigglesworth’s words are designed specifically to elicit fear. He creates vivid images of the hellish fate of sinners: “With iron bands they bind their hands, / and cursed feet together, / And cast them all both great and small / into that lake forever” (Norton, 306). The poem’s tone is paradoxically both threatening and paternal. While there is clearly a dose of intimidation and warning, the poem also promises salvation for those who obey. The righteous will receive eternal life and escape such a fiery fate. The poem expresses the joy of this salvation throughout the final stanzas, and it promises the righteous that, “Their old distress and heaviness / are vanished like dreams” (Norton, 308). One’s personal interpretation of the poem, then, would depend on how well one thought he or she was living a godly lifestyle. The overwhelming popularity of the poem suggests that most New England citizens considered themselves to be among the righteous, and the threatening tone only reinforced their faith.
The rhyme and meter of the poem are also effects of Wigglesworth’s religious motivations. The poem is constructed using octets with an alternating rhyme scheme. By using a melodic rhythm, the poem is more memorable. Adults and children alike memorized the poem throughout its reign of popularity; it became an oral tradition in addition to a famous literary work. Wigglesworth designed his poem to carry the same aesthetic value as a church sermon (Hammond, n.p.), which emitted both a sing-song quality and credibility.
Wigglesworth’s poem reveals many cultural perspectives of the New England Puritans. To the Puritans, every aspect of life was directly related to religion. The importance of piety could not be underestimated. Concentrated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans found opportunities in the New World that were not available in England. Their campaign to purify the Church of England had lost momentum after the Restoration, so settling in America offered Puritans the chance to govern by theocracy. Only the most devout Christians were allowed to vote or rule, although all citizens were encouraged to become members of the church. This emphasis on religious goodness is the spine of Wigglesworth’s work. His poem is, in essence, an actualization of faith. It epitomizes the key aspects of the “hellfire and brimstone” faith that was Puritanism. Another cultural perspective of Puritan Christianity is revealed by the moral of Wigglesworth’s story: every individual has the opportunity to be saved. America is as much the land of religious opportunity as it is the land of economic or colonial opportunity. The poem tells its readers that God will not tolerate excuses of ignorance and that only those who are righteous during their Earthly life will be offered the prize of eternal bliss in Heaven. The poem quotes a judgmental God as saying, “You had a season, what was your reason / such precious hours to waste? / What could you find, what could you mind / that was of greater haste?” (Norton, 301). The warning here is clear: there will be no time for excuses when Doomsday comes. Puritans wholeheartedly tried to spread God’s threat by witnessing to others. In effect, Wigglesworth’s poem is a method of witnessing to unbelievers.
The Puritans saw themselves as God’s chosen people and believed that they were responsible for saving the sinners. They cherished the Old Testament and believed that they were the elect who would institute Heaven on Earth – the New Jerusalem. The New World was their landscape for this paradise. England had failed them, but the New World would prevail. Some literary criticism has evolved conjecturing that the Puritans believed that they were the contemporary counterparts of the Old Testament Jews. Like Moses, who rescued the Israelites from Egyptian captivity by parting the Red Sea, the Puritan leaders were rescuing the righteous Christians from English corruption. The Puritans, like Moses, had crossed a great sea and were establishing a theocratic government (VanSpanckeren, n.p.). This ideology is reflected in Wigglesworth’s text. The moral of the story is that the opportunity for salvation exists. The Christian lifestyle could rescue one from the corruption of other churches and the vices of a sinful life. In this sense, Puritans personified themselves as Christ-like saviors.
The Puritan experience of America can subtly be seen between the lines of this poem. Lofty goals were in place when the Puritans inundated Massachusetts. The theocratic government they established was an admirable ambition, but soon enough, the fallible men fell from grace. The “perfect” government slipped from excellence. The Puritans needed to find a way to reinforce the rules of the Church, and by proxy, the State. They needed to keep their church members on the right track and maintain order in the government. To do this, they had to remind the people of God’s threat: “Christ should condemn the sons of men, / which is their just desert” (Norton, 303). Wigglesworth accomplished this feat with his literary works. “The Day of Doom” was more than a great story or Biblical supplement; it was a way to structure society in the best interest of the Puritan leaders. The State was new and insecure, but religiously based rules could help cement a hierarchy of the church in the government. Wigglesworth’s text had a crucial role in the structuring of the Puritan government.
The New World, named America, was more than a vast span of land. It was even more than an ideal new home for ambitious settlers. America was a symbol. It symbolized the opportunity for the establishment of a theocratic state, in the eyes of the Puritan leaders. More abstractly, America was the symbolic virgin. This new land was untouched by the White man and was not penetrated by the corruption of the Church of England. There were many resources still to be explored by the metaphorical Christian hand. America was occupied by a group of presumed savages, who were perceived by the Puritans as potential converts. The New World was just as its name implied: new, unscathed, and virginal. But as the Europeans made the country their new home, the ghosted sins of the Old World punctured the virtue of the New World. It was imperative that the Puritans restore the sainted country’s righteousness by yanking people back into holy lifestyles. Wigglesworth’s writings did just this. They provided the proper motivation for conversion and reaffirmation. They prompted worshippers to reconsider their ways of life and reconfirm their faithful fear of God. Wigglesworth’s text helped advance the aspiration of Puritanism. They theorized that by purifying the Church, the Society would follow suit, and hopefully all of the unbelievers would turn to righteousness. This Puritan perspective is the very essence of “The Day of Doom,” and Wigglesworth undoubtedly affected many lives through his literature.
By examining “The Day of Doom” in the appropriate historical framework, one can conclude that the illustrated motives, consequences, values, and symbols emerged as a result of the Puritan worldview. The cultural significance of this poem in the era of its publication is phenomenal. It was, for the Puritans, supplemental reinforcement of the Bible. Today, Christianity can rely on popular media to fulfill the same function. Television evangelists, Internet chat rooms, and a multitude of spiritual books bring a contemporary Jesus into the American living room. The motivations today are similar to Wigglesworth’s, but the form and intensity have changed with the times. Today, pop culture Christianity is watered down and spineless. Books with titles such as, “Jesus Wears Blue Jeans,” line the shelves, alongside automotive magazines and pornography. Possibly, today’s society is too diverse or ambivalent for the religious brainwashing of Wigglesworth’s magnitude. Maybe the Age of Information has replaced our faith with science and statistics. Or, perhaps, we truly are America, the land that is finally free of religion.
Byam, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. A. New York: W. W.Norton & Company, 2003.
Hammond, Jeffrey A. “Michael Wigglesworth: Classroom Issues and Strategies.” Heath Online.Georgetown University: Washington, D.C. Access date: 9 October 2002. <http://www.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/>
VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. “Michael Wigglesworth.” An Outline of American Literature.University of Groningen: The Netherlands. Access date: 9 October 2002. <http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/LIT/wiggle.htm>
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