Michael Wigglesworth Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Michael Wigglesworth 1631-1705

American poet, diarist, and sermon writer.

Michael Wigglesworth was a significant figure in the religious and political leadership of colonial Massachusetts, and was eulogized by Cotton Mather. A pastor and physician, he was plagued by bad health, an angry congregation, and personal scandal throughout his life. However, both his poetry collections, The Day of Doom (1662) and Meat Out of the Eater (1670) were popular successes, and enjoyed several reprintings and revised editions. In fact, his works were memorized by generations of New England Puritans. While his work presents substantial challenges to modern readers unfamiliar with Puritan aesthetics and uncomfortable with strict Calvinism, the significance of Wigglesworth's achievements is reflected in his powerful influence on the development of Puritan thought.

Biographical Information

Michael Wigglesworth was born October 18, 1631, to Edward and Esther Wigglesworth. The family made the voyage to Charlestown in 1638 seeking religious freedom in the colonies, and later settled in New Haven, Connecticut. Wigglesworth studied for two years with Ezekiel Cheever, until the poor health of his father required his presence at home, returning to his studies five years later. He entered Harvard in 1647, where he received an A.B. and M.A. While at Harvard, Wigglesworth had a profound religious experience which led him to leave the field of medicine and pursue the study of divinity. After graduating in 1651, Wigglesworth tutored at Harvard, counting among his students John Eliot and Increase Mather. In 1654 he moved to Malden, Massachusetts and began preaching. In 1655, Wigglesworth married his cousin, Mary Reyner; he fathered a child in 1656, and in the same year opted to join the Malden church in order to become its pastor. He was formally ordained in 1657, but also contracted a painful and lingering disease. Wigglesworth's poor health and conservative religious beliefs caused significant tension, and by 1658 the Malden church had become dissatisfied with the relationship. His illness worsened and, in 1659, his wife died, making Wigglesworth less and less able to fulfill his responsibilities. Consequently, his parish declined to pay him, though he continued to live in the parsonage and retained his title. This period inspired his work on the poems collected in The Day of Doom and the long poem God's Controversy with New-England, which remained unpublished until 1873. Still plagued by illness, Wigglesworth embarked on a trip to Bermuda, hoping to find a cure; the trip was in vain, and during his absence the Malden church hired an additional pastor. This freed him from some of his responsibilities, and allowed him to Wigglesworth return to his medical practice and tutor students. He continued writing, working on the poems to be collected in Meat Out of the Eater. The death of his associate pastor Benjamin Bunker in early 1670 exacerbated Wigglesworth's poor relations with the Malden congregation, leaving them without a working pastor for nearly four years. Tensions peaked in 1679, when Wigglesworth married his housekeeper, Martha Mudge. His congregation and fellow pastors, including Increase Mather, objected to Mudge's low status and her apparent lack of religion, and they openly criticized the union. Wigglesworth offered to resign over the issue, but though the church cut his pay they refused his resignation. Instead, they hired another assistant for him, Thomas Cheever, the son of his former teacher. As Wigglesworth's health slowly began to improve, his social standing did as well, and he was elected one of the colony's four freemen. This elevation in standing also allowed Wigglesworth's views on religious and social issues to find increasing acceptance. In 1684, Wigglesworth was invited to assume the presidency of Harvard College, an offer he declined. When in 1686 Cheever was discharged from his position as assistant pastor, having been accused of improper public conduct, Wigglesworth's illness had improved enough for him to take on all the pastoral duties of the Malden church. Apart from revisions to Meat Out of the Eater, which reached its fourth edition in 1689, he did little writing but much preaching, and became increasingly concerned with colonial, political, and ecclesiastical affairs. In 1690 his second wife died; he remarried in 1691 to Sybil Avery. He was appointed a Fellow of Harvard College in 1697, and his congregation, finally reconciled to their long-time pastor, voted to increase his pay. As he worked on revisions to The Day of Doom for the 1701 edition, he continued to preach and to practice medicine. As his death approached, Wigglesworth began two new compositions reflecting on the end of life. He died June 10, 1705, and his poems “Death Expected and Welcomed” and “A Farewel to the world” appeared that year in Cotton Mather's biography of Wigglesworth, A Faithful Man, Described and Rewarded. Wigglesworth was buried at Malden, with a gravestone memorializing him as “Malden's physician for soul and body.”

Major Works

Wigglesworth's first work, The Day of Doom, is also his best known and most widely read. A collection of poems on the theme of salvation and damnation, the work centers on the title poem, “The Day of Doom,” and includes numerous poetic addresses to the reader, prayers, and short digressions on related themes. Throughout the volume, Wigglesworth expounds on Puritan doctrine, using fairly simple verses to make his points memorable—in fact many of his readers memorized The Day of Doom. By modern standards the poem is quite harsh in its depiction of God's justice and the horrors awaiting unrepentant sinners, but it was largely in keeping with the developing theology of Puritan Americans. Wigglesworth's vivid representation of damned children and infants typifies the unrelenting doctrine of Calvinism, brought to life with a singular attention to detail in The Day of Doom. His next major publication, Meat Out of the Eater, is less familiar to most readers, but its variety of tone and style show Wigglesworth to be a poet of greater breadth and skill than could an evaluation based solely on his first work. Meat Out of the Eater contains poems more personal in focus, highlighting Wigglesworth's experiences with sin and suffering. Much of Meat Out of the Eater addresses the theme of grace through affliction; such poems as “Strength in Weakness” and Tolle Crucem proclaim that both individual and communal suffering are not only pathways to salvation but also tangible signs of God's attention. Modern critics have also shown interest in Wigglesworth's Diary, written between 1653 and 1657, but unpublished until 1951. The diary reveals the inner struggles of Wigglesworth as he considered ministry and marriage, and generally substantiates Wigglesworth's poetic claims that he suffered much anguish for his physical and spiritual weaknesses.

Critical Reception

The Day of Doom earned the title of the first American best-seller, and remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. While other works by Wigglesworth were not as widely read, they still enhanced his reputation as one of colonial America's foremost religious authors. By the nineteenth century, however, Wigglesworth's plain style and harsh theology had gone out of favor—scholars found his poetry clumsy and excessively blunt, and some considered his interpretation of Calvinist doctrine repulsive. The critic Moses Coit Tyler famously charged Wigglesworth with giving God “a character the most execrable and loathsome to be met with, perhaps in any literature.” As late as 1946, the editor of Wigglesworth's Diary, Edmund S. Morgan, called Wigglesworth “a morbid humorless selfish busy-body.” In the second half of the twentieth century, however, critics have begun to focus on examining Wigglesworth in the context of Puritan New England. Critics have sought to understand the appeal Wigglesworth's poetry held among his contemporaries. The turning point studies of Wigglesworth came in 1962, with Richard Crowder's No Feather Bed to Heaven: A Biography of Michael Wigglesworth, 1631-1705. Crowder's analysis of Wigglesworth emphasized the close links between Wigglesworth's life experience and the doctrines he propounded: Crowder's Wigglesworth is not the stereotypical dour Puritan, but a man committed to educating his readers about God's mercy, which he had witnessed as a result of his suffering. Later critics have similarly observed that Wigglesworth's understanding of theology, if conveyed in harsh and vivid language, was nonetheless appropriate to his audience. Harsharan Singh Ahluwalia has highlighted the connection between the familiar school of Covenant Theology and Wigglesworth's presentation of God's relationship to humanity; Ronald A. Bosco, who edited the first complete collection of Wigglesworth's poetry, has observed that the rough and immediate imagery of the poem would have resonated closely with New Englanders to whom the dangers of colonial life would be intimately known. Alan H. Pope has included in his study of Wigglesworth the author's educational background: Pope argues that the Ramist logic Wigglesworth had studied provided an important structure for the form of Wigglesworth's poetry. In a later study John C. Adams has attempted to refine Pope's argument, suggesting that where Pope focused primarily on Wigglesworth's use of logic, the contemporary success of The Day of Doom also depended on its application of Ramist rhetoric. While his works are not as widely read today as they were among his contemporaries, Wigglesworth is a figure of significant import to critics and scholars interested in the nature of early American Colonial life.