The next segment of my talk to the OPC ladies on October 3:
“If we had no Winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; If we did not sometimes taste the adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
Those words were written by Anne Bradstreet. We know of her today because she was the first published American poet. She was also a Puritan. The term “puritanical” is now used as nasty name hurled at anyone who dares to suggest that there is a cultural standard of righteousness that ought to observed. While the common use of this term shows a grave misunderstanding of who the Puritans were and how they lived, it is also accurate when not leveled as namecalling. The Puritans lived in a culture where everyone who bore that label agreed that there was a standard of righteousness that ought to be obeyed: God’s standard. It’s not a bad thing to be puritanical if that’s the sense in which the word is used. As Shakespeare said, “Why, the puritans hold no such points as you lay to their charge.”
One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Puritans is the view of how they viewed women. It is parroted that the poor females of the 16th and 17th century Puritan society were downtrodden doormats who existed solely for fulfilling the whims of the overbearing males who controlled every aspect of their pitiful existence. Thankfully, we have the example of Anne Bradstreet to dispel this foolish notion.
Mrs. Bradstreet was one of the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts colony, arriving with her husband and her parents in 1630, ten years after the first pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock. She was only 18, though she had already been married to her husband Simon for two years. Her father Thomas Dudley was a gentleman, a godly man and a leader who became one of the first governors of the colony. Her upbringing had been privileged. Life in the new colony was a stark contrast to her previous life. A sensitive soul, Anne went through a spiritual crisis: “I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose” was her admission of the inward rebellion she experienced. Yet her Puritan upbringing reminded her of God’s sovereignty in her trials, and she soon embraced her circumstances, learning to trust God for all He brought into her life.
Ironically, though she was the quintessential “puritanical” woman, Mrs. Bradstreet is hailed by modern feminists as one of their own. This is because in her writing she exhibited a great grasp of literature, history, and political events which she wove into her early poems. And she had opinions! The caricature of the Puritans does not allow for women who exhibited intellect, talent, or opinions, yet Mrs. Bradstreet displayed them all, but it all flowed from her confidence in God and the role He had given her as a helpmeet to her husband.
Though her early poems exhibit the breadth of her knowledge, and were her only poems to be published in her lifetime, they were not her best writing. Those early poems were collected by her father and brother-in-law, unknown to her, and taken to England where a London publisher turned them into a book.
In her later poems she wrote much more about her daily life, from reflections on the burning of her house to fears for a sick child. Those poems were her finest because she opened her heart about both her happiness and her struggles. They were warm, not wooden. In his biography of Anne’s life, Doug Wilson says:
She had an ability to describe the mundane in such a way as to cause the reader to respond with a shared affection. Her lyrics included her family, her household possessions, her delieverances from illness, and her struggles at the deaths of some of her grandchildren… Sustaining her loves and her secret of deep contentment in the midst of her griefs, was her thorough knowledge of the sovereignty and authority of God. When the Bradstreet house burned down, she wrote a lovely and deeply touching poem that expresses the trust she had in God in the midst of all His hard providences.
She could describe the mundane…when we hear that word, what do we think? Dull, uninteresting, humdrum? Does it conjure up pictures of dirty dishes, piles of laundry, and cleaning toilets? Yes, those things are mundane. But the word “mundane” also refers to things pertaining to this life rather than things that are spiritual. In other words, everyday life is mundane. But it acquires a beauty and holiness when we see those everyday things, even the dirty dishes, as opportunities to serve God and bring glory to Him. Three meals cooked for your family every day, if done for His sake… it’s as if you had cooked those meals for Him. Those mundane things suddenly take on new meaning! When C.S. Lewis was interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine who asked him if his routine was not somewhat monotonous. Lewis the professor replied: “I like monotony.” We can and should learn to like the mundane.
One of the reasons Anne Bradstreet is not understood by modern feminists is because she was a woman of paradoxes. I would like to point out three paradoxes she modeled that we should emulate:
He who is last shall be first (see Matthew 19:30). Modern feminists would like to claim Anne of one of their own because while she lived in a biblically patriarchal society, her talent as a writer and poet was recognized and even encouraged by the men in her life. She did not seek such fame, however. She loved to read, and she found joy in expressing her own creativity by staying up late, after her eight children were in bed, and writing down her thoughts in poetry. Doug Wilson explains her attitude toward her calling:
Nowhere do we find Anne Bradstreet striving for pre-eminence. She was dutiful, but she did not perform her duties without thought. As an educated, intelligent woman, she employed her gifts in her calling, and discovered that this calling is a profound one. Because of feminist slanders, we moderns are accustomed to saying that someone is “just” a homemaker. Or a woman who is dedicated to her family is often asked if she “works.” …Anne gave herself to her husband and children. She was dedicated to the work in front of her. She composed her poetry in the time she carved out of her own hours for rest.
When we are weak, then we are strong (see II Corinthians 12:9-10). God often mercifully makes us weak so that we have no choice but to depend on His strength. In Mrs. Bradstreet’s life, like Elizabeth Prentiss, one of her weaknesses was her physical health. She understood that the times she was ill were ordained by God to mold her into the godly woman He wanted her to be. She was not characterized by a complaining spirit. In one poem titled “Upon a Fit of Sickness,” she says,
O whilst I live this grace me give,?I doing good may be.
Then death’s arrest I shall count best,? because it’s Thy decree;
Bestow much cost there’s nothing lost,? to make salvation sure,
O great’s the gain, though got with pain,? comes by profession pure.
He who loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it (see Matthew 16:25). There are many pressures today on young women to compete, to make an impact on the world. There are few people who will inspire a young woman to see the glory in the mundane job of serving a husband and family. Yet there are many ways to exercise talent and creativity in those important roles. Again, Anne Bradstreet gave a marvelous example of not seeking one’s own advancement, but giving up her rights for the more substantial blessings of God. She didn’t tell Simon, “Honey, I’m so proud of you for becoming governor of Massachusetts, but I need to find my own niche so I’m going on a book tour to promote my poetry.” No, she was content to be her husband’s helpmeet and God blessed her so that her name is still known by many people 380 years later. She understood where her blessings came from when she said, “Few men are so humble as not to be proud of their abilities, and nothing will abase them more than this: what hast thou but what thou hast received?”
Rather than being an icon for the feminist ideal of self-fulfillment, Anne Bradstreet was an example of humble and godly womanhood. Her contentment as a wife led to the blessing of a happy, even passionate, marriage. One of her most famous sonnets is a legacy of that union, and we can’t talk about her without reading it:
If ever two were one, then surely we. ?
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee. ?
If ever wife was happy in a man, ?
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
?I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
?Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
?My love is such that Rivers cannot quench, ?
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
?Thy love is such I can no way repay.?
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray. ?
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever?
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
Anne Bradstreet shows us how to embrace duty and to love beauty–they are not opposed to one another. Through her Christian poetry, Anne married truth and beauty into a lovely example of a woman living out her calling in creative ways. Even the “dour” old Puritan Cotton Mather praised Anne in his history of New England:
…there may be a room [among other famous women authors] now given unto Madam Ann [sic] Bradstreet, the daughter of our Governour Dudley, and the consort of our Governour Bradstreet, whose poems, divers times printed, have afforded a grateful entertainment unto the ingenious, and a monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles.