Winthrop, Bradford, Bradstreet, Taylor, and Edwards all use their writing to explore attributes or conceptions of God.
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Choose one of the questions below and develop a 3-5 page essay, 12 point
Times New Roman, double-spaced. Include 2-4 secondary sources as a way to
expand or deepen your discussion. Make sure to include your outside sources to
deepen your discussions with these authors (critics or anything well written about
Winthrop, Bradford, Bradstreet, Taylor, and Edwards all use their writing to
explore attributes or conceptions of God. Write an essay that illuminates the
dimensions of their views.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a Congregational minister in New England, was
certainly exposed to Enlightenment thought and intellectual vigor as well as to
the methodology it engendered, but he had also been educated in the rich,
challenging Calvinist theology of the earlier Puritan church. Edwards believed
that people had fallen away from the demanding faith, with its emphasis on God’s
grace, that was so essential to their salvation. With that in mind, this great
theologian began a revival in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church in the
1730s that became part of the general revival movement called the Great
Awakening. To awaken people’s faith and belief in the majesty of God, he
presented both positive and negative images of God’s power. He wanted people
to feel God’s presence, not just think about it.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some
loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath
towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be
cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten
thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous
serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn
rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling
into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got
to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after
you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you
have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand
has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to
hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your
sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else
that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into
hell. O sinner! consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of
wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in
the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against
you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with
the flames of Divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it
and burn it asunder. . . . It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of
Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no
end to this exquisite, horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see along
forever a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts,
and amaze your soul. And you will absolutely despair of ever having any
deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that
you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages in wrestling with this
Almighty, merciless vengeance. And then when you have so done, when so
many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all
is but a point [dot] to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be
infinite. Oh! who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is!
All that we can possibly say about it gives but a very feeble, faint representation
of it. It is inexpressible and inconceivable: for “who knows the power of God’s
anger”! How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in danger of
this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in
this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober
and religious, they may otherwise be. Oh! that you would consider it, whether you
be young or old! There is reason to think that there are many in this
congregation, now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this
very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or
what thoughts they now have. It may be they are now at ease, and hear all these
things without much disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are
not the persons, promising themselves that they shall escape. If we knew that
there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the
subject of this misery, what an awful thing it would be to think of! If we knew who
it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might the rest
of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But, alas! instead
of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell! And it would be
a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time,
before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons that now sit
here in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, and quiet and secure,
should be there before tomorrow morning!
I first learned this from Anne Bradstreet’s marvelous poem of theological anxiety
and mourning, “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who
Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and Half Old”:
Farewell dear babe, my heart’s too much content,
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,
Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then ta’en away unto eternity.
Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate,
Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state.
By nature trees do rot when they are grown,
And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,
And corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall.
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown to have so short a date,
Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate.
I was 25 and, at first, took it for a simple, if moving, poem about the way faith in
God might guide us through times of mourning. I admired the deft rhymes, its
lovely incantatory qualities. And then I turned the page.
When I returned to it a year later—to teach a course on early American literature
—I noticed strange undercurrents, moments of anxiety, hesitation. Why, I
wondered, does Bradstreet suggest that the grandchild is her heart’s “too much”
content? Is it possible to love a grandchild too much? If so, when God takes the
child away, does the pain of mourning suggest fault in the mourner: an over-
indulgence of earthly love? Is Bradstreet serious in her assertion that she
shouldn’t feel sad, as the child had only been lent to the world and, thus, her
death was as simple as the repayment of a loan? And how are we to take the
idea that we should not grieve for the dead, for they are “settled in an everlasting
state,” a position better than our own?
Because part one ended with a clear question—why do I mourn the death of a
child?—it seemed odd that part two began with completely inappropriate
answers: trees fall when they get old, time “brings down” the strong and tall. And,
having worked through the false starts of these assertions, the picture of God
Anne Bradstreet describes seemed, on second thought, chaotic and wild. He is a
farmer who tears out new-set plants, an orchard keeper snipping the blooms
before the fruit arrives. What kind of God is this? I wondered. And is there not a
little bit of outrage—an anxiety and frustration borne of a failure to understand—
mixed in with this quiet, lovely mourning?
When I’d first read the final line, I took it for a comforting conclusion. Now, the
metrical hesitations, the two extra weak beats interrupting the clean iambic
pentameter, suggested a speaker who feels this is the sentiment she should
express, no matter how difficult, or even wrong, it seems to her.
And this struck me as a much more true expression of mourning, Bradstreet’s
mind asserting both what it knows—the existence of an all-powerful, all-good
God—and what it feels, which is frustration, confusion, recrimination and
sadness. It is a complex poem engaged with unanswerable questions about
theology and mourning. It’s complexity makes it not merely moving, but humane.
And having learned this from Bradstreet—having been forced to articulate this to
a group of freshman students who weren’t sure why they had to study her work at
all—I articulated for myself something about the power of poetry in a world where
our most enduring questions are not definitively answerable.
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