You hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the all-great; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.
—Bob Dylan in an interview with Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001.
Religion, Then and Now
New England Puritans’ belief in predestination and eternal hell for the Reprobate is foreign to the modern mind and even to the modern Christian mind. New England Puritans believed that after death one’s soul spent eternity in heaven or hell. Among those who would be subject to eternal damnation were “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men who did not have access to the written Word. Eternal damnation today strikes us as a mark of a barbarous god. However, must God, if there is a God, be beneficent? Perhaps, as Bob Dylan once said, “God is arbitrary.” Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pestilences happen. If God is not necessarily good, then there is no contradiction to resolve when He drops a still-born babe into the eternally burning Lake of Fire. The Reverend Michael Wigglesworth was a sincere, intelligent, and well-educated man, and The Day of Doom was a serious book. It is easy to write off the book as a curious period piece. It is much harder to try to understand the ideas of Original Sin and Damnation as seen through the eyes of Wigglesworth and his fellow Puritans. However, it is worth the effort. We can learn as much about ourselves in this task as we learn about the Puritans. In Day of Doom, using the simplest of meters and rhyming schemes, Michael Wigglesworth wrestles to reconcile the beneficence of God with eternal damnation.
Sin and God
Modern people do not think much about sin. Most people today believe that they are innately good. Most people believe that people are born innately good. Also, modern people do not think much about hell. When they think about the afterlife, they assume, if there is an afterlife, that it will be a pleasant state. Most Americans today profess to a belief in God. However, their belief is in a watered-down God, a god who wishes them the best. Today’s God is a personal god to some, a deistic god to others, but a beneficent and merciful God to all. The New England Puritans, including Michael Wigglesworth, had very different views on sin, God, and heaven and hell. The Puritans believed that Man was inherently depraved and sinful and that we all share equally in Adam’s Fall. Thus, the Puritans believed that everyone deserved hell. However, the Puritans believed that God had decided that some men and women were of the Elect and were destined for heaven. The Puritans attributed this dispensation for some to the goodness of God. After all, we are all sinful. Letting some go to heaven is more than anyone deserves as Wigglesworth says in stanza XLIII (in the voice of Christ):
“My grace to one is wrong to none;
none can Election claim;
Amongst all those their souls that lose,
none can Rejection blame.["]
To modern men and women, this division between the saved and the damned sounds arbitrary. The Puritan’s God, as we will see, was foremost a god of justice.
Poetic Scheme of the Day of Judgement
We first examine the poetics of Day of Doom. Wigglesworth uses an unobtrusive poetic scheme for The Day of Doom. The stanzas are in a simple meter with internal rhymes. Consider the first stanza:
Still WAS the NIGHT, se-RENE and BRIGHT, when ALL men SLEEP-ing LAY; (14-A)
Calm WAS the SEA-son, & CAR-nal REA-son thought SO 'twould LAST for AY. (14-A)
Soul TAKE thine EASE, let SOR-row CEASE, much GOOD thou HAST in STORE; (14-B)
This WAS their SONG their CUPS a-MONG the EV-e-NING be-FORE. (14-B)
The lines are in iambic heptameter. (Professor New says that these lines are in trochaic meter, and they can certainly be read that way, also.) The stanza has two rhyming couplets. Also, note the internal rhyme in each line:
The rhythm and rhyme are quite regular, easy to read and recite (assuming you read it as iambic meter, rather than trochaic), and, probably, easy to memorize (at least at the stanza level). As John Ward Dean, 1815–1902, states in his memoir of Wigglesworth, “[The Day of Doom] commended itself to those zealous Puritans, who had little taste for lofty rhyme or literary excellence.” Nonetheless, the poem does contain quite memorable imagery, such as these lines from Stanza 192.
And by and by the flaming Sky
shall drop like moulten Lead
A poem was more fun to read than a sermon.
A verse may find him who a sermon flies,
Saith Herbert well. [...]
—J. Mitchel, in "On the Following Work and its Author"
There is no reason why Wigglesworth could not have written the poem’s message in a prose sermon (and was—–many, many times in Puritan, colonial America). However, by writing it in verse, Wigglesworth is increasing its accessibility to the casual reader of the time.
A Just God
The God of “The Day of Doom” is not a God of goodness, compassion, or mercy, necessarily, but a God of justice. We read in Stanza CXLIII:
“God hath no joy to crush or ’stroy,
and ruin wretched wights;
But to display the glorious Ray
of Justice he delights.
This god is a just god, a judge on high. We see this judicial view of God in many places in Day of Doom:
- “[…] adjudging him to pain […]” —from Stanza 200
- “[…] just are all his ways.” —from Stanza 219
There are many more examples in the poem. Not only that, but the subtitle of the book is A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgement. It is much harder to find God described as beneficent or merciful in Day of Doom. The most difficult cases for Wigglesworth to argue are the damnation of “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men.
Wigglesworth’s marginal note to stanza CLVII reads, “heathen men plead want of the Written Word.” The Puritans interaction with Native Americans, such as the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, was frequent, often fraught with tension on both sides, and, periodically, broke out into violent skirmishes with deaths on both sides. When Wigglesworth writes of “heathen” men, he is not talking in the abstract. Nor is he talking of remote tribes in, for example, the Congo. He is speaking of people living in the “howling wilderness” right outside the borders of his town. Stanza CLVII reads:
Whose wicked ways Christ open lays,
and makes their sins appear,
They making pleas their case to ease,
if not themselves to clear.
“Thy Written Word,” say they, “good Lord,
we never did enjoy;
We ne’er refus’d, nor it abus’d;
Oh, do not us destroy!“
It is clear from this stanza that Wigglesworth believes that men and women who never heard or read the Christian Bible must make their case for salvation.
In stanza CLXVI, “Reprobate Infants plead for themselves.” The Puritans believed that even infants were guilty of Original Sin. The fact that they had not even had the chance to sin did not matter a whit if they were not one of the Elect. If one was damned, one was damned. There was no getting around it. Stanza CLXVI reads:
Then to the Bar all they drew near
Who died in infancy,
And never had or good or bad
But from the womb unto the tomb
were straightway carriéd,
(Or at the least ere they transgress’d)
who thus began to plead:
“The Easiest Room in Hell”
It is tempting to think that Wigglesworth’s God is like a human judge who is most exacting in his or her determination of guilt, yet willing to be lenient in his or her punishment due to extenuating circumstances.
Stanza CLVIII reads,
“You ne’er abus’d, nor yet refus’d
my Written Word, you plead;
That’s true," quoth he, “therefore shall ye
the less be punishéd.
You shall not smart for any part
of other men’s offense,
But for your own transgressi-on
receive due recompense.“
Thus they are punished only for their sins, not the sins of others, while still punished for Original Sin.
In stanza CLXXXI, God seems to offer some mercy by allotting to the infants “the easiest room in Hell.”
"A crime it is, therefore in bliss
you may not hope to dwell,
But unto you I shall allow
the easiest room in Hell."
The glorious King thus answering,
they cease, and plead no longer;
Their Consciences must needs confess
his Reasons are the stronger.
Wigglesworth’s God is shown to be lenient in his punishment in these two stanzas. However, eternity is still eternity. So, it is a stretch to consider Him merciful. Damnation is where the modern conception of the Christian God differs the most from that of the Puritans. God rules by the letter of the Law and judges guilty those whom today would be considered innocent. Although there is a lessening of punishment, eternal damnation is a difference of kind, not degree.
Understanding the New England Puritan’s beliefs on Man, God, Sin, and Heaven and Hell is quite tricky. These beliefs are mostly foreign to the beliefs of modern men and women and even modern Christians. For example, the Puritans believed in both free will and predestination. These beliefs, at first glance, seem contradictory. However, if God is omniscient, he can surely predict a person’s behavior. Moreover, one cannot do what one is not going to do. Hence, there is no contradiction. One has to immerse one’s self in Puritan theology for weeks to merely begin to understand it. Such immersion reveals a beautiful internal consistency to Puritanism. Whether it is true is another question. (In my opinion, it’s an unanswerable question.) The god of Day of Doom is a just god, and the world of Day of Doom is one of predestination. One cannot become one of the Elect through good works. In the Puritan view, there is nothing a person can do to earn salvation. God’s selection of the Elect may seem arbitrary to us. Perhaps God is arbitrary. The seeming lack of mercy modern people find in the God of Day of Doom is not a contradiction with the idea of a beneficent God. The Puritans considered all men and women to be guilty of Original Sin. Stanza LXVI reads,
All have transgress’d, even the best,
and merited God’s wrath,
Unto their own perditi-on
and everlasting scath.
God’s mercy and goodness, in the Puritan view, is evident in Christ dying for Man’s sins, and in Christ’s allowance of any man, woman, or child to be saved.
For background information and elucidation on the religious beliefs of the Puritans, I consulted:
- Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction by Francis J. Bremer.
- God in America, a television program by PBS.
This essay was originally written for ENGL E-182A.