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Image Massachusetts Death Ways: The Puritan Idea of Instrumental Fatalism

Ideas of old age were closely linked to attitudes toward death in Massachusetts. The same theological problems which caused Puritans to think of old age as a Calvinist sign also led to a way of thinking about death which had an exceptional intensity even by the macabre standards of their age. “Men fear death,” wrote Francis Bacon of his contemporaries, “as children fear to go into the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other.”1

The Puritans had many tales to tell upon the subject of death and dying. In that process, they created death-fears and also death-hopes of extraordinary power. This was so, notwithstanding the fact that New England proved to be unusually healthy for colonists from northern Europe. The first years were difficult, but the Bay Colony suffered nothing like the “starving time” that afflicted Jamestown and Plymouth. Rates of mortality in New England remained moderately low by comparison with other places.2

Even so, the mid-seventeenth century was a very grim period in Europe, Asia and America. This was the only era after the

Black Death when the population of the Western world actually declined.3 New England, fortunate as it may have been in a comparative way, was not exempt from the general suffering. The death rate in Massachusetts was approximately 25 per thousand in the seventeenth century: lower than in western Europe, and much below Virginia. But it was three times higher than in our own time. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, mortality rates tended to rise in Massachusetts, reaching levels above 30 per thousand in the 1730s and 1740s, when epidemic disease ravaged the region.4

Throughout this period, the death rate in New England was also highly unstable. As the country became more densely settled, epidemics of smallpox, measles and diphtheria struck with increasing frequency and force.5 Despite the comparative advantages of their environment, the builders of the Bay Colony shared with most other people in the seventeenth century the same dark foreboding of danger and insecurity. Journals and letters in this period were filled with stories of sudden deaths. “Mr. Creswell, was suddenly seized of an illness, which carried him off in a few minutes,” wrote a diarist in 1728. Epidemics struck families and even entire communities with the same appalling force.6

The Puritans of Massachusetts shared this feeling of insecurity in an exaggerated degree because of their theology. Their Calvinist faith was one of the most harsh and painful creeds that believing Christians have ever inflicted upon themselves. One New Englander described this dark philosophy as a “bitter pill in a chestnut burr.” The fabled “Five Points” of New England’s Calvinist orthodoxy insisted that the natural condition of humanity was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them.

The people of Massachusetts were trained by their ministers never to be entirely confident of their own salvation. From childhood, they were taught to believe that a sense of certainty about salvation was one of the surest signs that one was not saved. “This was the constant message of Puritan preachers,” writes historian Edmund Morgan, “in order to be sure one must be unsure.” This attitude of cultivated insecurity, coming on top of the dangers of life itself, created a brooding darkness that hovered over the collective consciousness of New England for two centuries.7

Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in the twilight of this culture, understood these feelings very well. “The underlying foundation of life … in New England,” she wrote, “was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune.”8

This way of thinking led New Englanders to adopt some of more lugubrious deathlore which human ingenuity has invented. One of these customs was an exceptionally brutal method of preparing the young for death. Puritan parents compelled their youngsters to stare death in the face. Children were forced to read some of the most gruesome verses in the Bible until they dissolved in tears of terror and despair. They were lectured at length about the sudden deaths of other children, which happened to young Samuel Sewall until “he burst out in a bitter cry and said he was afraid he should die.” They were dragged screaming and twisting to the edge of an open grave and made to stare into the void and to reflect upon their own mortality. They were also taught always to doubt if they had been elected to grace, and never to feel entirely confident of salvation. Young Elizabeth Sewall repeatedly suffered torments of salvation-angst; at the age of fifteen she came to her father early in the morning and told him that she was “afraid to go to hell, was like Spira, not Elected.” All of this left a permanent mark upon Puritan personalities, and set them apart from other Christians in their own time.9

Another curious death custom in Puritan New England was an adult ritual which Cotton Mather called “daily dying.” This was a set of spiritual calisthenics, designed to warm the Calvinist soul. “A prudent man,” wrote Cotton Mather, “will die daily; and this is one thing in our doing too: tis to live daily under the power of such impressions, as we shall have upon us, when we come to die.” The diaries of individual Puritans tell us that “daily dying” became a living reality in ordinary lives.10

Yet a third death custom appeared in the responses of Puritans to the deaths of others. When a relative or friend or child died, the Puritans seized upon their grief, and nourished it, and tried to turn it to a constructive spiritual purpose. An English Puritan who lost his daughter when she was barely twelve, wrote in his diary:

May I never forget the afflicting stroke

Remember where I was and what I was doing when she was seized.

Remember the vows and promises then made.

Remember her patient suffering of grievous pain.

Remember her dying looks and parting sigh.

God grant the impressions made may never wear off.

Puritans never insulated themselves from the pain of death. They drove themselves toward the opposite extreme, and even prayed that their grief would “never wear off.”11

Yet another custom was a cultivated bleakness of burial practices throughout New England. The Puritans had little interest in the physical remains of the dead. They did not approve of embalming, elaborate funerals, or extravagant tombs. “Burials now among the reformed in England,” wrote one unsympathetic observer at the time of the great migration, “are in a manner prophane, in many places the dead being thrown into the ground like dogs, and not a word said.”12 In early New England, corpses were hurried into the ground with little ceremony. Burials often occurred late in the day, very near to sunset. The grave was marked by a simple granite rock, or a rough wooden paling.13 The funeral itself was a separate occasion—a sermon in which the minister made a point of not exaggerating the virtues of the dead. One New Englander attacked the hypocrisy of those “who in preaching Funeral Sermons, by misrepresenting the dead, have dangerously misled the living.”

As time passed, burial and funeral customs grew more elaborate. The mourners wore small tokens of remembrance—black scarves, ribbons, cloaks and gloves. The coffin became a piece of fine cabinet work, covered with a pall or shroud. But the people of New England were uncomfortable with this display, and a series of laws repeatedly sought “to retrench the extraordinary expence at Funerals.”14

Outward displays of grief were generally discouraged. Mourners were expected to maintain an outward appearance of disciplined calm which struck others as cold, callous and emotionless. In fact it was not so. But Massachusetts mourning customs made a striking contrast with the paroxysms of weeping and wailing and self-destruction that occurred in other cultures.

After the funeral, food and drink were served. Then suddenly the restraints were removed on one of the few occasions when New Englanders drank to excess. Entire communities became intoxicated. Even little children went reeling and staggering through the bleak burying grounds. There are descriptions of infants so intoxicated that they slipped into the yawning grave.

Altogether, Puritan death ways encouraged a manic combination of hope and fear about the “dying time” that became a central part of life. These attitudes included a sense of fatalism about the coming of death. In the seventeenth century all the world was fatalistic; but it was not all fatalistic in the same way. Every culture taught that vital events were beyond human control. The Puritans shared this cosmic sense of inexorability. But their uncertainty about the outcome of salvation encouraged a spirit of restless striving for assurance which set the fatalism of Puritan New England apart from other cultures.

This special fatalism of the Puritans was carefully recorded in their diaries and autobiographies. A case in point was the New England minister Thomas Shepard. Every day for him was a spiritual trial with a different verdict. On February 16, 1641, for example, he was convinced that he was saved:

February 15. I was in prayer, and in the beginning of it that promise came in, Seek me, and you shall live … my heart made choice of God alone, and he was a sweet portion to me.

The next day, Shepard’s mood suddenly changed.

February 16. I saw my heart was not prepared to die because I had not studied to wean my heart from the world. … Oh Lord, help me … a perishing thing.

There were no diary entries for a week. Then, Shepard’s spirits lifted:

February 23. On bed I considered how sweetly the Lord was sometimes with me, and so how I should preserve that spirit and go forward …

But that same night he was overtaken by despair:

February 23. At night after lecture I saw my vileness … the Lord made me see nothing but shame to belong to me.

A similar rhythm appeared in the thoughts of many Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic. Historian Alan Simpson has described the spiritual career of the English Puritan Thomas Goodwin:

At six, young Thomas was warned by a servant that, if he did not repent of his sins, Hell awaited him. At seven, he had learned to weep for them and to look for the signs of grace. At twelve he thought he had more grace than anyone else in his village. At thirteen, he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge … oscillating between hope and despair. For the real experience had not yet come. … It came to him of course through the medium of a sermon: the normal means employed by God to hammer the hardened heart. The text was, “Defer not thy repentence. …” Always before, when he wept for his sins, he had kept some feeling of human merit. Now he knows he has none, that the natural man, even when seemingly a good man, is only a beautiful abomination, for the natural man has had no merit since Adam’s disobedience, and Hell is his just destination. Then, in the midst of his horror, comes the act of mercy: the voice that says to the dead soul “Arise and live.” Goodwin compares himself to a traitor whom a king has pardoned and then raised to the position of friend and favorite. But if the favorite has tremendous privileges, he also has tremendous duties. His life must be an endless war against the sin which dishonors his sovereign …,15

These feelings were widely shared among the Puritans. Simpson writes, “ … there is almost no famous Puritan who has not left some account of this experience, even though it is only a few haunted lines written to a cousin in the midst of his travail.”16 These wild swings of hope and despair colored Puritan attitudes toward life and death itself. They created the paradox of a Puritan fatalism which quickened the pulse of life itself and became an important part of the “New England Way.”

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