Anne Bradstreet's Doubts
May 1, 2017
One of the most interesting things about the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (see posts #1 & #2 in this series) is that she actually admitted to having doubts about her religious beliefs. Granted, she did not do so in a manner that was meant to be released to the public, but rather in a letter that she wrote to her children near the end of her life. In this, her longest surviving work of prose, we get a glimpse of some of Bradstreet’s spiritual struggles.
“Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures,” she admits. “Many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of, how did I know but they were feigned?” That Bradstreet had these doubts is not the astonishing part, but rather the fact that she was willing to admit them, even if it was only to her intimate relations. Having confessed as much, she concludes,
“That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end. The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being.”
In questioning God’s existence, Bradstreet is no different than many great philosophers over the years, yet the rationale she chooses to reassure herself is perhaps not as sophisticated as the arguments of Anselm or Aquinas. Rather, she sees God in what she knows: His wondrous creation, His provision for her family, His sovereignty over all things. Nor does Bradstreet appeal only to these aspects of more general revelation, but also to God’s special revelation in His Word.
“If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must be it or none. Have I not found that operation by it that no human invention can work upon the soul, hath not judgments befallen divers who have scorned and contemned it, hath it not been preserved through all ages maugre all the heathen tyrants and all the enemies who have opposed it? Is there any story but that which shows the beginnings of times, and how the world came to be as we see? Do we not know the prophecies in it fulfilled which could not have been so long foretold by any but God Himself?”
Unlike her fellow Boston resident, Anne Hutchinson, who in claiming some form of direct revelation from God and asserting novelties drew the ire of the local authorities, Bradstreet’s writings always seem very rooted in the Word of God as already revealed: the teachings that have stood the test of time. However, this was not as much help to her when it came to another area of doubt.
“When I have got over this block, then have I another put in my way, that admit this be the true God whom we worship, and that be his word, yet why may not the Popish religion be the right? They have the same God, the same Christ, the same word. They only interpret it one way, we another.”
It is possible that Bradstreet is referring here to Roman Catholicism, but it may also be that she is thinking of the High Church Anglicanism that she describes in other places as “Popery”. That would make this passage more intriguing, as it would represent a questioning of the entire Puritan movement, which stood in opposition to this form of religion. Whatever she meant by the “Popish religion”, she is once again able to dismiss her doubts.
“This hath sometimes stuck with me, and more it would, but the vain fooleries that are in their religion together with their lying miracles and cruel persecutions of the saints, which admit were they as they term them, yet not so to be dealt withal. The consideration of these things and many the like would soon turn me to my own religion again.”
This letter shows the degree of knowledge Bradstreet had about other points of view, to the point that she truly wrestled with them and considered which path was the true one. She was neither ignorant nor gullible, but felt that her faith was based on reason and the Word of God, which she saw as the foundation of all true religion. In her final hours, she wished to leave a testament to her children both of her doubts and her ultimate faith. In this, she was a truly remarkable woman.