White, Elizabeth

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WHITE, Elizabeth

Born circa 1637; died 1699

married 1657; children: one

Elizabeth White was born in New England, possibly in or near Boston, around 1637, and married in 1657; she had at least one child. There are apparently no extant records of her life, except for these sketchy details that she put into the one published work, her spiritual autobiography. The Experience of God's Gracious Dealing with Mrs. Elizabeth White, published as a short pamphlet in 1741, is a notable example of early American women's spiritual autobiography. It contains imaginative and personally revealing details about the psychic life of a Puritan woman in 17th-century New England. After White's death, this work was discovered in her "closet," a small room used for private meditation and writing. Although it was probably circulated among friends and relatives for many years (as was the practice), it was not published until four decades after White's death during a period of religious revival in New England; her confession would have evoked for its readers an earlier, much admired pious period.

The lack of polish and sophistication in White's autobiography is made up for by spontaneity and vividness as she reveals the internal landscape of the darkest recesses of her soul in an attempt to express her redemptive experience. Three experiences of deepest despair about her soul's destiny occurred concurrently with her marriage, the birth of her first child, and the weaning of this infant. A month before her marriage, she relates, her father desired her to take communion, but she suddenly had grave doubts about her preparedness for taking part in the sacrament. Similarly, she experienced a crisis three days after delivering her first child; she was tempted by the devil with a vision of the Trinity, but escaped Satan's clutches through the suckling of her infant and finally through sleep, in which she dreamt of her assured place in heaven, a place secured for her after death in childbirth. A third great trial coincided with weaning, and relates directly to White's stated feelings of guilt for the affection she lavished on her firstborn. Tempted to believe the Bible is not God's word, she was uplifted by Christ, and the darkness about her soul dispelled.

Although she felt renewed after this final experience, moments of doubt continued to plague her. But she felt secure enough in her salvation and regeneration to commit to writing her account of repentance and trust in Christ. In talking about the trials and religious doubt in the period of early womanhood, White reveals the deep-seated conflicts and uncertainties felt by a Puritan woman when facing the responsibilities and struggles of marriage and motherhood. As a Puritan, she views these external events only as markers by which she identifies moments of acute spiritual awareness. For the modern reader, the conjunction of White's internal and external experiences provides thought-provoking clues to the psychic life of Puritan women.


Shea, D., Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (1968).


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