Michael Wigglesworth

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Michael Wigglesworth

Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) was an American Puritan poet, physician, and minister. His poem "The Day of Doom" enjoyed a popular success unequaled in America before Longfellow.

Michael Wigglesworth was born probably in Yorkshire, England, on Oct. 18, 1631. The family went to Charlestown, Mass., in 1638 and soon settled in New Haven, Conn. There was no shelter on the land allotted to the Wigglesworths, and they spent the first winter in a cellar hole. Wilderness hardships took their toll. The father, broken in health, was unable to manage the farm alone and had to ask Michael to interrupt his New Haven schooling and come home. Michael, so frail that he was of limited help, was finally encouraged to prepare for Harvard College; he graduated first in his class in 1651; he continued on as fellow and as tutor. After receiving his master's degree in 1656, he became minister of the Congregational Church at Malden.

Wigglesworth had had some medical training in college and, in 1663, on a trip for his health, took up medicine again. Afterward he was both physician and minister, but poor health plagued him. In 1697 he was elected a fellow of Harvard; some say that he was offered the presidency but refused it because of his health.

Introspective and often despondent, Wigglesworth worried unceasingly about his spiritual and physical well-being. Yet his contemporaries loved and respected this "feeble little shadow of a man," as Cotton Mather called him. He married three times (outliving two wives) and had eight children. He died in Malden on May 27, 1705.

In the long ballad, The Day of Doom, written in 1662, Wigglesworth attempted to make Christ's judgment vivid to a popular audience. The damnation of sinners on that day is terrifyingly described; the elect reign eternally with Christ. Almost 1,800 copies were sold in a year; four editions of the poem appeared in Massachusettts and in England before 1701. Doubtless most New Englanders read, heard about, or owned this electrifying piece. Also in 1662, a year of severe drought, he wrote a poetic interpretation of New England's decline, "God's Controversy with New England," first published in 1873. His last verses appeared in Meat out of the Eater or Meditations Concerning the Necessity, End and Usefulness of Affliction unto God's Children (1669).

Wigglesworth's verse is poetry in the service of doctrine; his personality is suppressed. He tried a variety of styles and modes, always with the intention of finding the most effective means of presenting his theological vision of particularly his vision of Christ's imminent return to judge the world.

Further Reading

The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth, 1653-1657: The Conscience of a Puritan was edited, with an interpretative introduction, by Edmund S. Morgan (1951; new ed. 1965). A generous selection of Wigglesworth's poetry is in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., The Puritans (2 vols., 1938; rev. ed. 1963). An authoritative biography is Richard Crowder, No Featherbed to Heaven: A Biography of Michael Wigglesworth (1962). □

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Michael Wigglesworth

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