Hold lightly to this world: Anne Bradstreet

God has given us many Christian brothers and sisters throughout history whom we can benefit from, and whom we do benefit from. They teach, challenge, and comfort us largely through the ministry of writing that lives on many years after they have died. These writings include books, sermons, tracts, songs, letters, and poetry. Many of these men and women are well known, but others are less so. One of our lesser known sisters is Anne Bradstreet.

Anne Bradstreet (ńee Dudley) was born in 1612 and died in 1672. She was raised by Puritan parents and was a Puritan by her own conviction, frustrated that the reform in the church did not go far enough. While she was still young her father began work as a steward for the Earl of Lincoln and this gave Anne access to books and an education that would shape the rest of her life and ministries. She was tutored in literature, history, Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew. At the age of sixteen Anne married Simon Bradstreet, a fellow Puritan. With Simon, her parents, and others of a similar theological persuasion, she left her comfortable home and sailed to America on the ship Arbella in 1630.[1] Not everyone survived the three-month voyage, and once they landed their lives were still at risk. In the area where they settled [Salem] 200 out of 1,000 settlers died during their first winter, a period that became known as the starving time . [2] This meant they soon moved to Charlestown, and not long after that, they moved again to help found the city of Boston.[3]

It is hard to imagine what it would of been like for Anne in those early days, still a teenager, newly married, and trying to make a home in a new colony. Although still a member of a privileged family, her new surrounds would of been in stark contrast to her upbringing. But we do have a window into her thought world when she begins to write poetry, and it’s her poems that can minister to us today. In her poetry Anne combines to great effect, her education, her clear theological framework, and her Biblical knowledge.

In 1650 Anne became the first female poet to be published in England, and also the first poet to be published in the British Northern American Colonies. Her poems reflect the fact that Anne, like other Puritans, was clear about why God had placed her on this earth, what her roles were, and that ultimately life was all about getting ready to die. But this was not a morbid view of life, denying joy and other emotions. Her poems reflect a realistic view of life, they are rich in the variety of emotions we face as humans this side of heaven, but they are ultimately God-centered and help us fix our eyes on where our true home is as Christians, and this is why they can be so helpful for us today.

The epitaph Anne wrote for her mother, Dorothy Dudley, who died in 1643 reflects that her mother embodied a Puritan understanding of what a godly woman should be, and this was also Anne’s belief:[4]

A worthy Matron of unspotted life,
A loving Mother and obedient wife,
A friendly Neighbor, pitiful to poor,
Whom oft she fed, and clothed with her store;
To Servants wisely aweful, but yet kind,
And as they did, so they reward did find:
A true Instructer of her Family,
The which she ordered with dexterity.
The publick meetings ever did frequent,
And in her Closet constant hours she spent;
Religious in all her words and wayes,
Preparing still for death, till end of dayes:
Of all her Children, Children, liv’d to see,
Then dying, left a blessed memory.[5]

Some weren t convinced that as a woman she should be publishing poetry. Anne, however, had no problems holding together a Puritan view of womanhood, (being submissive to her husband, loving toward her children, generous to her neighbors, clear on the ordered boundaries of society, recognizing that servants are servants but being gentle and kind to them[6]), alongside actively making a positive and intelligent contribution to her community. She was comfortable being a godly woman and a published poet. This, I think, highlights both Anne’s knowledge of God’s word and her practical wisdom. It is also a helpful correction for those of us who don t identify ourselves as Puritans and may have a tendency to caricature them. It is simply not true to the facts to say their lives were simply a joyless submission to legalism and stereotypical roles. It is not true that their women could not think for themselves. Similarly today, it is all too easy for those who label some Sydney Anglicans as puritans, to caricature those women within the diocese who hold to a conservative understanding of the roles of women on biblical grounds, as unable to think for themselves or not capable of coming to a careful and reasoned position on the issues.

Anne and Simon survived the dangers of living in frontier settings, and their eight children all survived infancy, however the second half of the 1660’s was a tragic time for the Bradstreet’s. In 1665 Elizabeth Bradstreet, her grand-daughter, died aged just a year and a half. In 1666 a fire destroyed her own home. On 20 June 1669 her grand-daughter Anne Bradstreet died aged three years and seven months. On September 6 her daughter-in-law Mercy Bradstreet died in her twenty-eighth year, and on 16 November her grandson Simon Bradstreet died aged a month and one day. Bradstreet composed poems about these events that remind us poignantly of the need to sit loose to the world, to find our home and our hope in God. [7] Much of Anne’s poetry flows out of what is happening in her home life and her extended familial relationships and below are two examples where we see this.

On the burning of her house:

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I waken’d was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of ‘fire’ and ‘fire,’
Let no man know is my Desire.
I starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All’s Vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
It’s purchased and paid for too
By him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by his gift is made thine own.
There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.[8]

When her grandson Simon died:

No sooner come, but gone, and fal’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caus’d us weep,
Three flours, two searcely blown, the last i’th’ bud,
Cropt by th’Almighties hand; yet is he good,
With dreadful awe before him let’s be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let’s say he’s merciful as well as just.
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.[9]

Our God has been merciful and kind to us in giving us Christian brothers and sisters with a variety of gifts that we benefit from in many and varied ways, and with some we benefit long after they have died. The gift of poetry that he gave Anne Bradstreet can help many in the church have a God-centered view of life and her poetry helps lift our eyes beyond our current circumstances to our true home. Anne wrote more than fifty poems and they are available online or in The works of Anne Bradstreet.

Jane Tooher

Jane Tooher is director of Moore College’sPriscilla and Aquila Centre at Moore College, which encourages the ministries of women in partnership with men.

Bibliography

1. Hensley, J., (ed)., The works of Anne Bradstreet (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2010

2. Williams, G.J., Silent Witnesses: Lessons on theology, life, and the church from Christian of the past, (The Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh), 2013, xi-xvii ; 127-139.

3. http://www.poemhunter.com/anne-bradstreet/poems/ (accessed 01/04/14)


[1] Silent Witnesses, 131

[2] Silent Witnesses, 132

[3] Both Anne’s husband and father were influential in founding Harvard University in 1636. In 1997 Harvard dedicated one of their gates (The Bradstreet Gate) to Anne since she was the first poet to be published in America.

[4] Silent Witnesses, 132

[6] Silent Witnesses, 132

[7] Silent Witnesses, 137

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