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Predestination Paradox–Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom

Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705)I would echo Samuel Johnson’s comment on Paradise Lost when first considering Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom: “None ever wished it longer than it is.” At 224 eight-line stanzas, its 1,792 lines make it reputedly the longest poem written in 17th century North America. Throughout those lines, Wigglesworth proves himself a thoroughgoing master of Calvinist theology, developing in considerable detail responses to various objections that might be raised to Puritan beliefs. That Wigglesworth’s ability to manipulate verse does not keep pace with his theological understanding can be witnessed by scanning any random handful of stanzas. However, none of the poem’s metrical or syntactic flaws kept it from being staggeringly popular in its day and for better than a century afterward.

Of all the aspects of Puritan/Calvinist theology explored by Wigglesworth and, more broadly, noted by historians and commentators, probably none is prominent than the idea of double election: the doctrine that God has foreordained–predestined–some people as the “elect” who will, sometimes despite their own best efforts to resist, repent and be saved, while He at the same time predestines others to be damned. Such a teaching can, like all Calvinist teaching, be supported with Biblical texts, yet its opposite, the idea of free will, can likewise be supported.

Many modern readers find the notion of predestination difficult at best and offensive at worst. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the fact that some arch Calvinists seem to struggle with the idea as well. Perhaps the most prominent American Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, in his most prominent work, the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” would seem to be wasting his time if he believes that election is absolute and irresistable. Why threaten people with the idea that they might die before repenting if they, as the elect, will undoubtedly repent before dying?

Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom does much the same thing. Although it overtly teaches election and predestination, the poem seems clearly to suggest that some level of volition is involved in who winds up a sheep at Christ’s right hand and who winds up a goat at His left.

In the prologue to the poem, “To the Christian Reader,” the author first betrays the limits of his view of predestination:

Oh get a part in Christ,
And make the Judge thy Friend;
So shalt thou be assuréd of
A happy, glorious end.
Thus prays thy real Friend
And Servant for Christ’s sake,
Who, had he strength, would not refuse
More pains for thee to take.

This sounds rather like a revivalist altar call in uneven verse. If Wigglesworth truly believes in the view of election as it is popularly understood, then he would not be urging a reader to “make the Judge thy Friend.” In stanza 63, he has the Judge (God) rebuff a plea for redemption:

Why still Hell-ward, without regard,
they bold venturéd,
And chose Damnation before Salvation,
when it was offeréd?

The idea that these “goats” “chose Damnation” would seem to fly in the face of the election doctrine. These examples continue as various categories of unredeemed sinners make their case before the Judge. In most cases, the fault is laid at their feet.

In stanza 71, God asks those who did Christ’s work but whom He “never knew” a powerful question: “Why were you slack to find that track and in that way to tread?” If the answer to that question is that the sinner was slack because God selected him beforehand to be slack, then the question seems unusually cruel, a quality that Wigglesworth would not place on God.

While theological carelessness can be found in many quarters, it was not the hallmark of the Puritans. Therefore, I have to believe that this apparent split personality regarding predestination indicates not a self-contradiction by the Puritans but a misunderstanding among moderns in understanding the nuances of this doctrine. A contempoarary reader understanding Wigglesworth’s theology might still find it odious, but I believe it will certainly be found more complex than is typically acknowledged.

Posted in American Literature, Puritan.

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