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Woman's Life in Colonial Days
By Carl Holliday
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
COLONIAL WOMAN AND RELIGION
I. The Spirit of Woman
With what a valiant and unyielding spirit our forefathers met the unspeakable hardships of the first days of American colonization! We of these softer and more abundant times can never quite comprehend what distress, what positive suffering those bold souls of the seventeenth century endured to establish a new people among the nations of the world. The very voyage from England to America might have daunted the bravest of spirits. Note but this glimpse from an account by Colonel Norwood in his Voyage to Virginia: "Women and children made dismal cries and grievous complaints. The infinite number of rats that all the voyage had been our plague, we now were glad to make our prey to feed on; and as they were insnared and taken a well grown rat was sold for sixteen shillings as a market rate. Nay, before the voyage did end (as I was credibly informed) a woman great with child offered twenty shillings for a rat, which the proprietor refusing, the woman died."
That was an era of restless, adventurous spirits — men and women filled with the rich and danger-loving blood of the Elizabethan day. We should recall that every colony of the original thirteen, except Georgia, was founded in the seventeenth century when the energy of that great and versatile period of the Virgin Queen had not yet dissipated itself. The spirit that moved Ben Jonson and Shakespeare to undertake the new and untried in literature was the same spirit that moved John Smith and his cavaliers to invade the Virginia wilderness, and the Pilgrim Fathers to found a commonwealth for freedom's sake on a stern and rock-bound coast. It was the day of Milton, Dryden, and Bunyan, the day of the Protectorate with its fanatical defenders, the day of the rise and fall of British Puritanism, the day of the Revolution of 1688 which forever doomed the theory of the divine rights of monarchs, the day of the bloody Thirty Years' War with its consequent downfall of aristocracy, the day of the Grand Monarch in France with its accumulating preparations for the destruction of kingly rights and the rise of the Commons.
In such an age we can but expect bold adventures. The discovery and exploration of the New World and the defeat of the Spanish Armada had now made England monarch of sea and land. The imagination of the people was aroused, and tales of a wealth like that of Croesus came from mariners who had sailed the seven seas, and were willingly believed by an excited audience. Indeed the nations stood ready with open-mouthed wonder to accept all stories, no matter how marvelous or preposterous. America suddenly appeared to all people as the land that offered wealth, religious and political freedom, a home for the poor, a refuge for the persecuted, in truth, a paradise for all who would begin life anew. With such a vision and with such a spirit many came. The same energy that created a Lear and a Hamlet created a Jamestown and a Plymouth. Shakespeare was at the height of his career when Jamestown was settled, and had been dead less than five years when the Puritans landed at Plymouth. Impelled by the soul of such a day Puritan and Cavalier sought the new land, hoping to find there that which they had been unable to attain in the Old World.
While from the standpoint of years the Cavalier colony at Jamestown might be entitled to the first discussion, it is with the Puritans that we shall begin this investigation. For, with the Puritan Fathers came the Puritan Mothers, and while the influence of those fathers on American civilization has been too vast ever to be adequately described, the influence of those brave pioneer women, while less ostentatious, is none the less powerful.
What perils, what distress, what positive torture, not only physical but mental, those first mothers of America experienced! Sickness and famine were their daily portion in life. Their children, pushing ever westward, also underwent untold toil and distress, but not to the degree known by those founders of New England; for when the settlements of the later seventeenth century were established some part of the rawness and newness had worn away, friends were not far distant, supplies were not wanting for long periods, and if the privations were intense, there were always the original settlements to fall back upon. Hear what Thomas Prince in his Annals of New England, published in 1726, has to say of those first days in the Plymouth Colony:
"March 24. (1621) N. B. This month Thirteen of our number die. And in three months past die Half our Company. The greatest part in the depth of winter, wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which their long voyage and unaccommodate conditions bring upon them. So as there die, sometimes, two or three a day. Of one hundred persons, scarce fifty remain. The living scarce able to bury the dead; the well not sufficient to tend the sick: there being, in their time of greatest distress, but six or seven; who spare no pains to help them.... But the spring advancing, it pleases GOD, the mortality begins to cease; and the sick and lame to recover: which puts new life into the people; though they had borne their sad affliction with as much patience as any could do."
Indeed, as we read of that struggle with famine, sickness, and death during the first few years of the Plymouth Colony we can but marvel that human flesh and human soul could withstand the onslaught. The brave old colonist Bradford, confirms in his History of Plymouth Plantation the stories told by others: "But that which was most sad and lamentable, was that in two or three months' time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter ... that of one hundred and odd persons scarce fifty remained: and of these in the time of most distress there was but six or seven sound persons; who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, ... in a word did all the homely, and necessary offices for them."
The conditions were the same whether in the Plymouth or in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And yet how brave — how pathetically brave — was the colonial woman under every affliction. In hours when a less valiant womanhood would have sunk in despair these wives and mothers strengthened one another and praised God for the humble sustenance He allowed them. The sturdy colonist, Edward Johnson, in his Wonder Working Providence of Zions Saviour in New England, writing of the privations of 1631, the year after his colony had been founded, pays this tribute to the helpmeets of the men:
"The women once a day, as the tide gave way, resorted to the mussels, and clambanks, which are a fish as big as horse-mussels, where they daily gathered their families' food with much heavenly discourse of the provisions Christ had formerly made for many thousands of his followers in the wilderness. Quoth one, 'My husband hath travelled as far as Plymouth (which is near forty miles), and hath with great toil brought a little corn home with him, and before that is spent the Lord will assuredly provide.' Quoth the other, 'Our last peck of meal is now in the oven at home a-baking, and many of our godly neighbors have quite spent all, and we owe one loaf of that little we have.' Then spake a third, 'My husband hath ventured himself among the Indians for corn, and can get none, as also our honored Governor hath distributed his so far, that a day or two more will put an end to his store, and all the rest, and yet methinks our children are as cheerful, fat and lusty with feeding upon these mussels, clambanks, and other fish, as they were in England with their fill of bread, which makes me cheerful in the Lord's providing for us, being further confirmed by the exhortation of our pastor to trust the Lord with providing for us; whose is the earth and the fulness thereof.'"
It is a genuine pleasure to us of little faith to note that such trust was indeed justified; for, continues Johnson: "As they were encouraging one another in Christ's careful providing for them, they lift up their eyes and saw two ships coming in, and presently this news came to their ears, that they were come — full of victuals.... After this manner did Christ many times graciously provide for this His people, even at the last cast."
If we will stop to consider the fact that many of these women of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were accustomed to the comfortable living of the middle-class country people of England, with considerable material wealth and even some of the luxuries of modern civilization, we may imagine, at least in part, the terrifying contrast met with in the New World. For conditions along the stormy coast of New England were indeed primitive. Picture the founding, for instance, of a town that later was destined to become the home of philosopher and seer — Concord, Massachusetts. Says Johnson in his Wonder Working Providence:
"After they had thus found out a place of abode they burrow themselves in the earth for their first shelter, under some hillside, casting the earth aloft upon timber; they make a smoke fire against the earth at the highest side and thus these poor servants of Christ provide shelter for themselves, their wives and little ones, keeping off the short showers from their lodgings, but the long rains penetrate through to their great disturbance in the night season. Yet in these poor wigwams they sing psalms, pray and praise their God till they can provide them houses, which ordinarily was not wont to be with many till the earth by the Lord's blessing brought forth bread to feed them, their wives and little ones.... Thus this poor people populate this howling desert, marching manfully on, the Lord assisting, through the greatest difficulties and sorest labors that ever any with such weak means have done."
And Margaret Winthrop writes thus to her step-son in England: "When I think of the troublesome times and manyfolde destractions that are in our native Countrye, I thinke we doe not pryse oure happinesse heare as we have cause, that we should be in peace when so many troubles are in most places of the world."
Many another quotation could be presented to emphasize the impressions given above. Reading these after the lapse of nearly three centuries, we marvel at the strength, the patience, the perseverance, the imperishable hope, trust, and faith of the Puritan woman. Such hardships and privations as have been described above might seem sufficient; but these were by no means all or even the greatest of the trials of womanhood in the days of the nation's childhood. To understand in any measure at all the life of a child or a wife or a mother of the Puritan colonies with its strain and suffering, we must know and comprehend her religion. Let us examine this — the dominating influence of her life.
II. Woman and Her Religion
Paradoxical as it may seem, religion was to the colonial woman both a blessing and a curse. Though it gave courage and some comfort it was as hard and unyielding as steel. We of this later hour may well shudder when we read the sermons of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards; but if the mere reading causes astonishment after the lapse of these hundreds of years, what terror the messages must have inspired in those who lived under their terrific indictments, prophecies, and warnings. Here was a religion based on Judaism and the Mosaic code, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Moses Coit Tyler has declared in his History of American Literature: "They did not attempt to combine the sacred and the secular; they simply abolished the secular and left only the sacred. The state became the church; the king a priest; politics a department of theology; citizenship the privilege of those only who had received baptism and the Lord's Supper."
And what an idea of the sacred was theirs! The gentleness, the mercy, the loving kindness that are of God so seldom enter into those ancient discussions that such attributes are almost negligible. Michael Wigglesworth's poem, The Day of Doom, published in 1662, may be considered as an authoritative treatise on the theology of the Puritans; for it not only was so popular as to receive several reprints, but was sanctioned by the elders of the church themselves. If this was orthodoxy — and the proof that it was is evident — it was of a sort that might well sour and embitter the nature of man and fill the gentle soul of womanhood with fear and dark forebodings. We well know that the Puritans thoroughly believed that man's nature was weak and sinful, and that the human soul was a prisoner placed here upon earth by the Creator to be surrounded with temptations. This God is good, however, in that he has given man an opportunity to overcome the surrounding evils.
"But I'm a prisoner,
Under a heavy chain;
Almighty God's afflicting hand,
Doth me by force restrain.
"But why should I complain
That have so good a God,
That doth mine heart with comfort fill
Ev'n whilst I feel his rod?
"Let God be magnified,
Whose everlasting strength
Upholds me under sufferings
Of more than ten years' length."
The Day of Doom is, in the main, its author's vision of judgment day, and, whatever artistic or theological defects it may have, it undeniably possesses realism. For instance, several stanzas deal with one of the most dreadful doctrines of the Puritan faith, that all infants who died unbaptized entered into eternal torment — a theory that must have influenced profoundly the happiness and woe of colonial women. The poem describes for us what was then believed should be the scene on that final day when young and old, heathen and Christian, saint and sinner, are called before their God to answer for their conduct in the flesh. Hear the plea of the infants, who, dying at birth before baptism could be administered, asked to be relieved from punishment on the grounds that they have committed no sin.
"If for our own transgression,
We here did stand at thy left hand,
just were the Recompense;
But Adam's guilt our souls hath spilt,
his fault is charg'd upon us;
And that alone hath overthrown and utterly
Pointing out that it was Adam who ate of the tree and that they were innocent, they ask:
"O great Creator, why was our nature
depraved and forlorn?
Why so defil'd, and made so vil'd,
whilst we were yet unborn?
If it be just, and needs we must
transgressors reckon'd be,
Thy mercy, Lord, to us afford,
which sinners hath set free."
But the Creator answers:
"God doth such doom forbid,
That men should die eternally
for what they never did.
But what you call old Adam's fall,
and only his trespass,
You call amiss to call it his,
both his and yours it was."
The Judge then inquires why, since they would have received the pleasures and joys which Adam could have given them, the rewards and blessings, should they hesitate to share his "treason."
"Since then to share in his welfare,
you could have been content,
You may with reason share in his treason,
and in the punishment,
Hence you were born in state forlorn,
with natures so depraved
Death was your due because that you
had thus yourselves behaved.
"Had you been made in Adam's stead,
you would like things have wrought,
And so into the self-same woe
yourselves and yours have brought."
Then follows a reprimand upon the part of the Judge because they should presume to question His judgments, and to ask for mercy:
"Will you demand grace at my hand,
and challenge what is mine?
Will you teach me whom to set free,
and thus my grace confine.
"You sinners are, and such a share
as sinners may expect;
Such you shall have, for I do save
none but mine own Elect.
"Yet to compare your sin with theirs
who liv'd a longer time,
I do confess yours is much less
though every sin's a crime.
"A crime it is, therefore in bliss
you may not hope to dwell;
But unto you I shall allow
the easiest room in Hell."
Would not this cause anguish to the heart of any mother? Indeed, we shall never know what intense anxiety the Puritan woman may have suffered during the few days intervening between the hour of the birth and the date of the baptism of her infant. It is not surprising, therefore, that an exceedingly brief period was allowed to elapse before the babe was taken from its mother's arms and carried through snow and wind to the desolate church. Judge Sewall, whose Diary covers most of the years from 1686 to 1725, and who records every petty incident from the cutting of his finger to the blowing off of the Governor's hat, has left us these notes on the baptism of some of his fourteen children:
"April 8, 1677. Elizabeth Weeden, the Midwife, brought the infant to the third Church when Sermon was about half done in the afternoon ... I named him John." (Five days after birth.) "Sabbath-day, December 13th 1685. Mr. Willard baptizeth my Son lately born, whom I named Henry." (Four days after birth.) "February 6, 1686-7. Between 3 and 4 P. M. Mr. Willard baptizeth my Son, whom I named Stephen." (Five days after birth.)
Excerpted from Woman's Life in Colonial Days by Carl Holliday. Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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