England was divided religiously and politically when Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558. Many Protestants hoped she would continue the reform of the Church of England. Her concerns, however, were more political. She desired peace between Roman Catholics and Protestants and sought this unity with the Elizabethan Settlement (enforced through The Acts of Uniformity). As a result, the Church of England was once again independent from Rome (The Act of Supremacy of 1558), and her religious settlement effectively ended the English Reformation. Nine years after Elizabeth’s death, Anne Bradstreet (née Dudley) (1612-1672) was born into a Puritan family.
The Puritans believed that the church needed further reform. When Elizabeth I was alive, they illegally began their church services, resulting in pastors being exiled, imprisoned, and executed. And things worsened under Charles I, with church practices becoming less reformed. Some Puritans remained in England; others left for Europe or America, hoping for religious freedom.
Anne’s father worked for the Earl of Lincoln, giving her access to numerous books and a good education. In 1628, at the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. She sailed with her husband and her parents two years later to America. Why are we still speaking about this woman four hundred years later? Because in 1650, Anne became America’s first published poet. Through her poetry, we understand her theology and view of life. For some, it isn’t easy to reconcile a content Puritan wife and mother publishing poetry. But this is to reject the evidence in her poems. For example, the 1643 epitaph she wrote for her mother, Dorothy Dudley:
A worthy matron of unspotted life,
A loving mother and obedient wife,
A friendly neighbour, pitiful to poor,
Whom oft she fed and clothed from her store;
To servants wisely awful, but yet kind,
As they did, so they reward did find.
A true instructor of her family,
The which is ordered with dexterity.
The public meetings ever did frequent,
And in her closet constant hours she spent;
Religious in all her words and ways,
Preparing still for death, till end of days:
Of all her children, children lived to see,
Then dying, left a blessed memory.
Instead, it seems that she disagreed “with seventeenth-century expectations about the intellectual capacity of women, expectations that have no basis in Scripture. Bradstreet challenged men to consider the intellectual value of women by remembering Queen Elizabeth I.” Although there would have been some Puritan men (and other men) who did not agree with her publishing poetry, it was her brother-in-law (a Puritan man) who first helped get her poetry published.
Anne gave birth to eight children, and surprisingly, all survived infancy. Although she was spared the grief of her children dying, she suffered in other ways. For example, her granddaughter Elizabeth died in 1665. The following year, her house burnt down. Another granddaughter, named Anne, died in 1668. And in 1669, her daughter-in-law Mercy and her grandson Simon both died. Anne wrote poems about her grief (and other topics such as politics and love), which can help us in our sufferings and various life situations as we continue the Christian walk. They can help us because Anne recognised that Scripture is God’s word, telling us who we are in Christ and how we are to live, no matter what we are going through. When her three-year-old granddaughter Anne died, she expressed her grief and faith like this:
With troubled heart and trembling hand I write
The heavens have changed to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set.
Experience might ‘fore this have made me wise,
To value things according to their price.
Was ever stable joy yet found below?
Or perfect bliss without mixture of woe?
I knew she was but as a withering flower,
That’s here today, perhaps gone in an hour;
Like as a bubble, or the brittle glass,
Or like a shadow turning as it was.
More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Meantime my throbbing heart’s cheered up with this:
Thou with thy Savior art in endless bliss.
The Puritan view echoed in many of Anne’s poems—including the one above—is that this life is all about getting ready for the next. Therefore, we are to sit loose to this world. “The transitory nature of life and the glorious hope that awaits those who trust in Christ are perhaps the dominant themes of her poetry. For the Puritans, life is to be used to prepare for death and we should hold the glories of the world lightly. Death undermines the achievements of this life.” We see this in the poem she wrote when her house burnt down:
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His Name 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.
Anne Bradstreet is one of our Christian foremothers. We can look to her poetry to help us give voice to what we experience on this side of glory. And they also give us a reality check that this life is all about getting ready for the next, so we are to sit loose to it.