Out of all the Puritan women you could research, Anne Bradstreet is probably the best-known figure. However, though she may be familiar to those in the US, I had never encountered her here in Canada until I started working at Regent College some years ago. One day I discovered her poems in the stacks of the John Richard Allison Library and thought I’d quickly peruse them before deciding whether to bring the book to my office or not. But once I started, I couldn’t stop. Immediately, her words grabbed me by the collar and, before I knew it, I realized I had finished the book and was sitting on the floor crying. I really hope no one noticed the crazy girl in the stacks that day!
In 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk shows how the lives and writings of Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley encourage the beauty of holy living and provide practical wisdom for the home and the church.
So many moments in her writings had struck me, but the first one I saw that led me to immediately read the whole collection was a letter she wrote to her children about her life story, including the times she went through a crisis of faith and seriously doubted God’s existence. Being in the middle of such a crisis of my own, I was both shocked and comforted beyond measure to see her words, “Many times Satan hath troubled me concerning the veracity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how could I know whether there was a God” (“To My Dear Children”). As we often do, I thought I was alone in my struggles, but now I found a friend. And a really godly friend at that—a godly friend going through the same struggle as me!
At this point, I didn’t know much about Bradstreet, but as I continued to read her poems, I learned that she had moved from England to the New World, started writing poetry, and went through many trials in her new home. She lost her house, she lost her health, and she even lost several family members. But, throughout all of her honest lament, and though she was continually bombarded by doubt, she never lost her faith. She wrote to her children that the things that brought her back in these times of questioning were the “wondrous works” that she saw in nature and the “daily providing for this great household upon the earth.” In her mind, the only reasonable explanation for these was an eternal, all-powerful, and all-good Being. Though she doubted “thousands of times,” only getting “over [one] block” to find “another put in [her] way,” she continued to “argue” with herself, painstakingly weighing the best evidence she could in the best way she knew how, until she came to an honest answer for herself each time.
And the Person who gave life, and is always giving life to me, did the same for Bradstreet and the same for everyone else.
After going through a faith struggle of my own, I have found that Bradstreet’s two tandem responses to her doubt—honest, candid recognition and lament, met with a rational and moderate yet determined commitment to God after a time of debate—have served me well as I dip into times of skepticism about how I keep reaching faith after doubt over and over again. When I am lost in a sea of information and don’t feel like I am smart enough to evaluate it, or when I remember past traumas I’ve been through in the church and want more than anything to abandon it and never return, I affirm with Bradstreet that Satan has troubled me many times! He has troubled me before and he keeps coming back. My pain is deep and there is no easy answer for it. But when I am finished with this moment of mourning and ready to get back on track with life, I affirm that, while there is no easy answer, there are still answers, mysterious as they may be, to be sought out and found.
Again and again, I’ve come to the same conclusions as Bradstreet. Every day I enjoy the sunrise, the salty air, the rain, and the trees; so did Bradstreet and so does everyone else. And the Person who gave life, and is always giving life to me, did the same for Bradstreet and the same for everyone else. The reason I can even have times of doubt and resolution and restored happiness is only because I am alive, because someone created me and is keeping me (and my faith!) going. I’m sure that, like me and Bradstreet, you also have big and little struggles, big and little joys, and I know if you read her writings and those of other Puritan women, you’ll find at least one good friend to take with you on the journey.
Jenny-Lyn de Klerk is the author of 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love.
We can’t really understand Puritanism at all—that movement so concerned with genuinely loving God in their communities, churches, and families,—without understanding the part played by Puritan women.
It is often our deepest pains that inspire and motivate us to do the greatest good we can do in our lifetimes.
According to Puritans like Lucy Hutchinson, loving God and godliness did not mean hating other people, either openly or secretly.
Jenny-Lyn de Klerk talks about why it’s worth exploring the lives and theological insights of Puritan women who have often been overlooked.