I’m a sucker for a biography. I love how they transport you to another time and place, but a real time and place. I’m also a sucker for any movie that begins with the caption: ‘based on a true story’. Somehow the events grab my heart so much more tightly – even if they are ‘based on a true story’ (about as much as my attempts at butter chicken are ‘based’ on authentic Indian cuisine). Anyway, enough about movies. Let's talk books, in particular this month’s book – Anne Bradstreet: Pilgrim & Poet’ by Faith Cook.
To be honest the only name I recognized from the front or back covers of this book was Tim Challies’ who gives a one line review. Apparently Faith Cook is a well known Christian biographer. And apparently Anne Bradstreet was America’s first published poet! Who knew! (perhaps you did, but I didn’t). Being a biography I was happy to give it a go. Glad I did.
Cook has a knack for giving a bit of depth but still keeping it easy to read for the not-quite-history-buff. She also seems keen on giving a sense of the historical context, not just the intimacies of the person in focus. This is particularly noticeable in the first 4 chapters of Anne Bradstreet:Pilgrim & Poet (let’s call it P&P for short). In these chapters we meet a young Anne - bookish, privileged by a good education and godly parents & deeply reflective. We meet her in the context of the political and religious tensions of 17th century England and follow her as she marries (at 16!) and sets sail for the new world (at 18!).
What I find most interesting about these chapters is their description of the aspirations and tensions of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. While at times the description of the English political situation in chapter 1 seemed a bit superficial, when we reach America Cook provides a helpfully frank analysis of the different personalities and problems. The puritans sailed with such high hopes: A new civilization shining forth the virtues of pure gospel faith to the world. But soon the realities of division, sin, pride, arrogance and hardship rise to the surface. Cook helpfully surmises: ‘The settlers in Massachusetts Bay had emigrated with idealistic dreams of a godly community where all sinful conduct could be held in church by severe penalties. But human nature proved the same on both sides of the Atlantic, and even draconian punishments failed to reform it.'
In this way various theological issues bubble along beneath the surface of this book, many of which are still so relevant today: the relationship between church and state, our aspirations to build a perfect world this side of the new creation, the place of church discipline, the differences between men and women, the relationship of grace and works, how much the Old Testament law should be a template in the life of the believer. Cook nods to these issues as they emerge in the history, reflecting on them without stepping into heavy handed moralizing. A good example of this is her treatment of Anne Hutchison. At the beginning this (other) Anne seems to be a possible heroine, seeking to reform the moralist preaching of the settlements and reemphasise the grace of the gospel (albeit perhaps with a lack of tact and gentleness). However, as Cook notes, it is her methods of ministry and her shift to believing she was receiving special separate revelations from God that creates the real problems. To be honest, I have very little knowledge of early American history so can only take much of Cook’s analysis on face value – but on the face of it it appears fair and evenhanded.
The main character of these first four chapters really is the historical context of the American colony, rather than Anne. What emerges is an ensemble cast of often well-intentioned but flawed people, trying to plant puritan ideals into the fiercely foreign and firm ground of the New World. It is in the next chapters that we see Anne herself step closer to centre-stage.
About this month's contributor, Annabel Nixey
I'm a Sydney-bred, Canberra-newbie who's still getting used to the idea of four distinct seasons (yes, in winter it is chilly!). My favourite genres are… for movies - period dramas, for books - biographies and for coffee - tea. American history was my least favourite subject at uni but this month's book (set amongst the puritan pilgrims to the new world) has helped flip that impression.