The persecution faced by many English Puritans caused some of them to seek out the New World, where they would be able to operate according to their own religious principles and theology. The Pilgrims were famously the first such Separatists to arrive in the land that would be known as Massachusetts in 1620. Ten years later, a fleet of ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean carrying the woman who would become America’s first published poet: Anne Bradstreet.
Anne was born in the county of Northamptonshire to Thomas Dudley and Dorothy Yorke. The family was what we might now call upper middle class. They were also committed Puritans. Anne’s father served for a time as steward to the earl of Lincoln, and his children grew up on the Sempringham estate. This was an area of intense Puritan activity. Thomas Dudley saw to it that Anne received a good education and was able to read and write, which was somewhat unusual for daughters at that time.
In 1622, Dudley hired a recent graduate from Cambridge University by the name of Simon Bradstreet to be his assistant. Anne developed a youthful crush, for which she was to feel considerably guilty. She recalled later in life, “As I grew up to be about 14 or 15, I found my heart more carnal, and sitting loose from God, vanity and the follies of youth take hold of me.” The two ended up marrying in 1628.
As King Charles I began to assert more authority over and against Parliament and had some of his Puritan critics imprisoned, Anne’s family accompanied a large party to the new Massachusetts Bay Colony. She reports that upon arriving, “I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose.” This does not mean that she was delighted, but rather that she felt some amount of trepidation and possibly anger. We know this because she then says, “But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston.”
Simon and Anne Bradstreet were at first unable to have children, but she eventually gave birth to five daughters and three sons. Their life in Massachusetts was not without controversy. They were in town for the trial of Anne Hutchinson, at which Simon Bradstreet was to utter the words, “I am not against all women’s meetings but do think them to be lawful.” (Selma Williams, Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, 154) However, the family was not on the whole sympathetic to Hutchinson’s teachings, and the expulsion of this group from the colony no doubt served as a cautionary tale for any women who considered dabbling in theological matters.
The English Civil War of the 1640s was a source of consternation not only for Puritans allied with Oliver Cromwell in England, but also for the British settlers in Massachusetts. One of Anne Bradstreet’s poems, “A Dialogue between Old England and New”, speaks to what she perceived were the causes of the war. However, neither she nor her family rejoiced in this conflict, even after Charles I was captured. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, traveled to England in 1647 to aid the negotiations with the king, taking with him some of Anne’s poems – apparently without her knowledge. In 1650, a book of Anne’s poetry was released under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Anne struggled in her role as a poet, desiring to improve her work and have it outlive her, but at the same time holding to the Puritan ideals of humility and the need to not elevate self or chase after the things of this world. She was often torn between individual and communal impulses, believing that the intense passions in her heart were not entirely in line with orthodox Christian belief. Yet, we see in her poems many wonderful explorations of spiritual themes: the glories of God’s creation, the working of the Lord in history, the battle between flesh and spirit in believers, the value of heavenly over earthly treasure, etc.
Perhaps the best summation of Anne Bradstreet’s character can be found in the prologue that John Woodbridge wrote for The Tenth Muse.
“It is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discrete managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments.”
Anne Bradstreet died in 1672. Her husband, Simon Bradstreet, remarried and went on to govern the colony for a time. Anne’s writings are a wonderful resource for those looking for a layperson’s perspective on Puritan life in early America, as well as the reactions of the colonists to events taking place in England.
The definitive edition of her writings, The Works of Anne Bradstreet, is published as part of the John Harvard Library series, edited by Jeannine Hensley.
A popular introduction has recently been published by Evangelical Press here.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.