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Heaven and Heavenly Piety in Colonial American Elegies

  • Adrian Chastain Weimer (a1)


When the Massachusetts schoolteacher Benjamin Tompson pictured his unmarried sister Elizabeth in heaven, he saw her in a palace-like ‘nunnerye’ where ‘Chast virgins have faire entertainment free’. Elizabeth and the other virgins in heaven ‘Enjoy their purest love in sacred mirth’ as ‘Great Jesus daily steps of his bright throne/And gives them hart embraces every one.’ Colonial Puritan elegies such as this one challenge our inherited scholarly categories, which contrast a spiritualized Christian heaven with a corporeal Muslim one and set ‘a distant, majestic [Protestant] God’ in opposition to the intimate afterlife of medieval Catholic mystics. The most interesting part about Elizabeth Tompson’s elegy, however, is that she narrates it herself. Benjamin imagined her speaking to him from the bosom of Christ, saying ‘I Dare not tell what hear in heart i find’, and then going on to describe her experience of the afterlife in the first person. Christ leads her to the top of a ‘mount of pleasure’ where, she says, ‘i [have] all [the] flowers of paradice to Crop.’ A Protestant saint embracing a physical Jesus, picking flowers to her heart’s content, and telling her brother about it – these are all images which challenge our notions of early modern views of heaven and demonstrate the fruitfulness of elegies, or funeral poems, for opening up the imaginative worlds of early modern belief.



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1 Tompson, Benjamin, ‘The Amiable Virgin Memorized – Elizabeth Tompson’ (1712), in Murdock, Kenneth, ed., Handkerchiefs from Paul (New York, 1970), 910.

2 Almond, Philip, Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England (New York, 1994), 105 ; McDannell, Colleen and Lang, Bernhard, Heaven: A History (London, 2001), 17678.

3 Davis, Natalie Zemon, ‘Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France’, Daedalus 106 (1977), 87114 , at 92, 96; Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (New York, 1970), 603 . See also Brady, Andrea, English Funerary Elegy in the Seventeenth Century: Laws in Mourning (New York, 2006), 53.

4 Green, Ian, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (New York, 2000), 383 ; Hall, David D., ‘Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century New England: An Introduction and Checklist’, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 115 (2006), 2980 , at 35–36; Geddes, Gordon, Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England (Ann Arbor, MI, 1981), 130.

5 Shepard, Thomas, A Short Catechism familiarly teaching the knowledg [sic] of God, and of our selves… (Cambridge, [MA], 1654), 11.

6 Trueman, Carl R., ‘Heaven and Hell in Puritan Theology’, Epworth Review 22 (1995), 7585 . It is true, however, that even in their works on heaven, New England Puritans spent some time describing the pains of hell.

7 Hambrick-Stowe, Charles, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seven teenth Century New-England (Chapel Hill, NC, 1982), 219.

8 Ibid. 152; Bush, Sargent Jr, The Writings of Thomas Hooker: Spiritual Adventure in Two Worlds (Madison, WI, 1980), 299 ; Trueman, ‘Heaven and Hell’.

9 Mather, Cotton, Ecclesiastes, The Life of the Reverend & Excellent Jonathan Mitchel: a Pastor of the church … (Boston, [MA], 1697), 105.

10 Lewalski, Barbara, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-century Religious Lyric (Princeton, NJ, 1979), 16264.

11 Ibid. 166.

12 Shepard, Thomas, Theses Sabbaticae: Or, The doctrine of the Sabbath … (London, 1650), 79 ; Hambrick-Stowe, , Practice of Piety, 98 . Though not devotional manuals, early New England treatises on the afterlife include Jonathan Mitchel’s A discourse of the glory to which God hath called believers by Jesus Christ… (London, 1677; Boston, [MA], 1721) and Increase Mather, Meditations on the glory of the heavenly world (Boston, [MA], 1711).

13 For a view that emphasizes the ‘great gulf’ and ‘marked contrast’ between earth and heaven in seventeenth-century thought, epitomized by the contrast between ‘suffering’ and ‘felicity’, see Almond, Heaven and Hell, 110.

14 Taylor, Edward, Meditation 1.29, in The Poems of Edward Taylor, ed. Stanford, Donald E. (Chapel Hill, NC, 1989), 47.

15 Woodbridge, Benjamin, ‘Upon the TOMB of the most Reverend Mr. John Cotton…’, in Meserole, Harrison T., American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (University Park, PA, 1985), 410 ; Hale, R., ‘Epitaph for Nathanael Mather’, in Mather, Cotton, Early piety, exemplified in the life and death of Mr. Nathanael Mather … (London, 1689), 60 ; Tompson, Benjamin, ‘A short memorial & Revew of sum Vertues in that exemplary Christian Mary Tompson …’ (1679), in Murdock, , ed., Handkerchiefs, 5.

16 Danforth, John, ‘Profit and Loss: An Elegy Upon the Decease of Mrs. Mary Gerrish…’ (1710), in Meserole, , American Poetry, 31719.

17 Mather, Cotton, Coelestinus: A conversation in heaven, quickened and assisted by Cotton Mather (London, 1723), 3942, 54.

18 Fiske, John, ‘Upon the much-to-be lamented desease of the Reverend Mr John Cotton …’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 187.

19 Saffin, John, ‘An Elegie On the Deploreable Departure of the Honered and truly Religious Chieftain John Hull…’ (1683), in Meserole, , American Poetry, 20102 ; Mather, Cotton, An elegy on the much-to-be-deplored death of that never-to-be-forgotten person, the Reverend Nathanael Collins… (Boston, [MA], 1684), 17.

20 Mather, Cotton, Nathanael Collins, 20.

21 Anon., , Upon the death of the virtuous and religious Mrs. Lydia Minot… (Cambridge, [MA], 1668). On pastoral imagery, see Knott, John, ‘Milton’s Heaven’, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 85 (1970), 48795 , at 487–88. In spite of a lack of consensus among Protestant theologians on the ability of the soul to experience full bliss before reunion with the body at the resurrection, most colonists did not seem bothered by the problem. Spellman, William M., ‘Between Death and Judgment: Conflicting Images of the Afterlife in Late Seventeenth-Century English Eulogies’, HThR 87 (1994), 4965 , at 49–51; Brady, , English Funerary Elegy, 4142 ; Trueman, , ‘Heaven and Hell’, 7677.

22 Tompson, , ‘Edmund Davie’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 223 ; on Renaissance court imagery, see Knott, , ‘Milton’s Heaven’, 48889 . For more on angels in early modern culture, including their common role, also found in the elegies, of escorting saints to heaven, see Marshall, Peter, ‘Angels around the Deathbed: Variations on a Theme in the English Art of Dying’, in Walsham, Alexandra and Marshall, Peter, eds, Angels in the Early Modern World (New York, 2006), 83103 , at 85, 94, 98.

23 Wilson, , ‘Anagram made by mr John Willson of Boston upon the Death of Mrs. Abigaill Tompson…’, in Murdock, , ed., Handkerchiefs, 89.

24 Taylor, , ‘An Elegy upon the Death of that Holy and Reverend Man of God, Mr. Samuel Hooker’, in Poems of Edward Taylor (New Haven, CT, 1960), 483.

25 Wilson, , ‘Anagram’, in Murdock, , ed., Handkerchiefs, 89.

26 Witherel, William, Upon the immature death of that virtuous and truly religious young woman Elizabeth Stetson … (Boston, [MA], 1682).

27 Danforth, Samuel, ‘William Tompson, anagram I; lo, now i am past ill’, and ‘anagram 2: now i am slipt home’, in Murdock, , ed., Handkerchiefs, 1920.

28 Fiske, John, ‘Ad Matronam pietissimam spectatissimamque Ipsius domini vixit Conthoralem dilectissimam Sobolemque eique Charissimum John Cotton’, in Jantz, Harold, ed., First Century of New England Verse (New York, 1962), 122.

29 Woodbridge, , ‘Upon the TOMB of the most Reverend Mr. John Cotton …’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 411.

30 Oakes, Urian, ‘An Elegie upon that Reverend, Learned, Eminently Pious, and Singularly Accomplished Divine, my ever Honoured BROTHER Mr. Thomas Shepard …’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 211.

31 Hammond, Jeffrey, The American Puritan Elegy (Cambridge, 2000), 157.

32 Norton, John, Abel being Dead Yet Speaketh (Boston, [MA], 1658), 3.

33 Morton, Nathaniel, New Englands Memoriall (Cambridge, [MA], 1669), 187. See also Danforth, John, A funeral elegy humbly dedicated to the renowned memory of the Honorable, Thomas Danforth Esq. of Cambridge … (Boston, [MA], 1699); Colman, Benjamin, ‘A POEM on ELIJAHS Translation, Occasion’d by the DEATH of… Samuel Willard’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 34346.

34 Oakes, Urian, ‘Thomas Shepard’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 219.

35 Anon., , ‘Lines on the Death of Rev. Zechariah Symmes’, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 13 (1859), 207.

36 James, John, ‘On the Decease of the Religious and Honourable Jno Haynes’ (1713), in Meserole, , American Poetry, 426.

37 Danforth, John, “Two vast Enjoyments commemorated, and two great Bereavements lamented, in two excellent Persons, viz. the Reverend Mr. PETER THACHER … And the Reverend Mr. SAMUEL DANFORTH …’, in Meserole, , American Poetry, 314.

38 Hall, David D., Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 295 n. 130.

39 Brady, , English Funerary Elegy, 20910 ; Hammond, , American Puritan Elegy, 148.

40 Firmin, Giles, Meditations upon Mr. Baxter’s review of his treatise of the duty of heavenly meditation … (London, 1672), 9 . See also Baxter, Richard, The Duty of Heavenly Meditation: reviewed by Richard Baxter at the invitation of Mr. Giles Firmin’s exceptions… (London, 1671), 4.

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Heaven and Heavenly Piety in Colonial American Elegies

  • Adrian Chastain Weimer (a1)


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