One thing most people believe about the Puritans is that they never doubted the existence of God. But almost any spiritual autobiography you read, from Governor John Winthrop to minister Thomas Shepard to any number of the average people whose names you don’t know who recorded their stories of spiritual seeking, includes a passage–or two–wherein they seriously question whether there is a God.
Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet was no different. In her letter “To my dear children”, the famous first poet of English America, who verses are too often taught today as the ponderous and unquestioning martyred submission of the human will to God’s harsh law and punishment, speaks openly about her doubts:
Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of, how did I know but they were feigned?
—Bradstreet sometimes doubts that the Bible is really the word of God. She’s never seen a miracle, she’s only read about them in the Bible. If they are real, why hasn’t anyone she knows ever seen a miracle? Is the Bible lying?
That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the day providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end. The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being.
—Bradstreet seems to switch gears, but she is still pursuing the question of whether there is a God. If the Bible is not really God’s word, how does she know there is a God? By looking at the grandeur and mystery of nature—a common theme in Protestantism (as compared with Catholicism, which denigrated the physical world as utterly fallen and sinful). Bradstreet says what Protestants in America have said for centuries since: look at the wonder of nature and the universe, and know there is a God.
But how should I know He is such a God as I worship in Trinity, and such a Saviour as I rely upon?
—Okay, so there’s a God that created the universe. How does Bradstreet know that our human definition of God, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is the right one? How can the God who creates the infinitely unknowable universe be so well and easily known? There could be a God who does not care about humans, who has no tie to humanity at all other than creating them. No salvation, no sin, no nothing. Maybe God is real but religion is a man-made myth.
Though this hath thousands of times been suggested to me, yet God hath helped me over. I have argued thus with myself. That there is a God, I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must be it or none. Have I not found that operation by it that no human invention can work upon the soul, hath not judgments befallen diverse who have scorned and contemned it, hath it not been preserved through all ages [despite] all the heathen tyrants and all of the enemies who have opposed it? Is there any story but that high shows the beginnings of times, and how the word came to be as we see? Do we not know the prophecies in it fulfilled which could not have been so long foretold by any but God Himself?
—Now we circle back to the original question about the Bible’s authenticity: there is a God, and his most clear revelation of himself is not in unknowable, unreachable nature/the universe, but in his readable, understandable Word. And look at what she has seen with her own eyes: the Bible’s “operation” works on the soul like no “human invention” can—people who search the Bible find messages that change them fundamentally and permanently. People who scoff at the Bible are brought down, and it has endured for centuries despite efforts to oppose it. It brings even the creation of the universe and the Earth down to human scale, describing God’s creation in an understandable way.
When I have got over this block, then have I another put in my way, that admit this be true God whom we worship, and that be his word, yet why many not the Popish religion be the right? They have the same God, the same Christ, the same word. They only interpret it one way, we another.
—It’s remarkable that, like so many of her fellow Puritans, Bradstreet experiences resilient, intelligent, long-term doubt. Her doubts about God are not easily resolved. The famous minister Thomas Shepard had the same doubt about Protestantism itself, the cause which he and Bradstreet and all the Puritans gave up everything and suffered greatly to support and defend. What’s so wrong with Catholicism? Don’t they worship the same God and read the same Bible? Wasn’t the Catholic church *the* Christian church for centuries? If it was wrong all that time, then isn’t the Bible it condoned and the Christ it worshipped also wrong?
This hath sometimes stuck with me, and more it would, but the vain fooleries that are in their religion together with their lying miracles and cruel persecutions of the saints, which admit were they as they term they, yet not so to be dealt with withal.
The consideration of these things and many the like would soon turn me to my own religion again.
—It’s only the “vain fooleries” of Catholicism that remind Bradstreet that Catholicism is not valid. It took a real God and his real Word and bastardized both, turning to worship of the saints and “lying” miracles to support it, and persecuting people who worshipped more purely.
But some new troubles I have had since the world has been filled with blasphemy and sectaries, and some who have been accounted sincere Christians have been carried away with them, that sometimes I have said, “Is there faith upon the earth?” and I have not know what to think; but then I have remembered the words of Christ that so it must be, and if it were possible, the very elect should be deceived. “Behold,” saith our Savior, “I have told you before.” That hath stayed my heart, and I can now say, “Return, O my Soul, to thy rest, upon this rock Christ Jesus will I build my faith, and if I perish, I perish”; bit I know all the Powers of Hell shall never prevail against it. I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that He is able to keep that I have committed to His charge.
—Still the doubt endures. Bradstreet, like so many Americans who came after her, looks at religion and society and sees both perverted by “blasphemy and sectaries”—that is, people who say they are good Christians support radical religious sects that make a mockery of God’s word and lead people into sin. This leads Bradstreet to wonder if anyone really believes in God at all, or just their own selfish and dangerous desires and prejudices.
But she recalls that the Bible says that in the end times, this is exactly what will and must happen in order to bring about Christ’s return. The whole world has to go to pot for Christ to be able to return and restore order (for a while). This “stays” her heart, and leads Bradstreet to say that she will cling to Christ and her religion as best she can, and if that means she dies in the run-up to the apocalypse, destroyed by fake Christians, so be it. She will be redeemed in Heaven, as He is able to keep that which she has committed (her soul and trust) to His charge.
This section on atheism consists of about half of Bradstreet’s letter to her children, which means it was not thrown in as a token “Oh, I had some token doubts but it wasn’t serious—it’s so clear that there’s a God and that we understand him properly!” For Bradstreet, as for many Puritans, atheism was a reoccurring option. It makes sense, as these were people who valued logic and debate and intellect—they had an active interest in the fledgling Scientific Revolution building throughout the 17th century, and were some of the first English Americans to try to create a rational basis for religion. They were loathe to simply “believe”, and we see this in the conversion narratives of very average people—farmers, servants, housewives—where they describe their constant rational questioning of spiritual experience, always asking themselves, “How do I know that this spiritual experience I had was really from God, really an evidence of God, and not something I constructed out of my own will, desire, and imagination?”
The Puritans repay objective study, as they were deeply engaged with questions that continue to exercise our modern minds.
3 thoughts on “Anne Bradstreet, atheist”
and Mortalism in its pure form has been considered a very rare phenomenon in early seventeenth century England but it may well have been more common than the documentary evidence has so far indicated.
Interesting, but she sounds more like an agnostic (one who doubts, questions, “does not know,” etc.) than an atheist. I think your title is misleading.
It is a little misleading; the HP equivalent of click bait. She overcame her temptation toward atheism and agnosticism to believe in God, and whole-heartedly described herself as Christian. It’s just fascinating to know how many famous, flagship Puritans not only doubted there was a God, but doubted the cause of Protestantism itself.