Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather's autobiography falls closest to the journal on our spectrum because Mather constructed it using passages from his own journals, which he sometimes extensively "expand[ed] and embellished" but often simply reproduced "verbatim" (Shea 165-166). This editing practice, which minimizes the "retrospective" quality typical of most autobiographies, enhances the sense that the reader is granted immediate access to Mather's (temporally variable) self (Shea 154). Nevertheless, Paterna can hardly be considered an unfiltered glimpse into Mather's inner life. Mather began the work when his son, Increase, was a year old, intending to give it to the child as a sort of life guide, and Shea observes that despite its origin in the journals it is remarkably "impersonal": "In one sense, it seems, Puritan autobiography has only found a new way to be impersonal when a father can leave his son neither possessions nor expressions of feeling, but only Things, Talents, and with definitive finality, monitors" (Shea 167-168). Some of this distance may have been generated by Mather's possible occasional intention to circulate the autobiography more widely (Shea 169-170, Bosco xxxvii-xxxix); Richard Bosco has argued that his refusal to include many specific details lends the narrative "the illusion of objectivity and truthfulness" (Bosco lv). The reader should remember, however, that Mather likely also conceived of Paterna as a "literary vehicle for self-examination, meditation, and self-evaluation," as was common Puritan practice (Bosco xxxix-xl). Even if the specific details of Mather's life cannot be gleaned from the narrative, certain aspects of his personality are evident in his choice of subject matter as well as his editing method. The following passage, for instance, although tragically humorous to a 21st century reader, belies intensity bordering on obsession, as well as a tendency to think metaphorically which threads through the entire work:

I lost abundance of Precious Time, thro' Tormenting Pains in my Teeth and Jawes: which kind of Pains have indeed Produced me many a Sad Hour, in my short Pilgrimage. In the Pains that were about this Time upon me, I Sett Myself, as well as I could for my Pains, to Search and Try my Wayes.

I considered,

Have I not Sinned with my Teeth? How? By Sinful, Graceless, Excessive Eating. And by Evil Speaches: (for there are Literae Dentales used in them!) The Lord thus Taught me, to Gett Good out of Every Thing. May Hee Teach Thee also, My Son!

At last, by a Course of Washing behind my Ears, & on ye Top of my Head, with Cold Water, I obtained a Deliverance from these Uneasinesses. (Mather 31)

Indeed, it is difficult not to locate humanity in a speaker who so often depicts himself "prostrate on [his] Study-floor, with [his] Mouth in the Dust," as pleased to compare high stature to "High Attainments" as he is that "About Eleven years afterward, ye prayer had a remarkable Answer" (87, 56, 25). Even if one considers the author to be quite removed from the speaker, this speaker argues for the selfhood of the man who created him. According to Bosco, the manuscript was initially completed and given to son Increase around 1702 (Bosco xix); after Increase was charged with fathering a child in 1717 (amongst other misadventures), Mather returned to the manuscript, redirected it to his other son, Samuel, and worked on it intermittently during the years between 1717 and 1727 (Bosco xxiv-xxxi). Samuel received the manuscript in 1727 and referred to it when writing Cotton Mather's biography (Bosco xxxi). Interestingly, Paterna was not published until Richard Bosco's 1975 edition (Bosco iii); thus this most self-conscious articulation of the selfhood of Cotton Mather, a figure so influential during his own lifetime, was effectively silenced until over two centuries after his death.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edward's "Personal Narrative" was probably written for purposes similar to those for which he published the "Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions in Northampton and Vicinity": to quell the skepticism of naysayers who doubted the validity of the Great Awakening (Shea 188-189). As such, and because it was written years after the actual conversion experience, it may be considered self-aware, removed both temporally and narratively from the conversion experience itself (at least if one does not subscribe to the view, as Payne does, that it is the autobiography which brings the conversion into existence) (Shea 190). Nevertheless, as Imbarrato points out, Edwards describes his conversion in a singularly "poetic voice," thus modifying the conventions of spiritual autobiography to express a unique self: "Edwards brings the aspirant out onto the landscape and asserts the self in new ways through a most traditional form. Metaphorically, conversion is an affirmation of subjectivity; it is the individual's most personal articulation of spirituality" (33, 38). In his privileging of the self and attention to the natural world, Edwards gestures toward the Romantic writers, who would celebrate the self more fervently than any American authors who preceded them (Imbarrato 1, 35).

The "Personal Narrative" was written at some point after 1739; Samuel Hopkins published it in 1765 (Baym 440-441). Like Mather, then, Edwards represents a highly influential figure whose greatest attempt at self-expression was suppressed until after his death. Although Hopkins clearly had some editorial authority over the work, it is probably safe to say that he made very few editorial changes to it (although, the manuscript having been lost, it is difficult to claim this with absolute certainty) (Shea 189). I have located the "Personal Narrative" near "Journal" on our continuum because, next to Mather's Paterna, it represents the narrative of the six included here over which the author had the greatest amount of editorial control.

David Brainerd

The Life of David Brainerd was composed by Jonathan Edwards using Brainerd's diaries after Brainerd died in the Edwards home on October 10, 1747, of tuberculosis (which he transmitted to Edwards's daughter, Jerusha, with tragic consequences) (Pettit 70-72). Although Edwards essentially "allowed the Indian missionary's diary to speak for itself," he did engage in extensive editing, particularly to the end of downplaying Brainerd's chronic depression, which Edwards found troubling (Shea 189, Pettit 19). Certainly "the editing did not disguise the melancholy tone of the text, nor did Edwards try to disguise it" (Pettit 22). Yet one need only compare the following two passages (both from pp. 131-133 of Pettit's edition) to see that Edwards's editing, in its attempts to contain Brainerd's melancholy, at times significantly affected both the tone and the content of the text:

Brainerd: "...and hence felt something eased of all that distress I felt while struggling against a sight of myself, and of the divine sovereignty. I felt something like a criminal at the bar waiting for his sentence, excepting this, I felt but little concern which way my case went, for the fear of hell was almost if not entirely taken away from me. I had the greatest certainty that my state was forever unalterable by anything that I could do, and wondered and was almost astonished that I had never been sensible of it before because it had now the clearest demonstration of it. And in this case I felt neither love to God, or desire of heaven as I used to think I did. Neither fear of hell, or love to the present world. Indeed I had rather be, or suffer anything than return to my former course of carelessness. I thought my convictions were all gone and that seemed dreadful. But I thought I could but go to hell, and that I had no sense of, nor could I make it appear dreadful as formerly. Indeed I seemed to feel wholly destitute of any happiness or hopes and expectations of happiness either in the present or coming world, and yet felt no considerable degree of misery sensibly, though I felt indeed something so far bordering upon despair of any satisfying good that it appeared almost as comfortable to think of being annihilated as anything that I then knew of, though I can truly say I was not willing for that neither. My whole soul was unspeakably bewildered and lost in myself and I knew of nothing that seemed likely to make me happy, in case I could with the greatest ease have obtained the best good that I had any conception of. And being that lost I became a suitable object for the compassion of Jesus Christ to be set upon, since he came 'to seek and to save that which is lost' (Luke 19:10)."

Edwards: "The tumult that had been before in my mind was now quieted; and I was something eased of that distress which I felt while struggling against a sight of myself, and of the divine sovereignty. I had the greatest certainty that my state was forever miserable, for all that I could do; and wondered, and was almost astonished, that I had never been sensible of it before."

The Life of David Brainerd is near the center of the continuum because, although much of the diary stands untouched, Edwards's editorial hand was occasionally quite heavy. Certainly scholars have raised the question of whether this can rightfully be called "a 'biography' or even a 'work' of Edwards"; nevertheless, as Pettit points out, the text is controlled by Edwards's intentions to "teach by example," and as such constitutes as much his work as that of his subject (71-74).

Sarah Pierpont Edwards

Sarah Pierpont Edwards, Jonathan Edward's vivacious, articulate wife, experienced her own conversion during a period of her husband's absence, apparently in response to her feelings of jealousy over the warm reception extended to a competing minister by the congregation (Gustafson 203-204, Goen 69). When Jonathan returned, he asked Sarah to record her experience, and she complied, supplying him with raw material for "Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival" (Goen 69-70). Although Edwards had rewritten other women's conversion narratives (most notably those of Abigail Hutchinson and Phoebe Bartlett), Sarah was the only one of these subjects who "was both mature and alive" at the time he rewrote her experience (Gustafson 203). It is difficult to say how much input Sarah had over Jonathan's revisions, but the surviving text of her original narrative, available in Sereno Dwight's The Works of President Edwards, allows us to see what he changed. Although heavily edited by her husband, Sarah Edwards's spiritual autobiography (as it appeared in Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival) was based upon her own relation.

Jonathan Edwards created two different versions of Sarah's relation, "one a defensive text designed to shore up his waning pastoral authority, the other an abstract example of revival piety" (Gustafson 203); thus his motivations in rewriting Sarah's words were quite similar to those which compelled him to publish David Brainerd's narrative. Sarah's motivations may also have been quite transparent: she could easily have recorded her narrative for any of the purposes discussed above (introspection; self-assertion; piety) or simply to please her husband. Yet Sandra Gustafson suggests another possible motivation: to subtly undermine her husband's authority. In Gustafson's reading of Sarah's original relation, Sarah, angry with Jonathan for having scolded her, used her narrative to replace her husband's authority with the higher authority of God (204). Although Jonathan in turn attempted to contain this protest by editorially desexing Sarah, he effectively only draws attention to the fact of the body with his conspicuous efforts to efface it (Gustafson 206). Thus, according to Gustafson, Jonathan's rewriting fails to control Sarah's expression, just as it fails to testify to the emotional tenor of conversion so apparent in Sarah's original narrative (Payne 25).

In order to illustrate the range of expression arising out of this one narrative, I have included both the original text of Sarah's narrative, as excerpted by Sereno Dwight, and the edited version included in Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival.

Patience Boston

Patience Boston's narrative is one of two in this study which falls into a complicated subgenre: that of the criminal conversion narrative. Like the broader conversion narrative tradition of which it is a part, the criminal narrative began as an oral practice, specifically with the execution speeches given by condemned criminals and the sermons that complemented them (Williams Pillars 4). As the genre developed, criminal testimony began to be published separate of the sermons which originally accompanied them, and Patience Boston's account (following Joseph Quasson's, published approximately a decade earlier) was among the first of these stand-alone narratives (Cohen 14). Although ministers' motivations for creating these narratives were similar to those for publishing any conversion narrative, the condemned criminal served not only to illustrate successful, genuine conversions, but also "to give warnings" (regarding the fate of the impenitent sinner) "and to offer encouragement" (that reform is possible for anyone) (Williams Pillars x). Thus the criminal functioned simultaneously as an example of what to be and what not to be, and often the criminals cooperated in this role, finding that it was an avenue for symbolic reentry into the society which had rejected them (Henigman 80, 87). This was perhaps particularly true for Patience Boston, who, as a Native American woman who married into slavery, occupied a position of multiple marginality in a community which likely shunned her long before she was condemned for the murder of her master's son (Henigman 83).

Most of Patience Boston's narrative is related in the first person, framed by an introduction and a several page summary of the final days of Boston's life. Samuel and Joseph Moody famously claimed that Boston's narrative was "taken from her Mouth" (admittedly with some changes in her "Way of expressing her self"), and it is of course natural to be skeptical that the published document was in fact "faithful" to Boston's supposed relation (Boston 119). As Daniel Cohen points out, however, most ministers would not only have hesitated to fabricate narratives on moral grounds, but also would have been deterred from doing so by the many witnesses who attended to the convict during the days leading up to execution (Cohen 42). Assuming that the narratives were not largely invented, Cohen interprets the increased willingness on the part of ministers to "concede a literary voice to the prisoners themselves" as a symptom of the coming Great Awakening: "[criminal conversion narratives] prefigured, even as they promoted, a massive upsurge of popular evangelism in New England by the early 1740s" (59). Considering this political atmosphere, it is not unreasonable to suspect that Patience Boston's first-person narrative allowed for more than the illusion of self-articulation. If this is the case, it would more than explain why Boston's narrative repeatedly destabilizes itself by painstakingly drawing attention to each instance of her compulsive lying. This pattern may have arisen from reasonable insecurity over the issue of Boston's credibility, but its effect is that of persistent instability; it is as though Boston (the person) were attempting to undermine the stated goals of Boston (the character) by suggesting that she, however repentant, remains an unreliable witness. Although Boston's narrative lies to the side of biography on our spectrum, her voice is far from effaced by the Moodys' editorial controls.

Joseph Quasson

Joseph Quasson's narrative is arguably the least autobiographical of the six we are surveying. Quasson was executed for murdering an acquaintance (possibly unintentionally, as the friend succumbed to his injuries days after their encounter) on August 28, 1725, after being attended for weeks by the local minister, Samuel Moody. Published by Boston's Samuel Gerrish at the request of Moody, Quasson's story consists of a brief first-person narrative, followed by an extended third-person summary of Quasson's speech and actions during the period leading up to his execution. Like Patience Boston, Joseph Quasson possessed Native American heritage, and his narrative could be described as an extended extrapolation of the "drunken Indian" stereotype which persisted into the 19th century (and beyond) thanks to writers like James Fenimore Cooper. This stereotype appears frequently throughout the publication, both in the first-person narrative and in the appended materials (Quasson repeatedly refers to his Drinking and laments that he is a "poor Indian," and Moody does his part to bring these facts into focus) (Quasson 6). The stereotype here appears in stark contrast to Boston's narrative, which, although also admitting to her drunkenness, hardly mentions her race at all. As Quasson's narrative so vigorously reinforces stereotypes, and as the relation "taken from his Mouth" spans only the first nine of 41 pages, I find this narrative to be the least likely candidate for self-expression of the six.

Nevertheless, Quasson's narrative, like Patience Boston's, "constitute[s] a dramatic exception to the rule of exclusion" applied to Native Americans, for in allowing even a fictionalized Quasson to be heard Moody "boldly privileged the spiritual insights and subjective experiences" of an unlikely protagonist (Cohen 79). As a narrative unappended to an execution sermon, Quasson's was the first of its kind, and its appearance in the same year as Cotton Mather's "last crime pamphlet" signaled a wider generic shift (from the clerical to the congregational voice) in accord with the approaching Great Awakening (Cohen 69-70). By removing the sermon, the minister shifted the focus to Quasson's voice even as his may have suppressed that voice with his editing techniques. That criminality might be described as the only path to recognition for Quasson, or Boston after him, is tragic; yet the fact remains that they, and not Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, were granted a public forum (or at the very least, the privilege of being portrayed as exemplars of conversion) during these formative years of evangelicalism.


Introduction                            Chronology                            Genre                            Summary

"Such a Means of Promoting His Work Amongst Us":
Evangelicalism and Autobiography in Early American Conversion Narratives

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