Death, piety, and social engagement in the life of the seventeenth century London artisan, Nehemiah Wallington
Oswald, Robert Meredith Trey
Previous studies of the seven extant manuscripts of the seventeenth century Londoner, Nehemiah Wallington, have focused on the psychological effects of Puritan theology as the cause for his deep spiritual crisis and for his uncontrollable urge to document his inner mental and emotional experiences in a diary or journal. This thesis takes a somewhat different approach, starting from a prominent and recurrent theme in Wallington’s manuscripts: his thoughts of and experiences with death. From an early age, Wallington lost close family members to illness. Four of his five children died in early childhood. He lived through outbreaks of plague, and recorded into his manuscripts casualties wrought by civil war and inexplicable accidents that took place around him in the City of London. Evidence from what Wallington wrote about these events in his manuscripts indicates that he responded to his frequent encounters with human mortality through his understanding and practice of Puritan theology and piety. Responding to death through religious belief and observance was not an innovation: some have argued that the late medieval Catholic Church in England provided, through the Mass and the doctrine of purgatory, ways to respond to death that brought comfort and inspired fresh engagement with the world. Yet scholars have tended to see Wallington’s recourse to Puritan religion as something that made him want to throw his life away in suicidal despair, rather than as a means to ease his sorrows and encourage him to engage with society again (in other words, as a means to come to terms with death which in some ways paralleled the momentum of older Catholic devotion, but in a new and distinctively Reformed context). Studies of Wallington’s despair have focused only on a particular youthful episode. However, this thesis will look at the theme of death over Wallington’s lifelong pursuit of Puritan theology and piety. From an examination of his seven extant manuscripts, it will show not only how Wallington turned to Puritan theology and piety in the face of death, but also how his understanding and approach changed over time. His response developed from a compulsive emotional reaction to a clear strategy that involved reflecting on death in his own experiences of loss, as well as in the Bible and other printed materials, all of which he recorded in his manuscripts for others to read. Wallington’s decision to write down his reflections led him out of despair and the temptation to abandon his life, to express in his later manuscripts an active desire to engage with the world around him out of faith and trust in the vivifying power of Christ. The thesis starts with an introduction to Nehemiah Wallington and his context, and to the theme of death in his extant manuscripts (chapter one). Next, it explores how Wallington responded to his encounters with death by taking up writing, an activity that developed from an urgent need to keep a personal daybook of his sins to a more deliberate attempt to write for others (chapter two). After this, the thesis considers how Wallington’s early response to death inspired his attempt to construct a ‘self’ through his understanding of the Christian doctrine of mortification (chapter three). Then it provides a fresh account of Wallington’s suicide attempts: how his attempt to construct a ‘self’ through mortification initially led him to despair and to the temptation to negate his ‘self’ and his life in the world (chapter four). Following this, the thesis goes beyond the account of despair to argue that Wallington overcame his temptation to commit suicide and resolved to engage with the world around him, by meditating on and studying death (chapter five). Finally, the thesis shows how the evidence presented in earlier chapters gives a fresh perspective on Wallington, and suggests how this might contribute to a better understanding of continuity and change in the piety of seventeenth century Reformed Christianity (chapter six).