What would it be like to have a book on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly 100 years? I know of such a book: If only there were a New York Times bestseller list at the time of its publication, and if only there were a state of New York. This book was published in 1662. The title was The Day of Doom and the author was Michael Wigglesworth.
Why should we care about this obscure, old book? Wigglesworth was the Stephen King, the Lady Gaga of his time. His book was a prime piece of popular culture from our past that will give us a better understanding of Puritans and possibly give us a better understanding of ourselves.
The Day of Doom is a 224-stanza poem written by a Calvinist minister in New England. This long poem was memorized by thousands of Puritans in the American colonies. One out of 20 people in New England owned a copy of the book. No original copies exist today because it is believed that they were actually read to pieces.
One edition of today’s New York Times newspaper has more information in it than the average person in Colonial America may have come across in their entire lifetime. This poem would take up a large amount of newsprint. And to think that they would chose to allow this poem to occupy so large a chunk of their gray matter was remarkable and worthwhile of some study.
The Day of Doom is not a well-written poem. The poem has a mechanical narrative and abundant, emphatic rhymes. Wigglesworth and his readers never believed that it was well written and they didn’t care. He didn’t seek fame and fortune. It is a single-minded and bleak poem filled with souls frantically searching for a way out of hell while an unwavering God looks over them on Judgment Day.
Wigglesworth used this poem as a tool to hammer home his message so he could teach even the least educated person.
Listen to some excerpts:
You that could preach, and others teach
what way to life doth lead;
Why were you slack to find that track,
and in that way to tread?
How could you bear to see or hear
of others freed at last,
From Satan’s pawes, whilst in his jawes
your selves were held more fast?
Some people argue that Puritan ideas still shape America today. The Day of Doom is a vivid example of the Calvinistic hold on America’s past and how its doctrine influenced a people and ultimately a nation.
In Calvinism, material success on earth became a sign of God’s grace. Thrift, hard work, and wealth became a form of moral virtue, a visible sign of your ability to enter heaven. Americans still covet material success even though the spiritual aspect of it has morphed into something far more secular.
The Puritans believed that they were God’s chosen people. There is only heaven and hell, and right and wrong; Puritans identified with the winning side. Today God still occupies our bleacher seats and cheers us on to battle the “evil empires” wherever they may arise from next.
With a small stretch of the imagination, you could compare The Day of Doom to rap music. In both, the rhymes are constant and lyrics can be memorized quickly. Both are part of the popular culture of its time.
Listen to more from The Day of Doom:
Like as of old, when Men grow bold
No heart so bold, but now grows cold
At Christ’s right hand the Sheep do stand
At Christ’s left hand the Goats do stand
Listen to Eminem in his song 8 Mile:
Sometimes I just feel like, quittin I still might
Why do I put up this fight, why do I still write
Sometimes it’s hard enough just dealin with real life
These abundant, simple rhymes make it easier to remember, but the overall effect makes it sound abrupt. Actually, Eminem appears to be the better writer of the two. For Wigglesworth, nearly any words may do, as long as they rhyme with each other and people learn his lessons.
Doomsday, 21st century style, may include nuclear weapons or a meteor hurtling from space. But the past is not dead, unbroken threads still bind us to it. The Day of Doom should not be forgotten; it is Puritan thought distilled, and it readily connects us to our past.
In a few hundred years from now, what will people think about our pop cultural obsessions? How will the popularity of Eminem today illuminate our times to a future audience?
Or more intriguingly, what thread of influence could Eminem carry forward into this future?