Martha Mudge Wigglesworth, 1662–1690
Martha Mudge Wigglesworth was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1662. I learned about her from the 1912 book Certain Comeoverers by the fantastically-named Henry Howland Crapo; he seems to have taken the “tales told by a favourite uncle” approach to his account of the family history, resulting in a work that’s more readable and anecdote-rich than many of its type and time.
I knew about Martha’s daughter, Esther Wigglesworth Toppan, already; she was my 7th great-grandmother and has been on my list of potentially interesting people to investigate for a little while. But I didn’t have her parents’ names, and wasn’t expecting to find them tonight, as I originally started searching Crapo’s book for another ancestor, Hannah Sewall Toppan. (More on her another time, maybe.)
It turns out that Esther’s father was the Rev. Michael Wigglesworth of Malden, a deeply unhappy man famous for his fiery Calvinist poetry about Judgement Day. 1662′s The Day of Doom, a 224-stanza ballad designed to terrify readers onto the straight and narrow path, seems to have been the first American “best-seller”; Wikipedia describes it as so popular that “no first or second editions exist because they were thumbed to shreds”. Despite being quite seriously depressed and ill for most of his life, Michael managed to marry three times; Martha was his second wife. Crapo’s description of how they came together is worth quoting at length:
Being then in his forty-eighth year, he resolved “to change his manner of living” and for that purpose to marry his youthful “servant maid” of seventeen summers. This was a cause of much scandal, and called forth a long epistle from Increase Mather and many other admonitory and exhortatory epistles and advices. But the stubborn singer of the Day of Doom, although doubtless much concerned, was not deterred by the eloquence of Mather, the displeasures of his relatives, or the disfavor of the people of Malden. He married (1679) Martha Mudge, notwithstanding her “obscure parentage, her youth, and her being no church member.”
She was your many times great grandmother, of whom you have no occasion to be ashamed. Nor was her parentage in the least obscure. She was the daughter of Thomas Mudge, of Malden, and his wife Mary, whose position in the community was certainly as well established as that of most of your ancestors, and whose descendants in various lines have done them conspicuous honor. [...] They had six sons and two daughters, of whom Martha was the youngest, being born in 1662.
Michael Wigglesworth’s judgment of Martha Mudge was well warranted. She made him a faithful and efficient wife. She cured him of his distemper, and restored him to health and to the active performance of his ministry, as he testified later in eulogizing her to his third wife. She bore him five daughters and one son. Notwithstanding the antagonistic attitude of her husband’s friends, she bore herself with such propriety that she conquered the place in the public regard to which she was entitled. She proved in all ways a blessing and a help to her husband, and when September 4, 1690, being only twenty-eight years of age, she died, he was indeed bereft.
It can’t have been easy for Martha, hearing the pillars of the community rant about her obvious inferiority; not to mention defying them to marry a man thirty years her senior with a documented inferiority complex, serious chronic illness, and a penchant for concocting brimstone verse. Not to mention, either, bearing six children in a ten-year period and then dying at twenty-eight.
I’d like to believe that she was, despite all this, really as cheerful and indomitable as Crapo’s description suggests; but it’s hard to avoid some doubt, especially in light of the progress I’ve made so far with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s excellent book Good Wives,* mentioned in earlier posts. Ulrich points out in her introduction that, in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, “the purpose of an epitaph was not to commemorate, but to transcend, personality. A good wife earned the dignity of anonymity.” (I know that the above description of Martha was not taken directly from an epitaph, but it is likely to have been drawn from a similarly-intended list of Martha’s virtues set down by her husband after her death; this was the way they did things, it seems.)
I read with interest the Wikipedia entry on Michael, which refers in passing to his surviving diaries; sadly, further investigation reveals that these date from the period before he met Martha, so can shed no further light on her character (or that of their daughter Esther). There are, though, apparently some Wigglesworth family papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, which I’ll try to find out more about. There’s also a 1962 biography of Wigglesworth by Richard Crowder, entitled No Featherbed to Heaven: A Biography of Michael Wigglesworth, 1631-1705. I’m not sure if getting hold of this will be practical, or even possible, or indeed worthwhile at all (it may not be the kind of biography that bothers much with wives); but it’s another avenue to explore and I will, of course, post any interesting updates here in due course.
*Ulrich’s book (since we’re on the topic) has completely altered the way in which I think of so many women in my family tree; it’s full of rich detail and insight. She draws upon lots of contemporary records to examine, and propose definitions of, the multiple roles played by colonial women. Early chapters refer to the description of Bathsheba in Proverbs 31: 10-31, which would have been familiar even to the supposedly church-dodging teenage Martha: “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is above rubies./The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil./She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.”