Puritan Self-Examination, Faith, and Conflict: A Post and a Poem

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Ray Ball

Last semester I taught an online course on Tudor and Stuart England. One of the books I assigned was Wallington’s World, a microhistory by Paul Seaver. The book focuses on the life of Nehemiah Wallington, who lived from 1598 to 1658. He was born into a puritan family and inherited his father’s profession. He was a turner (someone who turns wood on a lathe). Wallington had a shop where he sold his wares, like wooden bowls and chairs, on Philpot Lane in the London parish of St. Leonard’s Eastcheap. Over 2,500 pages of his personal writings in the form of letters, political and religious reflections, and a diary have survived. My students used the book over the course of a few weeks to explore a number of issues, including the lived religion of puritans, the realities of urban daily life in the seventeenth century, early modern understandings of mental health and illness, and puritan responses to the outbreak of the English Civil War.

During his early twenties, Nehemiah Wallington contemplated suicide several times. On the one hand, his faith seemed to heighten his mental health crises. He reasoned that “the longer he lived, the more he would sin” and fall short of living a life of demonstrable sanctification.[1] At one point, Wallington believed that the devil had come to torment him in the shape of a crow. During one bout of depression, his father stayed with him for hours, reading to Wallington and praying with and over him.[2] As Katharine Hodgkin has pointed out, early modern people saw mental disorders as having spiritual components and thus requiring spiritual responses.[3] Many early modern religious scholars and preachers wrote about melancholy. They diagnosed it as an embodied illness, but one that could lead to the sin of despair.[4] On the other hand, Wallington’s piety served as a means to cope with depression and anxiety. He paired prayer with other forms of action. In the 1640s, as he became more certain that he was one of the elect, he began advising other melancholy members of the godly community.[5]

Title page of The Kingdom's Monster Uncloaked with a drawing of a monster.
The Kingdom’s Monster Uncloaked from Heaven, c.1640-43.

Wallington’s providential view of history shaped how he experienced the English Civil War. Seaver argues that “he saw politics fundamentally in moral terms, as a struggle between good and evil.” Although Wallington never went so far as some puritans in identifying the king as the Antichrist, he associated Charles I’s cause with that of the devil.[6] The artisan was one of the godly who prayed for revolution. Wallington had been named in a bill that also indicted the famous antitheatrical polemicist William Prynne for seditious libel in the late 1630s.[7] However, by the middle of the 1640s, the turner had become disillusioned with the sweeping tides of religious innovation that the civil war undammed. He condemned the emergence of numerous sects, such as the Baptists, Muggletonians, and Quakers. His confidence in his own election may have made him feel all the more dismayed at what he saw as the spread of sinful error and theological controversies.

I am a poet as well as a historian. I often draw inspiration for my creative work from my scholarship and teaching. I started the following piece by jotting a few lines of verse in response to Wallington’s World. I decided to turn these snippets into a three-part poem—or a sort of triptych—loosely based on Wallington’s life and emphasizing the importance of his faith.During our class discussions, my students had a lot to say about Wallington’s mental health. Some related to his experiences of living with depression and anxiety, if not to his religious responses to them. Several students commented that it seemed like his only real recourse was to delve even more deeply into his religion. Their comments spurred me to revise the poem I had drafted. I made changes that put more emphasis on hope in the poem’s second section. I also wanted to bring clearer markers of religious faith into the third section of the poem set just after the execution of Charles I to highlight how religious devotion accompanied moments of revolutionary change during the English Civil War.

“St. Leonard’s Eastcheap”

Poem "St Leonard's Eastcheap."

Rachael “Ray” Ball is an Associate Professor of European and World History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is the author of Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World, the bilingual critical edition Cómo ser rey, and a chapbook of historically-informed poems entitled Tithe of Salt. You can find her on Twitter @ProfessorBall.

Title Image: Claes Jansq, Panorama of London, 1616.

Further Readings:

Bayer, Mark. Theatre, Community, and Civic Engagement in Jacobean London. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011.

Booy, David, ed. The Selected Writings of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618-1654: A Selection. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

Hodgkin, Katharine, Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert. New York: Routledge, 2016.

MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Prynne, William. Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge, or the Actors Tragedi. Edited by Peter Davison. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1972.

Seaver, Paul. Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth Century London. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985.


[1] Seaver, Wallington’s World, 16.

[2] Seaver, Wallington’s World, 24.

[3] Hodgkin, Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England:

[4] Stephanie Shirilan, Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy (New York: Routledge, 2016), 71.

[5] Seaver, Wallington’s World, 109-110.

[6] Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth Century London (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 167.

[7] Seaver, Wallington’s World, 150.

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