Death In Early America. Essay

1051 words - 4 pages

Increase Mather, one of Puritan New England's foremost ministers and scholars, died in 1l723 at his home in Boston. As he lay "feeble and sore broken" upon his death bed, he faced his life's end with desperate "fear and trembling." He was tormented by the thought that he might be bound for Hell. John Tappin died in Boston in 1673 at the age of 18. He, too, suffered bitter spiritual torment in the face of deeath. Although he had been a godly youth, he bemoaned "his hardness of heart and blindness of minde" and feared that he was destined for eternal damnation.For seventeenth century New Englanders, death was a grim and terrifying reality. Of the first 102 Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620, half died during the first winter. Death rates soon fell sharply, until they were about a third below those in England, France, or the colonial Chesapeake, but death still remained an omnipresent part of life. The tolling of church bells on the day of funerals was so common that it was legislated against as a public nuisance. It was customary in colonial New England to send a pair of gloves to friends and relatives to invite them to funerals. Andrew Eliot, minister of Boston's North Church, saved the gloves that people sent to him. In 32 years he collected 3,000 pairs.Death reached into all corners of life, striking people of all ages, not just the old. In the healthiest regions, one child in ten died during the first year of life. In less healthy areas, like Boston, the figure was three in ten. Cotton Mather, the famous Boston minister, had 14 children. Seven died in infancy and just one lived to the age of thirty. Bacterial stomach infections, intestinal worms, epidemic diseases, contaminated food and water, and neglect and carelessness all contributed to a society in which 40 percent of children failed to reached adulthood in the seventeenth century.Epidemics accounted for a large proportion of deaths--sweeping thousands of people away in the course of a few months. Diphtheria, influenza, measles, pneumonia, scarlet fever, and smallpox ravaged the population, producing death rates as high as 30 per thousand. A smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1677-78 killed one-fifth of the town's population. Many of the individuals who survived a smallpox epidemic were left blind or pockmarked for life. Conflict with Indians also took many lives. One Indian war, the Pequot War of 1675, killed a larger percentage of the population than any later war in American history.How, then, did Puritans respond to the ever-present reality of death? A deep, underlying tension characterized the Puritan view of death. On the one hand, in line with a long Christian tradition, the Puritans viewed death as a blessed release from the trials of this world into the joys of everlasting life. At the same time, the Puritans regarded death as God's punishment for human sinfulness and on their deathbeds many New Englanders trembled with fear that they might suffer eternal damnation in Hell.From...

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