Friday, July 30, 2010

Pelicans in the Wilderness

Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England, pp. 60-63:

Thomas Shepard brought together all these usages of the pilgrim metaphor in one of his most famous sermon series, The Sound Beleever. After elaborating on what saints might look for in the life to come, Shepard assured his auditors that they were approaching the end of the journey. His description of the danger and afflictions, including the common image of the "weary pilgrim," was much like John Bunyan's imaginative vision a little later. We can reappropriate some of the passage's full rhetorical effect -- and therefore its impact for the worshiper -- by resetting Shepard's phrases in poetic form.
This is therefore the great glory
of all those whom God hath called
to the fellowship of his deare Son;

and which is yet more, blessed be God the time is not long,
but that we shall feel what now we doe but heare of,
and see but a little of,
as we use to doe of things afar off:

We are here but strangers, and have no abiding city,
we look for this that hath foundations;

and therefore let sinne presse us downe;
and weary us out with wrastling with it;

let Satan tempt,
and cast his darts at us;

let our drink be our teares day and night,
and our meat gall and wormwood;

let us be shut up in choaking prisons,
and cast out for dead in the streets,
nay upon dung-hils, and none to bury us;

let us live alone as Pelicans in the wildernesse,
and be driven among wild beasts into deserts;

let us be scouraged, and disgraced,
stoned, sawn asunder, and burned;

let us live in sheep-skins, and goat-skins,
destitute, afflicted, tormented
(as who looks not for such days shortly?)

yet oh brethren, the time is not long,
but when we are at the worst,
and death ready to swallow us up;
we shall cry out,
Oh glory, glory,
oh welcome glory.11
The extravagance of this passage, powerful as it is homiletically, seems at first to bear little relationship to the fairly comfortable life New Englanders enjoyed soon after settlement. Shepard's meaning becomes evident, however, when it is understood that these words were no rhetorical flight of his own invention, but a rhapsodic conflation of phrases from the agonized Psalm 102 and the "strangers and pilgrims" passage in Hebrews 11. God's pilgrim people had suffered at the hands of the world in the past; Puritans understood the people of the Bible as ancestors and prototypes. More recently Queen Mary had exiled and executed English reformers. In the days of the Great Migration Archbishop Laud was moving against the Puritans; some were again being "shut up in choaking prisons." If Psalm 102 gave poignant voice to the experience of persecution -- "Mine enemies reproach me all the day...I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping" -- it also expressed hope of divine vindication in the Kingdom, "when the people are gathered together, and kingdoms, to serve the Lord" (vv. 8-9, 22).

Shepard exhorted the saints to continue on the painful journey to the Kingdom. They must not stop, contented, before reaching the goal. Shepard, it seems, almost longed for the day when suffering would once again descend upon the saints. His words ring as a call to asceticism and strife. His repetition of "let," meaning "no matter that," was also an exhortation: "Let our drink be teares day and night...Let us live alone as Pelicans in the wildernesse." Even when conditions were relatively comfortable and stable, as they were in New England, saints must not define their homes in earthly terms.

The terrors Shepard enumerated were not outlandish when applied to events in Europe, and he prophesied that the wars of religion would shortly spread to engulf New England. The conflict, Shepard believed, would ultimately escalate into the complete destruction that was to precede the Second Coming of Christ. He again anticipated Bunyan and echoed Genesis 19 and Revelation 6-9 as he cried:
Away to the mountaines,
and hasten from the towns and cities of your habitation,
where the grace of Christ is published, but universally despised,
you blessed called ones of the Lord Jesus;

for the dayes are coming,
wherein for this sin, the heavens and earth shall shake,
the sunne shall be turned into darknesse,
and the moone into blood,
and mens hearts failing for feare of the horrible plagues
which are comming upon the face of the earth.

Dreame not of faire weather,
expect not better days,
till you heare men say,
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.12
The Puritan spiritual pilgrimage was the journey from the city of sin through the wilderness of humiliation and mortification to the heavenly city of God's Kingdom.

11. Shepard, Sound Beleever, 316-317.
12. Ibid., 318-319.

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