Book Review: The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle
In my high school and college years, I read a lot of books by and about the Puritans. These were English Protestants who were first called “puritan” in a pejorative sense because of their stance that the Church of England had capitulated too much to Rome, and many among them followed the teachings of John Calvin. Their separatist nature was one of many factors that led significant numbers of Puritans to emigrate to the American colonies. Among the most famous of these colonists was Jonathan Edwards, an influential eighteenth-century preacher.
Puritan writers were fervent, earnest believers who urged their readers to piety. And the books about these Puritans to which I was exposed held them up as role models, in some cases to an extreme. The general theme was that these people were closer to God than we are in modern life, and the closer we modeled our relationships and daily activities after theirs, the better off we were spiritually.
What I didn’t understand in my early encounters with the Puritans was that their writings were ideals, the way they thought life should be lived in relationship to God. Which is not the same thing as how they actually lived—not because they were insincere, but because they were no more consistent in matching their beliefs to their actions than anyone else is. This is something that the writers of the books about the Puritans should have stressed—but the ones I read were too infatuated with the same ideals and therefore perpetuated my false impression. More objective books certainly existed; I just hadn’t encountered them yet in my particular community.
I have since come to read history and theology very differently, and I no longer have a romantic view of the Puritans. But sometimes early impressions are hard to root out, buried as they are under the strata of ideas formed over time. The only way to reexamine these ideas is to take up the subject again from other points of view and let them wrestle in the back of your mind until the inconsistencies shake loose and come to the surface.
I wasn’t specifically looking to do any more reading on colonial America or Jonathan Edwards, but I was intrigued when I saw Ava Chamberlain’s newest book, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards. I was familiar with Chamberlain’s work as an Edwards scholar (for personal reasons, I’ve read far more than my share about him), and I was surprised to learn there had been a number of scandals in the family. That’s when a light went off that this was one of those areas where I might need to challenge my assumptions.
So I dove in. And sure enough, her retelling of Elizabeth Tuttle’s life was not only a fascinating story, but clarified a lot of details about marriage, family and mental illness in colonial America. Though I had a complaint about form, I gave it a positive review over at The Discarded Image:
Those who recognize the name Elizabeth Tuttle know her only as the paternal grandmother of colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards, a woman her grandson was raised to forget because of her alleged failings as a colonial goodwife. Yet this same woman, two centuries later, was paraded by leaders of the eugenics movement as the paragon of genetic material, a woman whose descendants include an unusually high number of intelligentsia. And in between those wildly different portraits of her lie nearly 200 years of forgotten silence.
So who was the real Elizabeth Tuttle?