Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Puritan Author Sarah Symmes Fiske 1652-1692

Sarah Symmes Fiske was born in 1652, in Charleston, Massachusets, and died in 1692, in Braintree, Massachusetts. Sarah, only 40 when she died, was the grandaughter of Zachariah Symmes, a noted New England minister. Her father William Symmes held the respected position of justice of the peace for the county of Middlesex, Massachusettes, and died just one year before his daughter. Her mother, also named Sarah, died when baby Sarah was only a year old.

Sarah married Harvard graduate and the new minister of the Braintree congregation in Norfolk County, Moses Fiske, when she was 19; and then she delivered 14 babies in 17 years. Moses, the son of clergyman John Fiske and Ann Gipps who had immigrated to the colonies from Suffolk, England, was ten years older than Sarah.

The huge family lived in a house on 6 acres of fenced land in Quincy. It was a hectic and frugal life. Her husband's stipend was paid partially in corn and wood. The congregation's meeting house was stone and furnished with a bell plus benches for seating women on one side and men on the other. There were 71 families in the Church of Braintree. During Fiske's ministry 147 members were added to the church. Sarah would not live to see three of her surviving sons attend college like their father, or her surviving daughters marry.

When she was 25 and in the midst of raising her young family, Sarah made time to write her spiritual autobiography like many others preparing for admission into membership in the church congregation. The minister's wife's document A CONFESSION OF FAITH: OR, A SUMMARY OF DIVINITY. DRAWN UP BY A YOUNG GENTLE-WOMAN, IN THE TWENTY-FIFTH YEAR OF HER AGE impressed the congregation, her family, friends and the wider community; and it was passed among members of her church for years after her death in 1692, before it was published in 1704. Writings by 17th and 18th century women were often not published until some time after their death.

Many spiritual autobiographies penned by New Englanders in the 17th century were dramatically written to convey the emotional turmoil of the congregant's wrenching quest for personal salvation. But Sarah Fiske decided to approach the mandatory confession in an impersonal, reasoned fashion. Because she married a minister at 19 and her grandfather was a minister, she was familiar with Ramist logic, the system of religious reasoning used by the New England Puritans in their theological discourses.

She presented a thoughtful religious examination topic by topic writing about the Bible; God's Creation; Man's Fall from Grace; The Punishments of Sin and Death; Grace and Predestination, and the promise of Jesus Christ. According to Sarah, all of these factors exhibited the overall redemptive plan of a great God.

Her work reflected on the organization of the contemporary church and the symbolism and importance of the sacraments. She concluded her examination with her brief vision of the apocalyptic end of this world reminiscent of the book of Revelations in the Bible.

Her work is important not just because of its analytical approach, but also because she was a woman writer deemed worthy of publication. This booklet is online at the Readex Early American Imprints I site at most libraries.