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  • Christy Wang

What I Learned from a Puritan’s Experience with Same-Sex Love

Despair. Self-hatred. Sexual indulgence. These words came up time after time when I read through secondary literature on Michael Wigglesworth’s diary.

Scholars seem to agree that the recurring homoerotic desires must have been so overwhelming and distressing for Michael Wigglesworth, a seventeenth-century Puritan minister, that he had no choice but to immerse himself in spiritual horror and self-loathing. In fact, this sense of hopelessness and obsession with same-sex desires inevitably resulted in self-indulgence. His transgressions became his pleasure, his comfort, and ultimately, his ‘redemption’. I found these interpretations to be the most dominant narrative in current scholarship when I was preparing for the 2023 St Antholin Lecture and writing up the manuscript for its publication.

It is a convincing argument. Admittedly, evidence of despair permeates the text, and each scholar has their own distinctive spin on the nature of this spiritual desperation. Some suggest that journaling despair with homoerotic struggles empowered Wigglesworth to create a sodomite within himself that had nothing to do with his godly piety, so that he could preserve his love for God as wholly non-sexual. Others claim that journaling same-sex love was Wigglesworth’s peculiarly queer piety that found its ultimate resolution in sexual indulgence rather than in the forgiveness of Christ and divine mercy. These interpretations are most frequently found in studies of early modern gender and sexuality, which tend to emphasise the disjuncture or incompatibility between Wigglesworth’s taboo emotions and feelings on the one side and his professed faith on the other.

Here comes the problem: Wigglesworth did write about his hope in Christ. In fact, he wrote about it a lot! This is where these narratives about Wigglesworth’s homoerotic self-indulgence start to look rather absurd. While there is no doubt that Wigglesworth suffered from an afflicted conscience due to his same-sex desires, his diary makes clear that he also routinely and tirelessly reminded himself of Christ’s ‘dying love’ and brought his sexual struggles to God, the main addressee of his journal. Some scholarly portrayals of the diary seem to present it as a series of inward-looking murmur of a spiritually paralysed man who simply couldn’t help but being queer and indeed secretly enjoying the sexual transgressions he outwardly confessed as ‘sins’, but it is not so. If one takes Wigglesworth’s context seriously and appreciates his strict adherence to puritan diary-keeping as a common spiritual practice, his intentional conformity to the Protestant conversion tradition comes to the fore. Just as Martin Luther had spoken of the necessity of experiencing spiritual despair before the hopeless sinner turned to Christ, puritan diarists like Wigglesworth consciously weaved their spiritual failures into the bigger story of redemption.

Pointing out this Protestant conversion narrative as a way to understand puritan diary-keeping does not offer anything new to scholarship because there is already ample literature on this. That said, when it comes to topics as sensitive and as potentially controversial as sexuality and gender, many scholars do tend to ignore this puritan tradition of journaling despair. To them, if a seventeenth-century pastor found himself attracted to other men, he must have been trapped in complete hopelessness. If Wigglesworth had to repeatedly suppress his sexual desires, he must have ended up spiritualising these desires, or even eroticising his love for Christ. This overemphasis on the diarist’s despair and neglect of his many praises and firm confidence in a loving and merciful God not only amount to a distorted view of puritan piety, but reinforce the modern impression that the evangelical lifestyle is inherently unhealthy. We must ask ourselves, are we imposing our own modern values upon those who lived in a drastically different age with very different worldviews? Can there only be total misery, lack of spiritual progress, and self-indulgence for those Christians who refrain from acting on their same-sex desires? Or should we recognise both the pain, sense of defeat, and sorrow they experience as well as the comfort, strength, and hope they find in Christ? To put it more simply, should we take their professed faith seriously?

This has been a valuable lesson for me as I studied Michael Wigglesworth’s diary in the last few months. Doing church history is about listening attentively to those who had gone before us. It sharpens our pastoral sensitivity and motivates us to enter someone else’s world in order to truly understand what they do and say. It demands the laying down of the self and a humble openness to be surprised and challenged. I have certainly been humbled many times in the process of preparing this lecture, and have also been greatly encouraged as well. For instance, Wigglesworth’s journal and many other puritan diaries show that recurring despair is by no means uncommon, but it had been viewed by many believers in the past as an essential part of Christian life. This recognition illuminates both the past and the present, enriching our understanding of what perseverance looks like in real life. I was also grateful to be reminded that, as Christians, we should listen carefully to our own personal histories. We can so easily become fixated on our failures and weaknesses, and this obsession can at times escalate into full-blown spiritual crises and intense doubt. And yet our personal histories, like Wigglesworth’s, contain those moments of comfort and triumphs as well, and we will do well not to forget them. As the diarist had confidently proclaimed at a time of difficulty, ‘God will guide and provide. He hath done so in troubles as great as these and therefore he can do it and will do it’, we can also look back at what God had accomplished for us, and be confident that His steadfast love remains the same.


Christy Wang holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, focused on Puritan conformity. church polity, and Anglican identity in the 17th century. She is doing her postdoctoral research at the University of Tokyo. She co-host the Overtones podcast, the latest episode is on Michael Wigglesworth and can be listened here. Her new book 'By love to them I cease loving of thee. Michael Wigglesworth: Journalling same-sex love in the Puritan world.' has just been released and can be found here.

Views expressed in blogs published by the Latimer Trust are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Latimer Trust



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