Author: Susan Aberth
the Quickening - monograph, published by Marianne Boesky Gallery NY and Arndt & Partner, Berlin/Zürich

His Arbitrary Will, Restrained by No Obligation

"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire."
-Jonathan Edwards, excerpt from his sermon 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)'

The shadow of Puritanism still lingers, like a baleful curse, across the cultural landscape of the United States, with New England as its traumatic epicenter. The Puritan God was an angry God, all-powerful and punishing, the patriarchal father of a vast dysfunctional Family of Man. Puritans believed in the doctrine of predestination, which held that man was inherently sinful and depraved and it was only through arbitrary divine grace that he could be saved from damnation. Belief in Jesus and participation in the sacraments did not guarantee salvation; that was determined by God's sovereignty alone. After the Fall, God chose an elect group for salvation; indeed, it was predestined from birth if one was chosen for Heaven or condemned to Hell. In spite of this, the 17th century Puritan colonists thought of themselves as the Chosen People of God, destined to found a New Jerusalem in the harsh isolation of the New World. Their only weapon against darkness was the study of the Bible, an obsessive practice that necessitated education for all. Grammar schools and colleges were established early on and ironically it was this very literacy that led to their downfall, as greater knowledge led to greater freedom of choice for their descendants.

The psychic topography of New England is dotted with troubling historic events and individuals who perhaps cracked under the strain of extreme Calvinist Protestantism. The assertive Anne Hutchinson was deemed heretical for a dissenting voice that posed a threat to the male authority of the church hierarchy. Accused and tried for blasphemy in 1637 she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in 1643 met a violent end in East Chester, New York at the hands of Indians. Some fifty years later women were again at the center of controversy in Salem, Massachusetts. Here it was the unexplainable public outbursts of a group of girls, otherwise trained to be subservient, that led to a diagnosis of bewitchment; probably influenced by the recent publication of Cotton Mather's work Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). At the end of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692, fourteen women and six men were executed while scores more were imprisoned.

One of the most famous sermons ever delivered in Puritan New England was in 1741 by the American Congregational preacher Jonathan Edwards. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was a fiery evangelical warning, delivered in a monotone to great effect. The introduction focused on Deuteronomy 32:35, "Their foot shall slide in due time," in order to emphasize that each person should continually seek God's grace in order to fight against indwelling sin. Audience members were found crying out, weeping, swooning, and going into convulsions so great was the emotion stirred up by Edwards. Copies of the sermon were printed and distributed to a wide audience which helped to usher in the First Great Awakening, a movement among American colonial Protestants that made religion intensely personal, creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt that desperately sought redemption.

By the nineteenth century Puritanism had all but died out in New England in a literal sense, but an aura of horror and the preternatural still clung to the region. In 1892 the murder trial of Lizzie Borden, accused of hacking her parents to death with an ax, enthralled the nation with its sensational bloodiness. With its intimations of incest, lesbianism, and feminine sexuality run rampant, Fall River, Massachusetts today remains a site of fascination and Lizzie Borden's home has been turned into a popular Bed and Breakfast. In the early twentieth century Providence, Rhode Island gave us that master of supernatural literature, H.P. Lovecraft. Under the spell of his Puritan ancestry, Lovecraft wrote haunting tales of a New England under the attack of an unseen, invasive evil. Forbidden knowledge, revealed to a weak humanity secretly controlled by nonhuman entities from other worlds was a favorite theme, with obvious parallels to earlier Puritan fears. Stephen King of Maine, Lovecraft's literary heir, continues to keep us in thrall under a prolific avalanche of horror fiction.

The uncomfortable and still unresolved relationship between our Puritan past and present is best exemplified by the pathetic yet germane tourist trap, The Salem Witch Museum. Visitors are ushered into a dark cavernous space and forced to stand on an illuminated red pentagram inscribed on the floor, as if part of a satanic ritual. Stacked floor to ceiling are wax tableaux narrating the events surrounding the Salem witch trials. Decrepit and dusty, they light up in chronological order to deliver a series of corny and didactic accounts meant to exonerate the innocent. But the underlying message delivered to a willfully susceptible audience is: What if the Devil truly did walk among them, and what if he still does, today ...?

"The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion."
-Jonathan Edwards, excerpt from his sermon 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)'