Exceptional in Ordinary Things

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When reading a devotional based upon the writings of Puritan authors, I was struck by a quote attributed to the Puritan minister, Edmund Calamy. I then discovered the quoted work, Evidence for Heaven, was actually written in 1657 by an anonymous ‘gentlewoman’ woman in his congregation. She was anonymous by request. But her work received the unreserved endorsement of Calamy, who said: “I hope no man will condemn this Book, because written by a Woman but rather admire the goodnesse, love, and power of God, who is able to do such great things, by such weak instruments.” Although it sounds sexist to a modern reader some 360 years after it was written, nevertheless, Calamy thought enough about this work to see that it was published.

This piqued my interest in Evidence for Heaven, so I wrote several articles reflecting what the anonymous author had said in it. Then I stumbled across another female Puritan author, Sarah Fiske. Her only literary work, A Confession of Faith: Or, a Summary of Divinity, was originally a confession of her faith, which she submitted upon her admission into full membership of the Church of Braintree, Massachusetts. A Confession was published posthumously, twelve years after her death on December 2, 1692.

Wendy Martin and Sharone Williams noted in The Routledge Introduction to American Women Writers that most spiritual autobiographies were intended only for the edification of a small group, such as a family or church community. The faithful were expected to be able to demonstrate their awareness of the basics of orthodox belief; and occasionally those texts were published in the hopes of both drawing readers to booksellers, and converts to Christ. A small number of these accounts were written by women. Forbidden to speak or teach in most churches of the time, mothers were considered the first instructors of their children in the faith, particularly in Puritan communities, according to Martin and Williams.

The ability to articulate principles of faith and to relate personal spiritual experiences was thus paradoxically entwined with motherhood, the most sacred of feminine responsibilities. Within a fairly rigid set of boundaries, then, both privately circulated and published religious writing was an arena in which seventh-century women were able to find their voices.

Reflecting on her Confession within the context of the time and culture she lived in, I see also how Sarah’s life speaks loudly about how we all are truly instruments in the hand of a Redeemer God who truly cares for us and guides us.

Sarah Symmes was born in 1652 to a respected justice of the peace in Charleston Massachusetts, William Symmes. Her mother, who was also named Sarah, died when baby Sarah was only a year old. Given the death of her mother when Sarah was one, perhaps she was an only child. Her grandfather, Zachariah Symmes, was a noted New England minister. At the age of nineteen she married the Harvard graduate, Moses Fiske. Remember this was Harvard of 1672, not 2016. Moses was himself the son of a clergyman who immigrated to the colonies from Suffolk, England. He was ten years older than Sarah. They had fourteen children together; only eight of which survived childhood. Three of her daughters married ministers and one son was himself a minister.

Sarah’s death at the age of 40 came at the end of a year that saw her give birth to two children: Ruth who lived about two and a half months (March 24, 1692 to June 6, 1692); and Edward, who only lived five days (October 20, 1692 to October 25, 1692). Moses remarried in January of 1701. He was the minister of the church at Braintree from 1672 until the time of his death in August of 1708. He was succeeded in the ministry at the church in Braintree, now known as Quincy, by the Reverend Joseph Marsh, who married Anne, the daughter of Moses and Sarah. This information appeared in The Symmes Memorial a Biograqphical Sketch of Rev. Zechariah Symmes, by J.A. Vinton.

When Sarah became a full member of her husband’s church and submitted what would become known as A Confession of Faith, she was a 25 year-old mother of two girls, Mary, aged 4 and Sarah aged 3. She had lost a third daughter, Martha at 3 days of age two years before. And she was either pregnant or caring for the newborn Anna, who would die at 10 months of age in June of 1678. The Encyclopedia of American Literature said A Confession moved logically and steadily though theological subjects not considered to be typical or even appropriate for a 17th century woman’s spiritual biography. Her command of language, grammar and style suggested: “She received a solid education despite the rural environment, modest circumstances, and gender.”

Benjamin Elliot, who published Fiske’s A Confession, thought it would be helpful to children and young ones who could “gather the Fragrant Flowers of Divine Knowledge” of the main articles of their creed discussed therein. What seems to have been missed is how Elliot saw the echoes the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms in Sarah’s Confession. These would have been the Creed and Catechisms that she likely affirmed in her church membership; and seems to have studied before writing her personal Confession. The parallels affirm and do not detract from the above comment on her solid education. Here are a few examples. Sarah’s opening article is:

I Believe, That the Holy Scriptures, the Books of the Old & the New Testament, Penned by the Prophets & Apostles, are the Infallible Word of God, the Subject of true Divinity; That only Rule of Faith & Manners, teaching what man ought to Believe concerning God, and what Duty God requires of man.

The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that the Old and New Testaments are the infallible truth and Word of God. Question 5 of the Larger Catechism asks what the Scriptures principally teach; then answers: “The scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”

Sarah affirms that God is pure, powerful, eternal, unchangeable being. He is independent, incomprehensible, invisible. The Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism agree that God is eternal, all-sufficient, unchangeable, incomprehensible, invisible. They affirm with Sarah that there is but one God in three Persons in the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Sarah said she believed the decrees of God were His determinate purpose in all things, according to the counsel of His will. And God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence. The Larger Catechism said God’s decrees are “the free and holy acts of the counsel of his will, whereby, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time.” And he executes his decrees “in the works of creation and providence.” The parallels move on through Jesus Christ as Redeemer, union with Christ, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, saving faith, baptism, communion and more.

Sarah’s life was unremarkable within the context of her time. Possibly raised as an only child, she was thoroughly educated in the teaching of “the Fragrant Flowers of Divine Knowledge” of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms, the creeds of her faith. She was married at the age of nineteen to a popular minister, who would serve his congregation over 30 years. She had a clear talent as a writer, ably communicating the faith she had been taught and believed in with her whole heart. Along with her husband, Moses, she seems to have passed that faith on to her children.

As a twenty something mother of three girls under the age of 4, she was able to put together a coherent, logical expression of her faith—without computers to record and edit her thoughts or DVDs to distract her young daughters as she tried to write. Too soon, she died at the age of 40. This happened within three months of what seems to have been the premature birth of her 14th child. No information is available on the cause of her death, but we can speculate that fourteen births in seventeen years was a contributing factor to whatever health’s problems led to her death. Yet in the midst of being a pastor’s wife and mother to eight children, she was able to write a Confession of her faith so clear and concise, that a publisher would print it twelve years after her death.

A Confession of Faith: Or, a Summary of Divinity may be an illustration of orthodoxy and radicalism in women’s religious writings of the 17th century, as Martin and Williams state. But I think it is a more powerful example of how God inhabits the ordinary lives of believers. Sarah Fiske’s life was an example of being exceptional in ordinary things. Oswald Chambers said the following in his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest:

We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.