Thursday, 22 August 2013

A Difference of Opinions

Today, in my course on "Jonathan Edwards's Life, Thought, and Legacy in American Religious Culture," I talked about Edwards's extended family. We briefly discussed the importance of Solomon Stoddard as a patriarch in Northampton as well as Timothy Edwards as a father figure. But the majority of our time was spent on the "notorious" Elizabeth Tuttle, Edwards's grandmother.

The students came to class, having read the introduction and first two chapters in George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life. I read aloud Marsden's comments about Elizabeth Tuttle on page 22. After praising Edwards's paternal grandfather Richard (Elizabeth Tuttle's husband), Marsden wrote:

Timothy's mother, however, was a scandal and a disgrace. Three months after she married Richard Edwards, in 1667, Elizabeth Tuthill (or Tuttle) revealed that she was pregnant by another man. Richard nonetheless protected her by paying the fine for fornication himself and arranging to have the child raised by her parents. The problem proved to be much deeper. Elizabeth was afflicted with a series psychosis. She was given to fits of perversity... repeated infidelities, rages, and threats of violence, including the threat to cut Richard's throat while he was asleep... Elizabeth Tuthill Edwards' condition worsened with the burden of bearing six children to Richard, of whom Timothy was the eldest. Eventually she deserted her family for a number of years, staying away from Richard's bed when she returned. By 1688 her behavior became so erratic that Richard did something almost unheard of in New England: he sued for divorce.

I then asked for my students' impression of Elizabeth Tuttle, after reading Marsden's account. Predictably, the comments were unfavorable. "She sounds like a psycho," one student blurted out. Others mentioned her promiscuous lifestyle, wondering how her husband could have lived with such a woman for so long.

I then gave a synopsis of Ava Chamberlain's recent monograph, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edward. Chamberlain presents an entirely different perspective of Elizabeth Tuttle. While admitting that Tuttle withheld sex from her husband Richard, Chamberlain suggests that she was traumatized by the brutal murder of her sister Sarah by her younger brother Benjamin in 1676. Sarah and Benjamin had been quarreling one evening and the latter decided to end the discussion by bashing the head of his sister with an ax.

The death of Sarah and her brother Benjamin, who was hanged for his crime, left the Tuttle family in shambles. Another sibling, David, was later pronounced a lunatic by the courts, and, unbelievably, another Tuttle girl was involved in a murder. This time it is Mercy, who killed her son Samuel in 1691. After performing her daily morning chores, Mercy proceeded to strike her teenage son with an ax repeatedly until her husband wrestled the weapon away from her grip before other children could be harmed. Chamberlain posits that Mercy was severely disturbed by the previous death of her siblings and probably killed her son in order to "free" him from the horrors that she assumed awaited him in this life. Pronounced mentally unstable, Mercy was spared execution and presumably lived the remainder of her life incarcerated.

Chamberlain argues that  Elizabeth Tuttle also suffered after the murder of Sarah and subsequent hanging of Benjamin. Around the time of the deaths of her siblings, Tuttle stopped having children and withheld sex from her husband Richard. Similar to Mercy, Tuttle also became less sanguine about raising children in the world at that time. For his part, Richard apparently was not content to live without sex. There is evidence that he had an affair with a woman named Mary Talcott, who he married after being granted a divorce by the Connecticut General Assembly (curiously, around the time of Mercy's murder).

Important to the story is the fact that there is no testimony from Elizabeth Tuttle about her relationship with Richard Edwards. Chamberlain is quick to point out that all the details of their marriage come solely from Richard. We only hear his side of the story: that he was cuckolded, that his wife threatened his life, and that Elizabeth was deranged. There are no extant documents from Elizabeth.

I purposely went over the different perspectives of Elizabeth Tuttle by Marsden and Chamberlain in order to show the class that scholars can and do disagree. I also wanted to encourage my students to have the courage to challenge scholars on certain points, and to be willing to dig deeper into the original sources. 

For a lengthier summary of Chamberlain's book, take a look at my forthcoming review that is scheduled to appear in the next issue of Church History.

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