Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was a puritan woman and a published poet, but what fascinates me most about her is the priority she placed on spiritual motherhood. She wrote letters, proverbs and biblical advice for her children (even into adulthood). When it came to building up her children’s faith, she didn’t leave it to the experts. She took every opportunity to invest in her children’s spiritual good.
As Mother’s Day approaches, Anne can provide an example of spiritual motherhood to all—both those with biological children and those with a spiritual family. Near the end of Anne’s life, she wrote a letter to her children that interested me for a number of reasons. Since it wasn’t meant for publication, the letter reveals a more intimate portrait of Anne.
But I was also intrigued by the content of her letter. What essential knowledge did she want to pass down to future generations before she left this world? There are six things that she stressed.
1. Motherhood Is Not Merely Biological
Anne was keenly aware of the physical demands that mothering placed on a woman. But for Anne, the labour of physically carrying and bearing a child was merely the beginning. Just as Paul used childbirth as a metaphor to express the extent of his toiling for the salvation of the Galatians, Anne wrote to her children that she was “again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). Even those with little exposure to childbirth know that it is not a walk in the park. Paul and Anne were speaking of some intense labour!
Anne is the kind of woman that inspires other women to work hard for the spiritual good of others, whether they be younger women in the church (Titus 2:3-5), biological children (Proverbs 22:6), or simply younger ones in the faith that we take under our wing. Those of us who feel intimidated at the prospect of spiritually mothering can take a masterclass from Anne in the form of this letter to her children.
2. Spiritual Motherhood Is Not about the Mother
In her letter, Anne makes no mention of her poetry. She doesn’t mention her talent, her education or her fame. She makes no comment about her children “being her greatest accomplishment”. She has no desire to idolize her role as a mother or immortalize her accomplishments in this life. Instead, she honestly and thoughtfully shares her faith with her children.
Spiritual mothers often labour behind the scenes (and on their knees) to show the next generation who God is and why He is trustworthy. Anne’s purpose in writing was not to showcase her successful endeavours but to highlight the glory of God and to give her children “some spiritual advantage” by her experience.
When we struggle to know how to begin these spiritual conversations, we can take a page out of Anne’s book and simply begin by sharing our testimony with honesty and humility.
3. Spiritual Mothers Give Their Children a Theology of Suffering
Whether we like it or not, our children (and grandchildren) will suffer in this lifetime. Anne wasn’t content to let her loved ones walk through trials without a solid foundation to stand on.
Anne wrote to her children about her years of infertility, the death of loved ones, the loss of her home in a fire, and chronic illness that plagued her throughout her life. She wrote, “If at any time you are chastened of God, take it as thankfully and joyfully as in greatest mercies, for if ye be his, ye shall reap the greatest benefit by it.”
Anne had a strong sense of God’s sovereignty over trials–she never doubted that each difficulty was fully God’s doing–and yet this didn’t undermine God’s goodness for Anne. She said that God doesn’t gain or lose anything by our affliction. She insisted that God inflicts His children for their good. In another meditation for her children, she wrote this,
“…God doth not afflict willingly, nor take delight in grieving the children of men: he hath no benefit by my adversity nor is he the better for my prosperity; but he doth it for my advantage, and that I may be a gainer by it. And if he knows that weakness and a frail body is the best to make me a vessel fit for his use, why should I not bare it, not only willingly but joyfully? The Lord knows I dare not desire that health that sometimes I have had, least my heart should be drawn from him, and set upon the world.”
So Anne was convinced that God had brought each trial into her life for her good. Because of this, she could rejoice in them. In her older years, she could look back and see that each subsequent trial had brought her some spiritual benefit. For Anne, an essential element of spiritual mothering was preparing her children to suffer well.
4. Spiritual Mothers Share Their Struggles
After Anne wrote her testimony out, she began to share with her kids that she, at various times in her life, experienced spiritual depression and doubt. I love Anne for being so honest with her kids. It is tempting to put our best foot forward when leaving any public record of ourselves.
We may even feel pressure to be a perfect example for our children. But Anne didn’t hide her doubts and shortcomings from her children. She knew that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9) and she was unapologetically honest about how His promises sustained her.
5. Spiritual Mothers Think through Hard Things with Their Children
Near the end of the letter, Anne began to get specific with doubts she had in her younger years. She wrote about doubts concerning 1) whether there is a God 2) if there is a God, is He the same God that is revealed in scripture and 3) how do we know that the Roman Catholic religion is not right?
This type of mental work is hard, but Anne was not afraid to think through challenging questions with her children and guide them with biblical wisdom.
6. Spiritual Mothers Have Confidence in Christ
Anne understood the great irony of life in a fallen world. All of the physical, tangible things that we surround ourselves with seem so solid, and yet they disappear in a moment. But Christ, who is invisible to us now, is the only thing truly solid.
After explaining how confusing and messy life can be, Anne finished her letter by affirming the trustworthiness of Christ:
“I can now say, Return, O my Soul, to thy Rest, upon this Rock christ Jesus will I build my faith; and if I perish, I perish. But I know all the Powers of Hell shall never prevail against it. I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that I have committed to his charge.”
Motherhood is not less than changing diapers, coordinating soccer schedules, and packing school lunches, but Anne shows us it is more than this. Anne has inspired me to be braver with my words. Her confidence in Christ coupled with her humble testimony and willingness to wrestle with difficult questions inspires me. Spiritual mothering is not an easy task, but as our confidence in Christ grows, so will the spiritual benefit for the souls God has placed in our care.
Whether this Mother’s Day brings us joy or grief, perhaps it is also an opportunity to expand our vision of motherhood. If Anne is right, we very likely have some toiling to do “until Christ be formed in [our loved ones]”.
1 Anne Bradstreet, Letter: To My Dear Children
3 As quoted in Heidi Nichols, Anne Bradstreet: A Guided tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet, p. 192-193