The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards

The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards

The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards

The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards

Synopsis

Who was Elizabeth Tuttle? In most histories, she is a footnote, a blip. At best, she is a minor villain in the story of Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest American theologian of the colonial era. Many historians consider Jonathan Edwards a theological genius, wildly ahead of his time, a Puritan hero. Elizabeth Tuttle was Edwards's "crazy grandmother," the one whose madness and adultery drove his despairing grandfather to divorce. In this compelling and meticulously researched work of micro-history, Ava Chamberlain unearths a fuller history of Elizabeth Tuttle. It is a violent and tragic story in which anxious patriarchs struggle to govern their households, unruly women disobey their husbands, mental illness tears families apart, and loved ones die sudden deaths. Through the lens of Elizabeth Tuttle, Chamberlain re-examines the common narrative of Jonathan Edwards's ancestry, giving his long-ignored paternal grandmother a voice. Tracing this story into the 19th century, she creates a new way of looking at both ordinary families of colonial New England and how Jonathan Edwards's family has been remembered by his descendants,contemporary historians, and, significantly, eugenicists. For as Chamberlain uncovers, it was during the eugenics movement, which employed the Edwards family as an ideal, that the crazy grandmother story took shape. The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle not only brings to light the tragic story of an ordinary woman living in early New England, it also explores the deeper tension between the ideal of Puritan family life and its messy reality, complicating the way America has thought about its Puritan past.

Excerpt

History is crucially distinguished from fiction by curiosity about
what actually happened in the past. Beyond the self—outside the
realm of the imagination—lies a landscape cluttered with the detri
tus of past living, a mélange of clues and codes informative of a
moment as real as this present one. When curiosity is stirred about
an aspect of this past, a relationship with an object has begun.

Who was Elizabeth Tuttle? the most common answer to this question cites a genealogical relationship: Elizabeth Tuttle was the paternal grandmother of Jonathan Edwards. Colonial America’s greatest theologian was born in 1703, the only son of Elizabeth’s second child. He began his career as the pastor of the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and, through his powerful preaching and popular revival writings, he became a leader of the international evangelical movement that transformed Protestant Christianity in the eighteenth century. After a theological dispute forced him to leave Northampton, he took a post at the Indian mission in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he wrote lengthy treatises defending such traditional Calvinist doctrines as original sin and divine sovereignty. in the nineteenth century, his disciples founded on these doctrinal writings a new theological movement, and as evangelicalism swept the country, his importance grew. in the mid–twentieth century, he emerged as the central figure in the modern academic study of colonial American intellectual history. Constructed as a misunderstood genius whose writings were “so much ahead of his time that our own can hardly be said to have caught up with him,” Edwards has generated an outpouring of scholarship that eclipses in size and scope the work on any other figure in American religious history. Social historians have reduced this outsized image to a more manageable scale, but the Edwards myth endures, appropriated most recently by theologians building an intellectual foundation for the modern evangelical tradition.

Elizabeth Tuttle plays but a small role in this idealized construction of Jonathan Edwards. His is a large—and very male—story of powerful intellects and clashing theological ideas. the women who inhabit its periphery, like . . .

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