The Truthfulness and Authenticity of Confessionals

Michael Wigglesworth’s diary, Levi Ames’ Last Word and Dying Speech, and Jonathan Edwards’ Personal Narrative fit pretty snuggly into the category of Confessional Autobiographies.  Edwards and Wigglesworth’s narratives are more personal confessions, as they were not meant to be for public reading and were only published after their death, and Ames’ narrative is a public confession.  These three stories are certainly unique and possess the individual characteristics of the three writers, but there are still many parallels that can by drawn between the different writings.  I would like to focus on one important parallel, and that is the authenticity of the writings.  I am not talking about whether or not these writings were actually done by these writers, or as Smith and Watson put it, if they “have the “right” to speak this story (237).  I think that the authenticity and authority of these texts is valid, and that they were done by the claimed authorship and were not changed by publishers; however, I question if the confessions themselves are authentic.  Were these men truly creating these writing for the sole purpose of asking for redemption and forgiveness from God, or did they have other intended purposes?

Smith and Watson describe a confession as “the penitents purpose to tell the exact truth about the person whom he know most intimately…himself.  His only criterion is naked truth” (265).  Of the three, I find Wigglesworth’s diary to be the most truthful, the most authentic, followed by Ames, and then Edwards.  Wigglesworth’s diary is the most naked literally and figuratively.  But all jokes aside, his diary does present some severely punishable sins making me believe that he had every intention to keep his diary private.  For instance he talks about lusting after other men, as he has “much doting affection for some of [his male] pupils” (319).  He also talks about “the ejection of seed” and “pollution,” i.e. ejaculation, at least three times in the text.  The fact that he wrote in a “special short hand code” also supports the idea that he did not want people finding out about his deepest darkest secrets.  His diary was a place where he could go before God and ask for help and forgiveness and in my opinion this plea seems very authentic and truthful.

Ames’ text also seems to be truthful and authentic; however, it seems as if he has ulterior motives.  He certainly presents many truths, even naming the people he stole from and exactly what he took, but I also think that he is trying to convince people that he should not be put to death.  He even claims innocence for the crime stating, “the gold which Atwood had then secreted I knew nothing of, nor did he ever give me any of it” (181).  He does seem to actually be asking God for forgiveness, but at the same time he seems very suspicious.  The fact that he is so adamant about proclaiming how he is a changed man, and the fact that he denies the crime he was going to be killed for, makes me believe that his confession is less truthful than Wigglesworths.

Finally, while Jonathon Edwards’ narrative may seem to be the most pious, I find it the least truthful.  In fact the extreme piousness of the text is exactly what makes me doubt its authenticity and its intent to solely be a confession between Edwards and God.  Edwards was kicked out of his own church in 1750, and the text notes how this text was definitely written after 1740.  Since Edwards was so active in the community with the Great Revival and the many people coming to see his congregation, I doubt he was writing this narrative between 1740 and 1750 meaning that he wrote the narrative after he was expelled from the church.  This point makes me believe that Edwards intent was to prove that he was a pious, yet humble and human man, who made mistakes.  In a sense he was justifying himself as a man of God and showing people that he should not have been kicked out of the church.  I know that this narrative was not published until after his death, but it still seems as if Edwards is justifying himself and the rightful leader of the congregation.  Unlike Wigglesworth and Ames he has no terrible confessions.  The worst thing he really confesses to is having doubts about his faith every now and then.  He is constantly claiming that all he cares about is other people rather than himself (391 and 394), plus the language he uses does not sound like it is a personal narrative only meant for himself and God.  Why would he write with such perfect prose if no one was meant to read the narrative.

All this being said, I enjoyed readings these confessions even if I think there are parts of them that are sheep in wolves’ clothing.

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