Computers, phones, radios, televisions, and carrier pigeons are chirping with talk of Tuesday’s hard-fought presidential election. The election is a time-honored American tradition. But long before there were exercises of democracy to occupy our collective attention, Americans were preoccupied with a different kind of election entirely.
The Pilgrims brought their belief in predestination with them to Plymouth, and the Puritans planted the doctrine in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many are called, they argued, but few are chosen. Those chosen by God for salvation receive mercy, while the reprobate receive the justice they deserve.
The question of whether or not one had been elected for salvation filled one’s wakeful days and dreaming nights. Predestination was the name of the game, with Congregationalists and Presbyterians offering competing visions of eternity and what it took to secure one’s place there. The state of citizens’ souls was thought to determine the state of the nation, and the fate of both rested in the hands of an angry god.
It was an age of anxiety not unlike that felt during the last few weeks in the United States. Doubting one’s election revealed a lack of faith; confidence in one’s salvation belied the sovereignty of God. Americans were on pins and needles—on their best behavior, whether or not they thought they were saved.
Calvinists in the colonies searched for revelation in themselves and the ordinary world around them. Their ceaseless quest for signs and continuous wondering about their place in the cosmos inspired some of America’s greatest literature. One of the most famous, most fiery descriptions of predestination came from the lips of Jonathan Edwards in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the standard sermon of America’s Great Awakening, our canon’s searing memory of the doctrine of election.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire,” Edwards clamored, “abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” The sermon is all hellfire and brimstone, with Edwards emphasizing that God’s “wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worth of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”
The language of the Great Awakening is not so different from contemporary political discourse: threats of apocalypse, appeals to populism, calls for communalism, hopes for conversion and change, and awkward alliances between tradition and innovation. Along with the zeal and spiritedness of his language, Edwards’s arachnid, his “loathsome insect,” outlived the doctrine that inspired him. That spider lurks in American literature in the most unlikely of places.
Whether it is Walt Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider” that “launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them” or Robert Frost’s “dimple spider, fat and white, / On a white heal-all, holding up a moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth,” the creeping, crawling spider of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the most familiar creatures in the canon. Whitman and Frost weave allegories with the spider’s web, collapsing eight legs into two. Their observations of the arthropod occasion anthropologic reflections. For Whitman, the “noiseless patient spider” alone in “the vacant vast surrounding” is like his soul: “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space.” For Frost, “the kindred spider” is related to humanity because both lead lives governed by fate. “What but design of darkness,” Frost asks in his sonnet, leads a moth into the spider’s web? What but “design govern in a thing so small,” as the spider and, accordingly, a person?
While Frost and Whitman set their spiders in motion without explicitly naming Jonathan Edwards, when Robert Lowell contemplated the creature, he did so in a poem titled “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” Glowering gossamer, Lowell’s poem shows the Boston Brahmin raging against those ancient doctrines of damnation and salvation. “I saw the spiders marching through the air,” the poem begins, though its relentless pentameter moves from description to dread:
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea…
Lowell ventriloquizes Edwards, asking the same question the evangelist did two centuries before: “What are we in the hands of the great God?” Their answers are similar, but the poet cannot share the pastor’s joy: “It’s well,” the narrator of the poem says unconvincingly, “God who holds you to the pit of hell, / Much as one holds a spider, will destroy, / Baffle and dissipate your soul.”
By the time Lowell’s spider dangles over the eternal flame, the creature has no hope of salvation, only the assurance “this is death / To die and know it.” Edwards preached to change hearts and wins souls, but Lowell writes to exorcise his own obsession with these ancient ideas.
We have arrived at our own “gnarled November,” with an election come and gone. Politics may seem predetermined and we may feel as though we have no agency, but at least in this election we have a vote and the chance to try again in another few years. There is also the hope that instead of solitary spiders predestined to dance alone above the flame, we are a collective of creatures dancing together.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.