Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London, by Paul S. Seaver. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 258 pp. $29.50. Nehemiah Wallington (1598-1658) made wooden bowls and chairs and sold them in a London shop in the early 17th century. By 1654, he had also filled 50 notebooks, some running to more than 500 pages. Why Wallington wrote is the subject of Paul S. Seaver's graceful and astonishing little book, ``Wallington's World.''
``In the course of a long life Wallington resorted repeatedly to the disciplinary techniques of the Puritan's examined life -- resolutions and covenants, sermons, sacraments, and prayer,'' writes Mr. Seaver, a professor of history at Stanford, ``and much of his writing recorded the empirical results, the daily assessment of their efficacy.'' Writing itself was a Puritan discipline for Wallington; one thinks of Emily Dickinson. Dickinson tied her nearly 2,000 poems into little bundles, and published few . Wallington does not seem to have distributed his notebooks, though one found its way across the Atlantic and is now in the keeping of the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. Of the 50 notebooks listed in Wallington's 1654 notebook, only six survive. Yet these six provide Seaver with plenty to work with. In the broadest terms, ``Wallington's World'' provides a unique case study of one of the uses writing has served, and may still serve, modern man.
Wallington wrote not for historians, but for posterity: so that (in his words) ``posterity might understand God's dealings with His children.'' Wallington knew that he lived at the crossroads of history. But he bore witness not as a historian nor as a poet, but as what we inadequately refer to as a simple believer.
Belief was hardly simple for Nehemiah Wallington. The surge and ebb of his own conscience was his greatest concern, and history surged and ebbed, sometimes in sync, sometimes out. As a member of the first generation to make a revolution (the English Civil War), Wallington was doubtless not alone in this concern, part historical, part religious.
As a youth, he suffered from extreme melancholy. He tried to kill himself several times. His sharp awareness of his sins, especially of lust, made him miserable. His devoted father (his mother had died when Nehemiah was still a child) did the practical thing and, as his master turner, made it possible for him to marry at 23, establish a household, and go into business for himself, after only two years of service as an apprentice to his father.
The Puritan family, though customarily extended with uncles and cousins, was close. Wallington, whose trouble as a businessman originated in part from his fits of melancholy, needed and got family support. Indeed, his wife of 37 years, Grace, was ``a woman of powerful feelings who yet had a kind of commonsensical realism about the harsh facts of 17th-century life that the depression-prone husband never acquired,'' Seaver writes. The author's sensitive respect for Wallington and the godly shines everywhere, and the pages on his family -- ravaged by miscarriages and child deaths -- make heart-rending reading.
Wallington would rise before dawn, sometimes long before, to write. (His workday in the shop started at 6:30 a.m. and ended 12 hours later.) By the light of his candle, sometimes he copied sermons and other Puritan pamphlets, sometimes he accounted for his sins and the unaccountable blessings of God. Writing was a necessary discipline. Wallington did not rationalize the evils that befell him and his family. Indeed, he sometimes complained, bitterly, memorably. The death of his three-year-old daughter, E lizabeth, made him feel the ``lash'' from ``the hand of God.'' And however hard he tried, he did not seem to himself to be worthy of Christ.
The hand of God, everywhere palpable to him, was not always palatable. As the English revolution turned from regicide to sectarianism, and finally into defeat, Wallington reasoned that God was punishing the sins of the godly like himself. As he wrote to a former neighbor and fellow turner, Edward Browne, ``that which sads my spirit most of all is that God's people . . . are ready to devour one another.''
The dilemma of the examined life is that consciousness of sin makes it harder to feel the grace of God. It is a dilemma not easily resolved. In a passage typically lucid and graceful, Seaver explains that ``the right action must be matched by the appropriate motive, but the very process of discovering and uncovering motive by self-examination inevitably produced an unwanted self-regard, a focus on oneself that seemed to vitiate the very love of God the good act was witness to.''
And yet there is reason to believe that in his early 50s Nehemiah experienced something of a release from the torments that had made him wretched since youth. Wallington wrote in a note ``To the Reader'': ``I looked too much on myself and not upon Christ.''
Seaver concludes: ``In the final analysis, it was not introspection but reflection upon the nature of Christ that seems finally to have produced a conviction that he was among the elect. . . . To know God's will and commandment was to face judgment and to be found wanting, but `to know God in the face of Jesus Christ is sweet and comfortable.' ''
As what Seaver calls the politics of prayer yielded to the politics of interest, Wallington read through his notebooks. In his last months he once again planned ``to write some of God's mercies and dispensations to me.'' Seaver notes that ``the examined life and the disciplines of preparationism were no longer preliminaries to justification, to salvation, but had become the life-long preparation for eternity.''
This book will be of interest not only to the historian but to the general reader as well. Indeed, I would like to think that what we have here is that rare thing, the academic best seller. It deserves to be. Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.