This article was first published in Stimulus 25.2 (December 2018), the online journal of Laidlaw College, and can be viewed here. This article is about twelve pages long when printed.
This article aims to persuade you to read a three hundred year old epic poem, written by a marginalised upper-class Englishwoman. Order and Disorder was published in 1679 in five ‘cantos’ or sections expanding on the text of Genesis 1-3. It displays a treatment of the biblical text that is meditative, instructive, unashamedly Christian, and as this article’s title states, epic. Its author was a fiercely intellectual Puritan and republican who lived through the tumultuous years of the English Civil War, the short-lived English Republic and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy.
This was the era of the later Puritans such as Richard Baxter, who formed an interdenominational pastors’ association while catechising the town of Kidderminster; of John Bunyan, who penned The Pilgrim’s Progress from the Bedford jail; and of John Owen, whose writings on practical divinity influenced the Evangelical movement which was to begin in the 1730’s.
Lucy Hutchinson (1620-81) was the daughter of Sir Allen Aspley, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. Her brother – also called Allen – was a staunch Royalist and colonel in the Civil War. In 1638 she married John Hutchinson (1615-1664) with whom she had nine children. John was a politician in the House of Commons, a colonel for the parliamentary forces in the Civil War and one of the signatories to the king’s execution warrant. Together they lived at Owthorpe Hall, Nottinghamshire. Both were ardent Puritans, dedicated to the study of scripture and committed to the ideal of a ‘godly republic’ in England.
A pair of portraits depicting the couple show Mr Hutchinson in armour, and Mrs Hutchinson with a laurel wreath (a symbol of poetic achievement). For the goal of this ‘godly republic, both “her pen and his sword had worked in concert.” At the time Order and Disorder was published, the monarchy had been restored for nearly two decades, John Hutchinson had died in prison some fifteen years earlier, and republicanism was a fomenting but fading underground movement.
Lucy Hutchinson herself has been chiefly remembered for her writings. She wrote a biography of her late husband John Hutchinson, and a treatise on Christian doctrine for her daughter. She translated several Latin works into English, including the Roman philosopher Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura, John Calvin’s Institutes and one of John Owen’s few Latin works – with the ambiguous Greek title Theologoumena Pantodapa, which was influential in her Order and Disorder. Her poetry included twenty-four short elegies (mourning her husband’s death), and the biblical epic Order and Disorder.
Woman writers were increasingly common in the public sphere of the seventeenth century. Authors such as Aemilia Lanier, Rachel Speght, Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips actively contributed to a variety of subjects. Their offerings to literature spanned poetry, fiction, theatre, philosophy, translation, tracts and science. They made their opinions known on social issues, including gender roles, and their works display them as women of education and intelligence.
Lucy Hutchinson as a female writer was hardly unique. The restrictions she faced as an author came not on account of her gender, but her politics. While women such as those listed above freely published under their own name, Hutchinson did not. The difference lay in their politics, and to a degree, their faith. These women were vocal royalists, while Hutchinson was a republican, and the wife of a regicide at that. Additionally, Hutchinson’s serious Christian faith distanced her from the licentiousness of Charles II’s court. When Order and Disorder was published, it was published anonymously, privately circulated, and limited to the first five cantos. Her republican views were hinted at in these first sections to her poem (they are much more explicit in the later parts which were not published at all), and given her political background she would not risk courting investigation of her writings in the politically tense climate of Restoration England.
In this essay I offer three good reasons that Order and Disorder is valuable today: It guides us to experience Scripture meditatively; it demonstrates how we can read Scripture theologically; and it suggests how we might preach Scripture fruitfully.
In practice, these reasons do blur into one another and cannot be kept totally distinct, since many passages provide combinations of these things and often in different ways. But by teasing these out we may hopefully gain an appreciation how Hutchinson’s epic can benefit Christian readers.