“Well-Beloved Child” – Letters from Mothers to their Children

“Well-Beloved Child” – Letters from Mothers to their Children

From the earliest times, mothers have felt the responsibility of training and instructing their children. We find plenty of examples both in the Bible and in church history. This desire has often been expressed in their letters.

When Sons Leave Home

            During the Middle Ages, the Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda wrote a long and moving treatise to her son fourteen-year-old son William, who had moved with his father to the royal court.[1] She hoped her written words will continue to guide William and, possibly, that he would share them with his younger brother who had been taken from her as a baby.

            In the sixteenth century, Anna Bullinger wrote to one of her sons at college, “I ask you to be sound, hardworking, and to clean yourself, fearing God, honorable toward God, and all people,”[2] she said, adding words of advice about washing clothes and caring for shoes.

            But it is in the seventeenth century that the genre of mothers’ legacies began to flourish. Brilliana Harley’s letters to her son Edward (Ned), who left for Magdalen Hall, Oxford, when he was fourteen, were later published and circulated widely. Like Anna Bullinger, Brilliana included both practical and religious admonitions – from health and fashion tips to instructions to continue in prayer, keep the Sabbath, and avoid introspection.[3] She wrote Ned almost weekly for the five years he was away.

            Equally concerned about her son, William, was Katherine Paston, who wrote him loving letters for the four years he was at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Many of her letters were accompanied by gifts of food, with constant prayers that God would keep Will in "all healthe bothe for sowll and body" and guide him “in the pathes of true knowledge.”[4]

When Death Seems Near

            Some mothers left letters as legacies to their children, to be read after their death. Elizabeth Jocelin wrote while she was pregnant for the first time after six years. The letter was to be read in the event of her death. Filled with mixed feelings of excitement and fear, she committed to paper her love and concern for her child. Her fears seemed justified, as she died nine days after giving birth.

            She started with a tender letter to her husband Taurell, explaining she had kept this legacy secret for fear of causing him concern. She revealed her fears of either suffering a painful death or losing the child. “But I thank God,” she concluded, “these feares were cured with the remembrance that all things work together for the best to those that love God, and a certain assurance that He will give me patience according to my pain.”[5]

            Elizabeth’s separate recommendations for a son or a daughter followed the customs of her day. If the child was a son, she hoped he would become a minister of the gospel. If a daughter, that she would be a good wife and mother. In any case, she prayed they would learn to read and treasure the Bible, keep the Sabbath, and pray.

            Elizabeth’s manuscript was found unfinished in her desk (she might have gone into labor prematurely) and was later published with a preface (and possible editions) by minister Thomas Goad. The book, entitled The Mothers Legacie to her Unborne Childe, went through seven editions in the seventeenth century alone.

            A similar legacy was left in 1681 by the American Sarah Goodhue, which was later published with the title The Copy of a Valedictory and Monitory Writing. Sarah wrote this letter seven days before her ninth delivery, for the same reason that had motivated Elizabeth Jocelin: a premonition of death. She died three days after giving birth, together with one of her twins. Her letter included her wishes for her husband, children, and relatives.

When a Story Must Be Told

            Some mothers wrote memoirs as instructions to their children, honestly reporting both lessons and shortcomings. A primary example is Anne Bradstreet, the first published American poet, who revealed questions and doubts that plagued her after arriving in the New World from England, and how she eventually resolved them.[6]

            Equally honest was the account left by Susanna Bell and published by her son under the title The legacy of a dying mother to her mourning children. Like Anne, Susanna had difficulty in adjusting to the church in New England. In her case, the problem was the church’s emphasis on personal experience. In fact, her first application for church membership was rejected.

            “[They] asked me what Promise the Lord had made home in Power upon me. And I answered them, Jer. 31.3: ‘Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving kindness I have drawn thee.’ But they told me that that was a general Promise; that I must look to get some particular Promise made home in Power upon me, and persuaded me to wait a little longer to see what God would further do for my poor soul, which accordingly I did.”[7]

            But her soul-searching only convinced her that she was one of the foolish virgins. “For I did not experimentally know what it was to have oil in my Lamp, grace in my heart, nor what it was to have union with Christ, that being a mystery to me.”[8]

            It was only after a long struggle that two verses brought her peace. “The Lord was pleased to bring that Scripture to my mind, that he looked not as man looked (1 Sam. 16 7) and that he was God and not man (Hos. 11.9). And by this means he took away all my fears.”[9]

To One and All

            While some mothers had no idea that their writings to their children would be published later on, some wrote them with the hope that others would benefit from them. One of these was Dorothy Leigh, whose booklet, The Mother’s Blessing, went through 24 editions in less than 60 years.[10] Bold for her times, she included in her instructions to her sons some strong warnings on how to treat women well and how to avoid the disrespect, abuse, and abandonment that were then prevalent.

            Perhaps the most theological of all these legacies to children is Lucy Hutchinson’s letter to her daughter Barbara, posthumously published as On the Principles of the Christian Religion, which focused on the importance of Scriptural correctness against a proliferation of heretical sects[11].

            Most of these mothers explained to their children that they were not giving any instructions that the children would not find in the Bible or in sound Christian books, but they believed it was their duty as mothers to pass them on. As Lucy Hutchinson said, “I have written this little summary for you, not that I think it is anything but what you may, more methodically collected, find in many books already written, and as usefully gather for yourself out of the same spiritual garden where I had them, but that it may lie by you as a witness of those sound truths I desired to instruct you in.”[12]

            Besides, as Dhuoda said, mothers give strength to their instructions by a special and unique bond: “My son, you will have learned doctors to teach you many more examples, more eminent and of greater usefulness, but they are not of equal status with me, nor do they have a heart more ardent than I, your mother, have for you, my firstborn son!”[13] She believed her booklet will remain with him as a mirror, reflecting the image of his mother and her love and concern. In this, she might represent the desire of all mothers in their letters to their children.

[1] See Simonetta Carr, “Dhuoda and Her Handbook – A Mother’s Cry,” Place for Truth, 2018, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/dhuoda-and-her-handbook-%E2%80%93-mot...

[2] Rebecca A. Giselbrecht, “Myths and Reality about Heinrich Bullinger’s Wife Anna,” Zwingliana 38 (2011), 63.

[3] Lady Brilliana Harley, Letters of the Lady Brilliana Harley, ed. by Thomas Taylor Lewis, London: Camden Society, 1854, p. 195 https://archive.org/details/lettersladybril00harlgoog/page/n4; see Simonetta Carr, “Brilliana Harley – Wife, Mother, and Fighter,” Place for Truth, 2019.

[4] The correspondence of Lady Katherine Paston, 1603–1627, ed. R. Hughey, Norfolk RS, 14, 1941, 82, quoted in Raymond A. Anselment, “Katherine Paston and Brilliana Harley: Maternal Letters and the Genre of Mother's Advice,” Studies in Philology, Vol. 101, No. 4 (Autumn, 2004), 440, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4174802

[5] Elizabeth Jocelin, The mothers legacie, to her unborne childe, 1624 (reprinted by William Blackwood and Sons in 1853).

[6] Anne Bradstreet, The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse, ed. John Harvard Ellis, Charlestown, Abraham E. Cutter, 1867, 9-10, see also Simonetta Carr, “Anne Bradstreet and Her Songs of Daily Providence”, Place for Truth, 2019, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/anne-bradstreet-and-her-songs-daily-p...

[7] Susanna Bell, The legacy of a dying mother to her mourning children, Early English Books, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A27351.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext, 48.

[8] Bell, Legacy, 49

[9] Bell, Legacy, 52

[10] Dorothy Leigh, The Mother’s Blessing, Ann Arbor, MI; Oxford (UK): Text Creation Partnership. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A05259.0001.001?view=toc; see Simonetta Carr, “Dorothy Leigh and Her Advice to Her Sons,” Place for Truth, 2019. https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/dorothy-leigh-and-her-advice-to-her-sons

[11] Lucy Hutchinson, On the Principles of the Christian Religion, Addressed to Her Daughter; and on Theology , Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1817; see Simonetta Carr, Lucy Hutchinson – A Puritan Woman in Changing Times,” Place for Truth, 2018, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/lucy-hutchinson-%E2%80%93-puritan-wom...

[12] Lucy Hutchinson, On the Principles of the Christian Religion, Addressed to Her Daughter; and on Theology , Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1817, 1-2


Simonetta Carr