Thomas Shepard (1605-1649)
The "soul-melting" Puritan, Preacher, Writer, Educator, Commentator, Pamphleteer, Diarist, Non-Conformist and Dissenter.

The Autobiography and Journal of Thomas Shepard

(Until we can transcribe the entire book Autobiography and Journal of Thomas Shepard so that it can be freely read and downloaded from this page, we provide for you an excellent synopsis written by Carla Ann McGill for the Literary Encyclopedia).

Thomas Shepard's Autobiography and its companion, the Journal, are unique narratives of the inner life of a Puritan in early New England. They offer Shepard's perspective on his early life as well as on his ongoing spiritual experiences both before and after coming to New England in 1635, where he soon became the minister of the First Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Autobiography was written to his son, Thomas, “that so he may learn to know and love the great and most high God, the God of his father”. Michael McGiffert's definitive book on the work, God's Plot, offers insights into its structure, which is based upon what Shepard calls “God's great plot” of redemption.

The work is arranged in three sections: an address to the son along with a summary of the events pertaining to the boy's birth and early life; Shepard's birth and life, which constitutes the main body of the narrative; and finally, a section of notes, which appears to be an outline of material included in the second section. A preoccupation with crisis and the fact of death pervade the autobiography. Fear of his own death provides the impetus for the act of writing, for he says he is writing “To my dear son Thomas Shepard with whom I leave these records of God's great kindness to him […] not knowing that I shall live to tell them myself”. Threats to life also constitute dominant moments in this section as well as in the rest of the narrative. Sprinkled heavily with admonishments, encouragements, and instructions to Thomas, especially regarding the son's life, purpose, and relationship to God, the work reveals Shepard's fears about the fragility of life and the hardships of existence. Hazardous sea journeys, the tremulous religious climate in England, and personal losses are positioned alongside divine deliverances and comforts to depict a life both troubled and blessed. Life is comprised of intense struggle and divine compensation, while encompassed overall within a sovereign design and purpose.

Instruction and admonishment to his son are absent in the second and longest segment, although Shepard continues to use the pattern of crisis and deliverance. The fact of death again undergirds the narrative of events and losses of his early life. Separated from his family at four years old due to the plague, he goes to live with grandparents in the country. He recalls that “ I being the youngest and best beloved of my mother was sent away the day the plague brake out.”

Shepard's mother died from the plague, which had also sent the three-year-old to live with relatives, and his father died several years later when the boy was ten years old, leaving him to the stepmother who didn't seem to like him having “incensed my father often against me”. His older brother took him, saw to his education and “showed much love unto me and unto whom I owe much, for him God made to be both father and mother unto me”.

In his formal works such as The Sincere Convert and The Sound Believer, Shepard delineates the stages of conversion so the searching soul can discern what is happening in the process of going from sin to redemption. In the Autobiography, he reveals his own struggle to attain to the state of grace, a struggle which depicts the Puritan dilemma of wanting to move toward Christ but realizing that divine election was something decided by God and about which no one could be completely certain.

Shepard recounts that while in college he began to practice forms of the Christian faith and was somewhat influenced by the preaching he heard, though this is only one of a series of false starts:

but I shook this off also and fell from God to loose and lewd company, to lust and pride and gambling and bowling and drinking. And yet the Lord left me not, but a godly scholar, walking with me, fell to discourse about the misery of every man out of Christ, viz., that whatever they did was sin, and this did much affect me […] But then by loose company I came to dispute in the schools and there to join to loose scholars of other colleges and was fearfully left of God and fell to drink with them. And I drank so much one day that I was dead drunk, and that upon a Saturday night, and so was carried from the place I had drink at and did feast at unto a scholar's chamber, one Basset of Christ's College, and knew not where I was until I awakened late on that Sabbath and sick with my beastly carriage. And when I awakened I went from him in shame and confusion, and went out into the fields and there spent that Sabbath lying hid in the cornfields where the Lord, who might justly have cut me off in the midst of my sin, did meet me with much sadness of heart and troubled my soul for this and other my sins which then I had cause and leisure to think of.

He resolves to become a minister of the gospel, but the tone of agony continues as his doubting and questioning become more acute. This vacillation between the acknowledgement of prompting from the Spirit and lack of assurance suggest the model for later Puritan narratives, including the conversion narratives from Shepard's own congregation: oral testimonies given by aspiring church members and recorded by Shepard.

The ending is most dramatic as Shepard describes the death of Joanna, his third wife, and thus, the work circles around to the idea of death present at the beginning: “Thus God hath visited and scourged me for my sins and sought to wean me from this world, but I have ever found it a difficult thing to profit even but a little by the sorest and sharpest afflictions”.

An excerpt from The Autobiography of Thomas Shepard

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Now here the Lord's wonderful terror and mercy to us did appear. For being come to Ipswich with my family at the time appointed, the ship was not ready, and we stayed six or eight weeks longer than the time promised for her going. And so it was very late in the year and very dangerous to go to sea, and indeed if we had gone, doubtless we had all perished upon the seas, it being so extreme cold and tempestuous winter, but yet we could not go back when we had gone so far. And the Lord saw it good to chastise us for rushing onward too soon and hazarding ourselves in that manner, and I had many fears, and much darkness (I remember) overspread my soul, doubting of our way, yet I say we could not now go back. Only I learnt from that time never to go about a sad business in the dark, unless God's call within as well as that without be very strong and clear and comfortable.

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So that in the year 1634, about the beginning of the winter, we set sail from Harwich, and, having gone some few leagues onto the sea, the wind stopped us that night, and so we cast anchor in a dangerous place. And on the morning the wind grew fierce and rough against us full, and drave us towards the sands, but the vessel, being laden too heavy at the head, would not stir for all that which the seamen could do, but drave us full upon the sands near Harwich harbor. And the ship did grate upon the sands and was in great danger, but the Lord directed one man to cut some cable or rope in the ship, and so she was turned about and was beaten quite backward toward Yarmouth, quite out of our way. But while the ship was in this great danger a wonderful, miraculous providence did appear to us, for one of the seamen, that he might save the vessel, fell in when it was in that great danger and so was carried out a mile or more from the ship and given for dead and gone. The ship was then in such danger that none could attend to follow him, and when it was out of danger it was a very great hazard to the lives of any that should take the skiff to seek to find him. Yet it pleased the Lord that, being discerned afar off floating upon the waters, three of the seamen adventured out upon the rough waters, and at last, about an hour after he fell into the sea (as we conjectured), they came and found him floating upon the waters, never able to swim but supported by a divine hand all this while. When the men came to him they were glad to find him, but concluded he was dead, and so got him into the skiff, and when he was there tumbled him down as one dead. Yet one of them said to the rest, Let us use what means we can if there be life to preserve it, and thereupon turned his head downward for the water to run out, and having done so the fellow began to gasp and breathe. Then they applied other means they had, and so he began at last to move and then to speak, and by that time he came to the ship he was pretty well and able to walk. And so the Lord showed us his great power, whereupon a godly man in the ship then said: This man's danger and deliverance is a type of ours, for he did fear dangers were near unto us, and that yet the Lord's power should be shown in saving of us. For so indeed it was. For the wind did drive us quite backward out of our way and gave us no place to anchor at until we came into Yarmouth Roads, an open place at sea yet fit for anchorage, but otherwise a very dangerous place. And so we came thither

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through many uncomfortable hazards within thirty hours and cast anchor in Yarmouth Roads, which when we had done upon a Saturday morning the Lord sent a most dreadful and terrible storm of wind from the west, so dreadful that to this day the seamen call it Windy Saturday, that it also scattered many ships in diverse coasts at that time, and diverse ships were cast away. One morning among the rest, which was the seamen's ship who came with us from Newcastle, was cast away, and he and all his men perished. But when the wind thus arose, the master cast all his anchors, but the storm was so terrible that the anchors broke and the ship drave towards the sands where we could not but be cast away, whereupon the master cries out that we were dead men, and thereupon the whole company go to prayer. But the vessel still drave so near to the sands that the master shot off two pieces of ordnance to the town for help to save the passengers. The town perceived it and thousands came upon the walls of Yarmouth and looked upon us, hearing we were New England men [this word doubtful], and pitied much and gave us for gone because they saw other ships perishing near unto us at that time, but could not send any help unto us though much money was offered by some to hazard themselves for us. So the master not knowing what to do, it pleased the Lord that there was one Mr. Cock, a drunken fellow but no seaman yet one that had been at sea often and would come in a humor unto New England with us; whether it was to see the country or no I cannot tell, but sure I am God intended it for good unto us to make him an instrument to save all our lives. For he persuaded the master to cut down his mainmast. The master was unwilling to it and besotted, not sensible of ours and his own loss. At last this Cock calls for hatchets, tells the master, If you be a man, save the lives of your passengers, cut down your mainmast. Hereupon he encouraged all the company who were forlorn and hopeless of life, and the seamen presently cut down the mast aboard, just at that very time wherein we all gave ourselves for gone to see neither old nor New England nor faces of friends anymore, there being near upon 200 passengers in the ship. And so when the mast was down, the master had one little anchor left and cast it out, but the ship was driven away toward the sands still, and the seamen came to us and bid us look (pointing to the place) where our graves should shortly be, conceiving also that the wind had broke off this anchor

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also. So the master professed he had done what he could and therefore now desired us to go to prayer. So Mr. Norton in one place and myself in another part of the ship, he with the passengers, and myself with the mariners above decks, went to prayer and committed our souls and bodies unto the Lord that gave them. Immediately after prayer the wind began to abate, and the ship stayed, for the last anchor was not broke (as we conceived) but only rent up with the wind, and so drave and was drawn along plowing the sands with the violence of the wind, which abating after prayer (though still very terrible) the ship was stopped just when it was ready to be swallowed up of the sands, a very little way off from it. And so we rid it out, yet not without fear of our lives though the anchor stopped the ship, because the cable was let out so far that a little rope held the cable, and the cable the little anchor, and the little anchor the great ship in this great storm. But when one of the company perceived that we were so strangely preserved, had these words, That thread we hang by will save us, for so we accounted of the rope fastened to the anchor, in comparison of the fierce storm. And so indeed it did, the Lord showing his dreadful power toward us and yet his unspeakable rich mercy to us who in depths of mercy heard, nay helped, us where we could not cry through the disconsolate fears we had out of these depths of seas and miseries. This deliverance was so great that I then did think if ever the Lord did bring me to shore again I should live like one come and risen from the dead. This is one of those living mercies the Lord hath shown me, a mercy to myself, to my wife and child then living, and to my second son Thomas who was in this storm but in the womb of his dear mother who might then have perished and been cut off from all hope of means and mercy, and unto my dear friends then with me, viz., brother Champney, Frost, Goffe, and divers others, most dear saints, and also to all with me. And how would the name of the Lord suffered if we had so perished; that the Lord Jesus should have respect to me so vile and one at that time full of many temptations and weak-

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nesses, amazed much and deeply afraid of God's terror, yet supported. I desire this mercy may be remembered of my children and their children's children when I am dead and cannot praise the Lord in the land of the living anymore. And so we continued that night, many sick, many weak and discouraged, many sad hearts. Yet upon the Sabbath morning we departed and went out of the ship - I fear a little soon, for we should have spent that day in praising of him. Yet we were afraid of neglecting a season of providence in going out while we had a calm, and many sick folk were unfit for that work and had need of refreshing at shore. So upon the Sabbath-day morning boats came to our vessel from the town, and so my dear wife and child went in the first boat. But here the Lord saw that these waters were not sufficient to wash away my filth and sinfulness, and therefore he cast me into the fire as soon as ever I was upon the sea in the boat, for there my first-born child, very precious to my soul and dearly beloved of me, was smitten with sickness; the Lord sent a vomiting upon it whereby it grew faint, and nothing that we could use could stop its vomiting, although we had many helps at Yarmouth, and this was a very bitter affliction to me. And the Lord now showed me my weak faith, want of fear, pride, carnal content, immoderate love of creatures and of my child especially, and begot in me some desires and purposes to fear his name. But yet the Lord would not be entreated for the life of it, and after a fortnight's sickness at last it gave up the ghost when its mother had given it up to the Lord, and was buried at Yarmouth where I durst not be present lest the pursuivants should apprehend me and I should be discovered, which was a great affliction and very bitter to me and my dear wife. And hereby I saw the Lord did come near to me, and I did verily fear the Lord would take away my wife also, if not myself not long after. And these afflictions, together with the Lord's crossing us and being so directly against our voyage, made me secretly willing to stay and suffer in England, and my heart was not so much toward New England. Yet this satisfied me, that seeing there was a door opened of escape, why should I suffer? And I considered how unfit I was to go to such a good land with such an unmortified, hard, dark, formal, hypocritical heart, and therefore no wonder if the Lord did thus cross me. And the Lord made me fear my affliction came in part for running

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too far in a way of separation from the mixed assemblies in England, though I bless God I have ever believed that there are true churches in many parishes in England where the Lord sets up able men and ministers of his gospel, and I have abhorred to refuse to hear any able ministers in England. So that now I having buried my first born and being in great sadness and not knowing where to go nor what to do, the Lord sent Mr. Roger Harlakenden and my brother Samuel Shepard to visit me after they had heard of our escape at sea, who much refreshed us and clave to me in my sorrows. And being casting about where to go and live, Mr. Bridge, then minister in Norwich, sent for me to come and live with him, and being come, one Mistress Corbet who lived five miles off Norwich, an aged, eminent, godly gentlewoman, hearing of my coming and that by being with Mr. Bridge might hazard his liberty by countenancing of me, she did therefore freely offer to me a great house of hers standing empty at a town called Bastwick, and there the Lord stirred up her heart to show all love to me, which did much lighten and sweeten my sorrows. And I saw the Lord Jesus' care herein to me and saw cause of trusting him in times of straits, who set me in such a place where I lived for half a year, all the winter long, among and with my friends (Mr. Harlakenden dwelling with me and bearing all the charge of housekeeping) and far from the notice of my enemies, where we enjoyed sweet fellowship one with another and also with God, in a house which was fit to entertain any prince for fairness and greatness and pleasantness. Here the Lord hid us all the winter long, and when it was fit to travel in the spring we went up to London, Mr. Harlakenden not forsaking me all this while, for he was a father and mother to me. And when we came to London to Mistress Sherborne, not knowing what to do nor where to live privately, the Lord provided a very private place for us where my wife was brought to bed and delivered of my second son Thomas, and none but our friends did know of it. And so by this means my son was not baptized until we came to New England the winter following, being born in London, April 5, 1635. One remarkable deliverance

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my wife had when we were coming up to London. Mr. Burrows, the minister, kindly entertained us about a fortnight in the way, and when my wife was there, being great with child, she fell down from the top of a pair of stairs to the bottom, yet the Lord kept her and the child also safe from that deadly danger. When we had been also at London for a time and began to be known in the place, my wife was brought to bed. The Lord put it into our hearts to remove to another place in Mr. Eldred's house in London which stood empty, and the very night we were all come away then came the pursuivants and others to search after us, but the Lord delivered us out of their hands. And so, when the Lord had recovered my wife, we began to prepare for a removal once again to New England. And the Lord seemed to make our way plain (1) because I had no other call to any place in England; (2) many more of God's people resolved to go with me, as Mr. Roger Harlakenden and Mr. Champney, etc.; (3) the Lord saw our unfitness and the unfitness of our going the year before, and therefore giving us good friends to accompany us and good company in the ship, we set forward, about the tenth of August, 1635, with myself, wife, and my little son Thomas, and other precious friends, having tasted much of God's mercy in England and lamenting the loss of our native country when we took our last view of it. In our voyage upon the sea the Lord was very tender of me and kept me from the violence of seasickness. In our coming we were refreshed with the society of Mr. Wilson, Mr. Jones, by their faith and prayers and preaching. The ship we came in was very rotten and unfit for such a voyage, and therefore the first storm we had, we had a very great leak which did much appal and affect us. Yet the Lord discovered it unto us, when we were thinking of returning back again, and much comforted our hearts. We had many storms, in one of which my dear wife took such a cold and got such weakness as that she fell into a consumption of which she afterward died. And also the Lord preserved her with the child in her arms from imminent and apparent death, for by the shaking of the ship in a violent storm her head was

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pitched against an iron bolt, and the Lord miraculously preserved the child and recovered my wife. This was a great affliction to me and was a cause of many sad thoughts in the ship how to behave myself when I came to New England. My resolutions I have written down in my little book. And so the Lord after many sad storms and wearisome days and many longings to see the shore, the Lord brought us to the sight of it upon October 2, anno 1635, and upon October the third we arrived with my wife, child, brother Samuel, Mr. Harlakenden, Mr. Cooke, etc., at Boston with rejoicing in our God after a longsome voyage, my dear wife's great desire being now fulfilled, which was to leave me in safety from the hand of my enemies and among God's people, and also the child under God's precious ordinances. Now when we came upon shore we were kindly saluted and entertained by many friends and were the first three days in the house of Mr. Coddington, being treasurer at that time, and that with much love.