The Doctrine of Weaned Affections

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The Doctrine of Weaned Affections: In Search of Spiritual Milk

One of the most important theological doctrines for many Puritans is what has been called the "doctrine of weaned affections." This doctrine holds that individuals must learn to wean themselves from earthly attachments and instead make spiritual matters their priority. Obviously, inappropriate earthly attachments included material possessions such as one's home, furniture, clothing, and valuables. But the doctrine of weaned affections could also proscribe things that we do not usually think of as incompatible with spirituality, such as a love of natural beauty, a dedication to secular learning, or even an intense devotion to one's spouse, children, or grandchildren. According to orthodox Puritan theology, anything tied to this world--even relationships with family members--should be secondary to God. While the idea of weaned affections may have been emotionally practical given the seventeenth century's high mortality rates, it was still a difficult doctrine to live by. Mary Rowlandson's bitterness about being separated from her home, family, and domestic comforts attests to the power these attachments held for her, even though she insists that she welcomes and has been purified by God's testing of her spiritual commitment. Anne Bradstreet's vivid poetic evocations of her love for her family and her home also offer evidence of the tensions created by the doctrine of weaned affections. Her reflections on her relationships with nature, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and even her house are poignantly balanced by her reminders to herself that her affections belong elsewhere.

Implicit in the language of "weaned affections" is the imagery of breast feeding, nursing, and weaning. In fact, Puritan ministers frequently employed breast and breast feeding imagery in their sermons and poetry, appropriating this female bodily function as a metaphor for proper spiritual nourishment and...
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