In the winter of 1829, a baby girl was born not far from Hanover, New Hampshire, to a farming couple named Daniel and Harmony Bridgman. The Bridgmans were churchgoing Baptists. Shortly after the girl, Laura, had passed her second birthday, scarlet fever attacked the family. With versatile cruelty, it killed her six-year-old and four-year-old sisters but left Laura alive—completely deaf and, to use the blunt word of the doctor who attended her, with her eyes “spoilt.” She retained some sensitivity to light in one eye until, at the age of five, she pierced it by walking into a spindle projecting from her mother’s spinning wheel, and her world went totally dark.
Trying to be a good Christian—trying, that is, to suppress her questions about why this plague had been visited upon her children—Mrs. Bridgman wrote to a friend that “my feelings were more easily conceived than expressed.” Small wonder. Like any pious mother, she was expected to reconcile her love for her children with the doctrine that, conceived and born in sin, they shared in the guilt passed down from generation to generation since Adam’s original sin in Eden. Here is an earlier New England mother, the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, summing up in a quatrain the doctrine that every infant is born depraved and deserves whatever punishment God metes out:
Stained from birth with Adams sinfull fact
Thence I began to sin as soon as act:
A perverse will, a love to what’s forbid,
A serpents sting in pleasing face lay hid.
For believers in this predestinarian version of Christianity that persisted in New England more or less continuously for some two hundred years, the question of why God spares some children while sweeping others into the furnace of pain and death was perhaps the deepest mystery of their faith; and their greatest trial was to accept God’s reasons without his revealing what those reasons were.
As the fever receded and became a memory, the Bridgmans went on with their lives. In the time between Laura’s sickness and her hideous accident, two sons were born, and Harmony Bridgman learned to cope with the needs of her surviving daughter. She taught Laura such household tasks as setting table and churning butter, and when the child became wild and unmanageable, she did her best to calm and comfort her by hugging and holding her until the tantrum passed. Both parents developed a system of taps and caresses that conveyed to Laura their responses—approval, warning, anger, consent—to her behavior. Before her illness, Laura had spoken a few words, and for a short time after her recovery she sometimes cried out “dark, dark” as if begging for someone to light a lamp—but she soon lost her ability to speak and reverted to what sounded, at least to visitors, like bestial grunts and moans.
The Bridgmans lived in a theological world little changed from colonial times. God ruled their lives with unpredictable and …