Puritan Literature

Early American Literature
The Puritan Era
Outcomes of the lesson
 Timeline overview of American Literary Movements
 Early American Literature overview and timeline
 Emphasis on Puritan Literature, beginning with the
historic context.
 Writing style, major themes, methods of
interpretation and author’s intent of Puritan works
 Notable writers of the Puritan Era and their works
Prior Knowledge Inquiry
 How do you define the terms pure,
purist and puritan in our modern era?
 Connect how these denotations might
relate to the Puritan Era of writing.
Point of View Inquiry
Massachusetts Bay Colony seal
from 1629-1686.
Massachusetts Bay Colony seal from
Examine the two seals above and make an
inference about the perception and agenda of
the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the
reigning Monarch. What changes transpired
between the eras of these two seals.
Literary Movements
Age of
Puritan Era
and PostModernism
1600 - 1750 1750 - 1800 1800 - 1840 1840 - 1855 1865 1915
1916 - 1946
1946 Present
Early American Literature
Puritan Era
Age of Reason/
Puritan Literature
American writing from
 Native American (oral stories)
 Puritan Writing
 Early American Political Writings influenced by John
Locke (natural rights) and Charles Montesquieu
(separation of powers).
Puritan Literary Era
Jamestown, Virginia
the first permanent
English colony in the
Americas is founded
by the Virginia
Company of London
in 1607.
Plymouth Colony is
founded in 1620 by English
separatists (Pilgrims)
governed by William
Bradford who wrote about
their experience in Of
Plymouth Plantation.
immigrated to
Americans to
establish a “city
on a hill” led by
John Winthrop.
Sinners in the
Hands of an
Angry God.
The Puritans and the Founding of the
New England Colonies
Historic Context of the American Puritans
The Puritans “City on a Hill”
 Following the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin
Luther (Germany, 1483-1546) and John Calvin (French
1509-1564), the Puritans came to the Americas to separate
or reform their own church, The Church of England (aka,
the Anglican Church).
 The Puritans divided into two main groups: 1. the
separatists, who wanted to sever ties with the Church of
England (aka, the Pilgrims) and 2. those who wanted to
reform or purify the Anglican church from within, and
remain connected to the Church – The Puritans.
Reformation Principles
Protestant reformers abided by two foundational principles:
 1. The Bible is the supreme authority, not man nor a manmade institution. (The Roman Catholics called this
protestant principle “sola scriptura” and noted it as a
fallacy, because the Bible was not intended to be read
literally. However, the Reformers thought this was just
the RC’s way of inserting their hierarchical authority into
the interpretation of sacred writing.)
 2. The individual has a direct relationship with God
(hence, a direct responsibility to God) that does not
require mediation through a priest or institution.
Of Plymouth Plantation
 In 1620 William Bradford and his company of 101
separatists (men, women and children) sailed on the
Mayflower with the intention of landing at the
Virginia Colony. Instead, they landed at Cape Cod.
After surviving their first winter, there were only 50
people left in the spring of 1621. Bradford wrote
about their experience in Of Plymouth Plantation.
This is this the only document we have that
elucidates on the experience of the Pilgrims
The City on a Hill
 John Winthrop and his Puritan followers arrived in
the Massachusetts Bay in 1628. In his sermon, A
Model of Christian Charity he expressed the Puritan
ethic of purification and reform.
 “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon
a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if
we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we
have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his
present help from us, we shall be made a story and a
byword throughout the world.” ~John Winthrop
Five Primary Beliefs of the
Reformation carried by the Puritans
 1. Absolute Sovereignty
 2. Human Depravity
 3. Predestination
 4. Covenant Theology
 5. Individualism and Reading
Absolute Sovereignty
 God exists outside of time, and is in complete
control. Nothing happens outside of his knowledge
or power.
The Puritans used the words
Sovereignty and Providence
 Human Depravity or Total Depravity states
that humans are inherently evil and sinful
due to the fall from grace of Adam and Eve.
 Therefore, humans are incapable of a
worthy response to God, and are in need of
God’s grace/redemption.
 All of creation is tainted by original sin and
there is nothing good in a human apart from
God’s grace, or the saving action of God.
 Because of the fall, and human decent into
depravity, God must initiate all interaction
with humans, giving humans an ability, a
chance to respond.
Depravity: wickedness, a
nature of violence
 God – in His absolute
authority, sovereignty and
wisdom – determined before
human history who would be
saved and go to heaven (“the
elect”) and who would be
damned to hell. This number
was already fixed.
 The elect have no choice but
to be saved, and the damned
cannot choose election, even if
they think they want to follow
 The number is fixed because
God exists outside of time
and already knows the
choices and outcomes of all
creatures in order to direct
all choices toward His own
purpose, or sovereignty.
 However, humans who exist
in time, are still responsible
for their choices in everyday
Covenant Theology
 Covenant theology is a core idea of
Calvinism that influences all of
Puritan life, grounding their religious
beliefs within their experience.
 Relationship with God
 Social and Civil relationships
 Church organization
Covenant: an agreement or contract between God
and his loyal, faithful followers. The Puritans also
called a covenant, a compact.
 Puritans were Congregationalists who rejected
hierarchy, especially before the Creator, or between
themselves and the Creator. Instead they favored a
personal relationship with God. Each church body
needed to be self-governing and autonomous.
 Members entered into a covenant with each other as
a communal body. They chose a pastor, elected
elders and deacons to carry out the activity of the
 Members demonstrated their election (being chosen
by God) by telling their testimony, being a witness to
divine intervention, or telling of their conversion
experience (such as a conversion story).
Example: Anne Bradstreet’s letter to her children
My dear children,–
I, KNOWING by experience that the exhortations of parents take most effect
when the speakers leave to speak, and those especially sink deepest which are
spoke latest– and being ignorant whether on my death bed I shall have
opportunity to speak to any of you, much lesse to All– thought it the best,
whilst I was able to compose some short matters, (for what else to call them I
know not) and bequeath to you, that when I am no more with you, yet I may
bee dayly in your remembrance, (Although that is the least in my aim in what
I now doe) but that you may gain some spiritual Advantage by my
experience. I have not studyed in this you read to show my skill, but to
declare the Truth– not to sett forth myself, but the Glory of God. If I had
minded the former, it had been perhaps better pleasing to you,– but seing the
last is the best, let it bee best pleasing to you.1.
The method I will observe shall be this– I will begin with God's dealing with
me from my childhood to this Day. In my young years, about 6 or 7 as I take
it, I began to make conscience of my wayes, and what I knew was sinfull, as
lying, disobedience to Parents, &c. I avoided it. If at any time I was overtaken
with the like evills, it was as a great Trouble. I could not be at rest 'till by
prayer I had confest it unto God. I was also troubled at the neglect of Private
Dutyes, tho: too often tardy that way. I also found much comfort in reading
the Scriptures, especially those places I thought most concerned my
Condition, and as I grew to have more understanding, so the more solace I
took in them.
Individualism and Reading
 Puritans were middle class, and
due to the Reformation influence
(personal relationship with God),
they emphasized individual
responsibility. This led to the
practical outcome of increased
literacy, particularly Bible
reading, because each person
needed to be able to interpret
God’s word.
 Both men and women studied
and interpreted the Bible for
themselves, and raised their
children to be literate and
Puritan Writings
 Because of the belief in God’s
election, Puritans also believed in
individual reflection and
examination of conscience on their
interpretations of personal
experience. This resulted in
writings about:
 Sermons
 Poetry
 Journals, Diaries and Letters
 Histories
 reflective writings/conversion
narratives/ everyday-event stories
Writing Style, Form and Content
 Puritan plain style: direct, straight-forward without
embellishments or hubris.
 Focused on God and the Bible
 Wrote about daily events, and the hardships of everyday
 Applied and interpreted symbolism
 Inward Reflection
 Autobiographical; each person speaks for oneself and not
for others.
 Distrust of drama, non-fiction and novels (false idols).
 Art was intended to direct one in their holy life, and not
as sensory pleasure or distraction.
Writing Style, Form and Content
If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may
desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our
polishing.” ~Cotton Mather
All of their writing was created and kept to document
the work of God in their lives, in humanity, through
their individual response to their experience with a
reflection upon their Creator’s will.
Therefore, Puritans were always reading books and
reading signs. They literally read scripture, and read
their experience for signs and symbols to interpret
God’s intention in their daily lives.
The Practical Outcomes of Symbol-Making
 Puritans interpreted everyday events as manifestations of God’s will. A calamity
might be a sign of God’s judgment, and prosperity a blessing. They held a deep
belief in the supernatural and in the mysterious. “Signs and Wonders” were read to
show that God was at work; the corporeal pointed to the transcendent. The
words/signs of the Bible revealed God’s intentions for those of the earth, in heaven.
Reading physical and figurative signs led to:
 Increased education and literacy for everyone.
 The Puritans founded Harvard University in 1636.
 The “Puritan Work Ethic”
 The Puritan communities developed and sustained a healthy economy in the New
World, while many of the established cities in Europe suffered economic hardship.
William Bradford’s
Of Plymouth Plantation
 William Bradford traveled to the Americas on the Mayflower.
He became the governor of the Pilgrim’s settlement in
 Of Plymouth Plantation details the historic journey of the
separatists/Pilgrims across the Atlantic to the Americas. It
describes the founding of the Plymouth Plantation, their first
winter, the Pilgrim’s contact with the Native Americans and
the first Thanksgiving.
John Edward’s Sinners In the Hands of
an Angry God
John Edward’s penned the famous
sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an
Angry God in 1741, and delivered it to
his Enfield, Connecticut congregation
that was swept up in the Great
Awakening. Though many of
Edward’s sermons were more
pastoral, even reasonable and logical,
Sinners stands as the penultimate
classic of fire and brimstone preaching.
This work assumes a highly
disciplinary tone and is said to have
caused listeners to rise from the pews
and enter an extreme emotional state.
This piece captures the fervent
religious spirit of the Great Awakening
and Edward’s power of persuasion.
*He was said to be a
quiet and thoughtful
teacher in private.
*He was one of the
founders of Princeton
Early American Writers
Additional Sources:
John Edwards
Early American Writers: John Smith, John Winthrop and Roger Williams
Anne Bradstreet: Poems and Biography
Cotton Mather’s Writing
Salem Witch Trials
Evaluation question
 By 1660 only 20% of the Massachusetts population
remained members of the church. The tension
between the secular (non-religious) aspects of daily
life and religious belief was growing. Judge and
provide reasons for why religious community was so
difficult to sustain in the New World.
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