PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 1: American Puritanism: A Brief Introduction

Outside Links: | Early Americas Digital Archive | Society of Early Americanists Website | Puritan New England Map |

Page Links: | Basic Puritan Beliefs | Additional Beliefs | The Function of Puritan Writers | The Style of Puritan Writing | Reasons for Puritan Literary Dominance over the Virginians | Common Themes in Early Puritan Writing | Forces Undermining Puritanism | Visible Signs of Puritan Decay | Puritan Legacy | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap 1 - Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page | September 30, 2011

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Two Important New England Settlements

The Plymouth Colony
Flagship Mayflower arrives - 1620
Leader - William Bradford
Settlers known as Pilgrims and Separatists
"The Mayflower Compact" provides for
social, religious, and economic freedom,
while still maintaining ties to Great Britain.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony
Flagship Arbella arrives - 1630
Leader - John Winthrop
Settlers are mostly Puritans or Congregational Puritans
"The Arbella Covenant" clearly establishes
a religious and theocratic settlement,
free of ties to Great Britain.

I. Basic Puritan Beliefs - Tulip

1. Total Depravity - through Adam and Eve's fall, every person is born sinful - concept of Original Sin.

2. Unconditional Election - God "saves" those he wishes - only a few are selected for salvation - concept of predestination.

3. Limited Atonement - Jesus died for the chosen only, not for everyone.

4. Irresistible Grace - God's grace is freely given, it cannot be earned or denied. Grace is defined as the saving and transfiguring power of God.

5. Perseverance of the "saints" - those elected by God have full power to interpret the will of God, and to live uprightly. If anyone rejects grace after feeling its power in his life, he will be going against the will of God - something impossible in Puritanism.

Additional Beliefs

Typology: The belief that God's intentions are present in human action and in natural phenomenon. Failure to understand these intentions are human limitations. Puritans believed in cyclical or repetitive history; they use "types" - Moses prefigures Jesus, Jonah's patience is reflected in Jesus' ordeal on the cross, and Moses' journey out of Egypt is played out in the Pilgrims' crossing of the Atlantic. God's wrath and reward are also present in natural phenomena like flooding, bountiful harvest, the invasion of locusts, and the lightening striking a home.

Manifest Destiny: The concept of manifest destiny is as old as the first New England settlements. Without using the words, John Winthrop articulated the concept in his famous sermon, the Arbella Covenant (1630), when he said: " ... for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; ..." Winthrop exhorts his listeners to carry on God's mission and to set a shining example for the rest of the world. From this beginning, the concept has had religious, social, economic, and political consequences. The words manifest destiny were first used by editor John L. O'Sullivan in 1845.

Backsliding: The belief that "saved" believers, those with visible signs of grace, can fall into temptation and become sinners. To prevent this, believers were expected not to become smug, do constant soul-searching, be introspective, and pray constantly. Satan was particularly interested in snaring such believers.

II. The Function of Puritan Writers

1. To transform a mysterious God - mysterious because he is separate from the world.

2. To make him more relevant to the universe.

3. To glorify God.

III. The Style of Puritan Writing

1. Protestant - against ornateness; reverence for the Bible.

2. Purposiveness - there was a purpose to Puritan writing - described in Part II above.

3. Puritan writing reflected the character and scope of the reading public, which was literate and well-grounded in religion.

| Top | IV. Reasons for Puritan Literary Dominance over the Virginians

1. Puritans were basically middle class and fairly well-educated.

2. Virginians were tradesmen and separated from English writing.

3. Puritans were children of the covenant; gave them a drive and a purpose to write.

V. Common Themes in Early Puritan Writing

1. Idealism - both religious and political.

2. Pragmaticism - practicality and purposiveness.

VI. Forces Undermining Puritanism

1. A person's natural desire to do good - this works against predestination.

2. Dislike of a "closed" life.

3. Resentment of the power of the few over many.

4. Change in economic conditions - growth of fishery, farms, etc.

5. Presence of the leaders of dissent - Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams.

6. The presence of the frontier - concept of self-reliance, individualism, and optimism.

7. Change in political conditions - Massachusetts became a Crown colony.

8. Theocracy suffered from a lack of flexibility.

9. Growth of rationality - use of the mind to know God - less dependence on the Bible.

10. Cosmopolitanism of the new immigrants.

| Top | VII. Visible Signs of Puritan Decay

1. Visible decay of godliness.

2. Manifestations of pride - especially among the new rich.

3. Presence of "heretics" - Quakers and Anabaptists.

4. Violations of the Sabbath and swearing and sleeping during sermons.

5. Decay in family government.

6. People full of contention - rise in lawsuits and lawyers.

7. Sins of sex and alcohol on the increase.

8. Decay in business morality - lying, laborers underpaid, etc.

9. No disposition to reform.

10. Lacking in social behavior.

(Ideas in Sections VII & VIII are discussed in detail in Perry Miller's Errand Into the Wilderness 1956.)

VIII. Some Aspects of the Puritan Legacy: each has positive and negative implications

a. The need for moral justification for private, public, and governmental acts.

b. The Questing for Freedom - personal, political, economic, and social.

c. The Puritan work ethic.

d. Elegiac verse - morbid fascination with death.

e. The city upon the hill - concept of manifest destiny.

(from Shucard, Alan. American Poetry: The Puritans through Walt Whitman. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts P., 1988.)

Study Questions

1. Define some of the basic concepts of Puritan ideology and illustrate their significance in specific works. Choose from among the following: (a) "new world" consciousness, (b) covenant theology, (c) typology, (d) innate depravity, and (e) irresistible grace. A few of the writers who address each of these concepts, and whom you will need to discuss, include (a) Bradford and Bradstreet; (b) Bradford, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; (c) Bradstreet (in Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House), Taylor, Winthrop, and Wigglesworth; (d) Taylor, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; and (e) Winthrop and Edwards.

2. Trace the connection between the Puritans' reliance on written covenant in Bradford's [The Mayflower Compact] and their emphasis on didactic to the exclusion of dramatic or personal vision in their literature.

3. Octavio Paz, among others, has called Puritan society a culture based on the principle of exclusion. Discuss, with particular references to literary works, the evidence of this principle in Puritan life and culture.

4. Consider secular consequences of Puritan theology: the Puritans' attitudes toward Native Americans, ordinary life, witches, house servants, slavery, and infant damnation. Choose two of these topics and explore their treatment in literary works from the period.

5. Identify and discuss literary texts that reveal stresses on Puritanism or that illustrate schisms within Puritan and colonial consciousness.

6. Explore the contrast between personal and didactic voice in Puritan and early colonial literature.

7. Identify the literary forms available to colonial American writers. What limited their choice? How did they invent within these forms? What forms would survive for later writers to work within?

8. Cite several fundamental differences between Puritan thinking and deist thinking. Analyze specific literary works that illustrate these differences.

9. Describe the way the concepts of the self and of self-reliance develop and find expression in colonial and early American literature. Identify those specific figures or works that you see as significant and explain their contributions.

| Top | 10. Trace the power of the written convenant in colonial and early American literature, beginning with [The Mayflower Compact].

11. Discuss the ways in which Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson alter the content of Puritan thinking without changing its form. How do their writings reflect earlier forms?

12. Slavery is an issue of conscience for some colonial and early American writers; for others it is fraught with ambivalence. Discuss the issue with references to several specific texts.

13. Discuss the major similarities and differences between The Mayflower Compact and The Arbella Covenant.

14. Describe the way concepts of the self and of self-reliance develop and find expression in colonial and early American literature. Identify those specific figures or works that you see as significant and explain their contributions.

15. The United States has been criticized in recent years for assuming an air of moral superiority and for trying to impose its opinion on the rest of the world. Can you find the seeds of these American attitudes in the literature of the first two centuries? Explain your answer by referring to specific works you have read.

16. (a) What motivated the Puritans to flee England? (b) Did the Puritans have a "blueprint" for organizing their new communities, or did the social structure evolve slowly? (c) From what type of social, cultural, religious, and economic background did Winthrop emerge?

17. (a) Examine Winthrop's 1645 speech in which he responds to charges that he exceeded his authority as governor. Is this a fruition (or expression) of the Puritan ambiguity between the value of religion and the value of individual liberty? (b) How did the Hutchinson controversy potentially threaten Puritan oligarchy? (c) Explore the "spiritual autobiography" and its characteristics. What philosophical purposes did it serve? What pragmatic purposes? (d) In Modell, trace image patterns Winthrop uses, i.e. allusions to Biblical passages, discursive form of sermon, etc.

18. Define some of the basic concepts of Puritan ideology and illustrate their significance in specific works. Choose from among the following: (a) "new world" consciousness, (b) covenant theology, (c) typology, (d) innate depravity, and (e) irresistible grace. A few of the writers who address each of these concepts, and whom you will need to discuss, include (a) Bradford and Bradstreet; (b) Bradford, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; (c) Bradstreet (in Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House), Taylor, Winthrop, and Wigglesworth; (d) Taylor, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; and (e) Winthrop and Edwards.

19. Consider secular consequences of Puritan theology: the Puritans' attitudes toward Native Americans, ordinary life, witches, house servants, slavery, and infant damnation. Choose two of these topics and explore their treatment in literary works from the period.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap1/1intro.html (provide page date or date of your login). 
 

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