Puritan and Protestant Traditions in Literature

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Analyze the role of religion in colonial American literature. How did the religious views of colonial authors shape their literary works, their styles, and their interpretation of historical and political events?  

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It is virtually impossible to separate religion from any context of early American colonial culture, especially in the New England colonies established as religious havens for Puritans seeking a new life. During the 1600s, most American colonial writers lived in these Puritanical colonies and expressed opinions on religion as it related to society and daily life.

For example, one of the most famous pieces of literature from this era is a sermon titled Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God, published by the minister Jonathan Edwards. Edwards's sermon reflected the religious views of the Puritanical community: that all people were inherently sinful and that a life of discipline, prayer, and self-denial was necessary in order to avoid triggering the wrath of God. While his sermon seems extremely harsh by modern standards, it reflects the thinking of many Puritans in the New England colonies at the time: in order to live well, everyone must commit to becoming free of sin.

However, what was true in New England was not always true in other colonies. George Alsop, an indentured servant living in the Middle Colonies, wrote A Character of the Province of Maryland, a work that is one of the best references for early colonial life in this period, in 1666. Alsop used both prose and poetry in a humorous fashion, clearly establishing that the point of literature in these regions was to educate or entertain rather than to drive home the point about religious scruples.

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For the Puritans of the Colonial Period, literature was inextricably connected to and reflective of their religious beliefs. Their plain style of writing often demonstrated the Puritan simplicity and clarity of expression as well as the Puritanic belief that the outward journey of the lives of the Pilgrims and the specific voyage to America were both spiritual jouneys.

  • This belief that the will of God directs the universe is demonstrated in Bradford's moral anecdotes in Of Plymouth Plantation that he includes in his history. For instance, after describing "a proud and very profane" young seaman who condemned the poor people in hopes of casting them overboard and then reveling in this act, Bradford recounts this seaman's death from a "grievous disease" that God saw fit to give him, he moralizes,

Thus his curses light on his own head, and it was an atsonishment to all his fellows for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.

  • Certainly, the poet Anne Bradstreet, who began American poetry, did not publish her verses because of her Puritan belief that the wife should be subservient to her husband.  But, in her poem, "Here Follow Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House," the emotional and philosophical power of this verse emanates from Bradstreet's conflict that such a loss should not matter according to the precepts of her Puritan faith against her deep grief at the loss of her home. 
  • Another Puritan poet, Edward Taylor, did not allow much of his poetry to be published, either. Like Bradstreet's verses, his poetry includes the concepts that people's identities are shaped by God and that all their emotions, desires, and behavior should be directed toward the service of the Almighty.  In his poem "Huswifery," for example, he employs an extended metaphor that makes the comparision of God's grace to three stages of making cloth: spinning the thread, the weaving of fabric on a loom, and the sewing and dyeing of the cloth.  In his final lines, Taylor writes,

Then mine apparel shall display before ye

That I am Clothed in Holy robes for glory.

These lines with the speaker clothed in "holy robes" convey the Puritan belief that salvation is a gift from God that cannot be earned.

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