what role has religion played in the development of American Literature? 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a culture of itself, religion has played an intrinsic role in the development of American literature, especially Colonial literature in which Puritan verses were among the first American writings. With its precept of self-examination, the Puritanical habit of introspection is evidenced in the verses of Anne Bradstreet. In her "Verses Upon the Burning of Our House" Mrs. Bradstreet's emotional conflict between her grief over the loss of 800 books and other valuables and her Puritanical creed that she should not be materialistic is what lends the poem its emotional and philosophical import:

That fearful sound of "fire" and "fire...."

The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.

A unique Puritan poet, Edward Taylor viewed God and the bowler and the sun His bowling ball. His poem "Houswifery" lauds the Puritan qualities of thrift and orderliness as the spinning wheel provides the cloth for "Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory."

Although not a Puritan, Benjamin Franklin certainly wrote much in the theme of self-examination.  His Autobiography evaluates Franklin's younger self and describes how he learned from imitation, much as Puritans did.  Of course, his Poor Richard's Almanac has as its theme the acquisition of virtue. 

The concept of the American Dream, once a set of ideals in which freedom in a new country provided the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility that could be achieved through hard work, often termed the "Protestant work ethic," is a theme prevalent in much Colonial literature, as well.  This dream, born partly of religious belief in hard work, gave rise to American Romanticism, both traditional and dark. 

One of the Dark Romanticists, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote literary works that reflect the profound influence that Puritanism had upon writers such as he.  Haunted by his Puritan guilt borne of relatives who were involved in the Salem Witch trials, Hawthorne wrote his seminal work, The Scarlet Letter, a novel that set the benchmark for many other American works. With the burgeoning of the Transcendentalists, there was a movement away from traditional religion to the belief in what Emerson called the Oversoul. Nevertheless, Christian morality and principles remain prevalent in his writing, such as respecting all men and leading a moral life. 

A writer of the nineteenth century, for whom Christian beliefs play a major role, is Emily Dickinson.  Her juxtaposition of religion with nature is often prevalent in her writing. For instance, her poem "Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church," was written during the Second Awakening, in which the belief that salvation was available to all supplanted the Calvinist idea of predestination.  Dickinson rejected the teachings of her family's Congregationist church, but she was a deeply spiritual poet who often reflect upon the divine.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Christian beliefs also influenced works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a narrative intended to stir Christian beliefs in charity towards those who are persecuted.  The Negro spirituals, too, are an expression of religious faith.
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