What was the impact of Puritanism on 19th century American society and literature?

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The "impact of Puritanism" might refer to the continuing effect that the Protestant denominations, descended from the seventeenth-century Puritans, had on American society and literature. We can also speak of the manner in which nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of their history, of the actions of their Protestant forefathers two centuries earlier,...

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The "impact of Puritanism" might refer to the continuing effect that the Protestant denominations, descended from the seventeenth-century Puritans, had on American society and literature. We can also speak of the manner in which nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of their history, of the actions of their Protestant forefathers two centuries earlier, affected their lives and their literary work.

Much of the literature produced by New Englanders such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau focuses on the conscience of the individual and the necessity of taking a separate path, when necessary, from that of society if society is judged to be wrong. This is a central tenet of Protestantism in general and of the specifically Calvinist branch of it from which the English Puritans are descended. Emerson's long essay "Self-Reliance" is probably the most cogent argument in favor of individualism in the works of the New England writers.

The abolitionist movement is also often seen to have its roots in the spirit of the "dissenters"—that is, any of the Protestant groups who broke off from the Anglican church. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was the daughter and sister of Calvinist ministers. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., another prominent abolitionist, was the son of a Congregationalist clergyman. Though not all of these writers were conservative Christians, the dissenting attitudes of their forefathers, with regard to both previously established denominations and political matters not directly related to religion, affected their thinking and their work.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is a writer who is characterized not so much by Puritan-derived ideas as by his ambivalent conception of his ancestors who founded and governed New England two centuries earlier. A major theme of his work is the harshness, and even the hypocrisy, of the early Puritans and their condemnation of anyone who deviated from the rigid dictates of religion. In The Scarlet Letter,the pillorying of Hester Prynne by the religious establishment is shown as hypocritical. It is ironic as well, given that Hester herself, by having a child out of wedlock, is expressing another form of the individualism that motivated the Puritans and drove them from England to the New World. Elsewhere in his fiction, Hawthorne seems to express a kind of admiration for the radicalism of the Puritans while subtly questioning it. In the story "Endicott and the Red Cross," the defiance of the English crown during the reign of the Stuarts is seen as the seed which, nearly 150 years later, grew into the War of Independence. But the depiction—as in The Scarlet Letter—of the punishment of an "adulteress" and a "wanton gospeller," as well as the moderating presence of Roger Williams, makes the situation ambiguous. It is characteristic of Hawthorne that he presents a two-sided issue and leaves it to the reader to interpret.

The authors discussed here, regardless of their own personal beliefs, were all influenced by the legacy of Puritanism in its different manifestations, as was New England society—and by extension American society as a whole—in the nineteenth century.

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Puritanism began as a religious movement among extreme Protestants during the Christian church reformation in England. Their main agenda was to establish Christian doctrines free from Catholic influence. The movement reached North America through pilgrims from England, who sought to settle in the New World. They succeeded in establishing colonies in North America, which were based on strict values that included self-reliance, hard work and frugality. Similar values were passed on to the American society. Further, congregational democracy in the Puritan church was blended into the modern American democratic sociopolitical life. Puritanism also focused substantial amounts of its energy on education and ensuring the people were informed.

Modern American society can trace its ideals of individualism, mutual respect and privacy to Puritanism. Puritanism ideals held that all Christians were capable of communicating with God thus eliminating the over-reliance on priests as established in Roman Catholicism. This also provided avenues for questioning established authorities by members of the society.

Puritanism had an impact on American literature seen through works that communicate American mythology as developed by the religious society. Puritans were known to keep personal journals which sought to offer a spiritual explanation for their daily events. Spiritual explanations were sought for events that would have rather been considered mere coincidences. Study of such events led to the development of American folklore. The keeping of the personal diaries by the Puritans also helped cultivate writing and reading culture which was necessary for the development of modern American literary works.

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