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The impact of Puritanism on 19th century American society and literature


Puritanism significantly shaped 19th-century American society and literature by emphasizing moral rigor, piety, and a sense of mission. This influence is evident in the works of authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who explored themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, and in societal norms that valued hard work, discipline, and community cohesion. The Puritan legacy fostered a culture of introspection and moral scrutiny.

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

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

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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How did Puritanism shape nineteenth-century American literary imagination?

In connection with this question, Nathaniel Hawthorne is the author who, for most readers, would first come to mind. Hawthorne was haunted by the stark images of early colonial New England, where his ancestors established a kind of theocracy of Calvinist Christianity in defiance of the Established Church (the Church of England) and the Stuart monarchy.

Hawthorne's attitude about Puritanism is ambivalent. He presents characters like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter who defy the system and demonstrate their individuality and heroism. In other stories such as "The Maypole of Merry Mount" those who revel in "sin" don't show the same depth of character of Hester but are similarly punished by the religious authorities.

Yet in some instances Hawthorne admires the individualism shown by the Puritans themselves, as in the tale "Endicott and the Red Cross." This story is replete with irony in depicting the defiant gesture of Endicott in tearing the flag of the Red Cross, the symbol of the English monarchy. To Hawthorne, Endicott's act is a precursor of the American Revolution that was to take place one hundred and thirty years after Endicott. But the subtext of the story is the danger of extremism of any kind. Hawthorne does not spare the reader a description of the Puritans' ruthlessness in their punishment of religious "offenders" and in their attitude towards the indigenous Americans. The themes of other stories such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "Ethan Brand" involve the meaning of sin and evil, and express a tension between the reality of evil and the unfairness of judging the "sinner" who falls short of the impossible standards set by religion.

The themes of alienation in the work of Hawthorne's close friend Herman Melville, while not drawing directly on the Puritan background, are nonetheless similarly rooted in the obsessive religious attitudes of early America. The obvious example is Ahab's obsessive quest in Moby Dick. Bartleby depicts the gradual withdrawal from modern life and its imperfection by the title character. In Billy Budd we see a stark allegory of good versus evil.

Hawthorne, Melville and other Americans including Edgar Allan Poe show us, even in their basically secular orientation, an awareness of the importance of the powerful religious background of early America. Their approach, incorporating mysticism and fantasy, is a contrast to the greater realism of their English contemporaries Dickens, Thackeray, and the Bronte sisters, though the latter also show the power of the religious background of their culture in a different way.

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What are the major impacts of Puritanism on American literature?

Your question on the major impacts of Puritanism on American literature is a very interesting one, and I think it is a good idea to first review a bit of relevant history. Puritanism had its roots in Europe during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which first started as an effort to bring change to the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans followed their own very strict form of Protestantism, evolved in part from the teachings of theologian John Calvin. They did not actually call themselves Puritans. This was a term that their own contemporaries used in a kind of derision of their extreme ideas about “purifying” the Church.

The Puritans believed that the Church of England (established by King Henry VIII in 1534 when he broke off with the Roman Catholic Church) was too much like the Roman Catholic Church, and they rejected the rituals and theology that they did not believe were strictly proscribed in the Bible. Puritans also forbade musical instruments and other forms of entertainment but allowed the singing of church hymns.

Although Puritans came to the American colonies to escape religious persecution and to practice religious freedom, some of the communities they established in New England became notorious for their intolerance of others who held different religious beliefs. It could be downright dangerous to live near Puritans as a member of another religion. For example, there is historical documentation of Puritan officials hanging and branding Quakers. Puritans were also responsible for the infamous Salem witch trials.

The first group of Puritans came to the colonies in 1620 on the Mayflower alongside the Pilgrims (who were also Protestants), and many more Puritans migrated to New England beginning in 1630 and founded the city of Boston within the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans thought that God had chosen only a few people (known as “the elect”) to be saved, and that the rest would be punished for eternity. Their outlook produced a kind of dark view of life, along with anxiety and fear that one “wrong” action could lead to God’s eternal wrath. On a positive note, however, Puritans had a high literacy rate, because they believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible.

If you want to get a real sense of how it may have been to live in a Puritan community in colonial America, I recommend you read the young-adult historical novel entitled The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

As founders of some of the earliest settlements in the American Colonies, Puritans had a profound influence not only on American literature but on American culture. Some of the earliest authors of American literature were Puritans. These include poets Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) and Edward Taylor (1642–1729); William Bradford (1590–1657), who wrote the journal Of Plymouth Plantation; and John Winthrop (1588–1646), who wrote influential sermons such as “A Model of Christian Charity.”

Some later distinguished American authors came from New England, an area whose culture was deeply shaped by Puritanism. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), for example, was born in Salem, Massachusetts and was a descendant of early Puritans. His famous novel The Scarlet Letter and many of his other works examine the very judgmental and harsh social environments of Puritan communities in seventeenth-century New England.

For more information on Puritanism’s impact on American Literature, a really good source is a book of nine essays from the University of Illinois Press entitled Puritan Influences in American Literature, edited by Emory Elliott (published in 1979). You may be able to ask your school librarian to locate and borrow this volume on your behalf.

Online you can read a very detailed Master’s Thesis entitled “The Impact of Puritanism Upon American Literature in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries” by N.Y. Borsali at the following long link:


Skip over the first presentation page, which is in French (this was written for a French university), and the essay itself will be in English. The author goes so far as to examine the influence of Puritanism on Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century.

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