What are the major impacts of Puritanism on American literature?

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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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