Puritan and Protestant Traditions in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Originally, “Puritan” was a derisive term for one who opposed compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism in Elizabethan England. The term was later applied to one who claimed to be using pure forms of Christianity. The claimed pure practices of Christianity included congregational organization, faith in the Bible as literal truth, and a rejection of ritual in religious practice. Protestants are members of any of a large number of Christian groups that are not Catholic; these groups trace their origins to the Reformation.

The Puritan tradition in literature has been most influential in the United States, largely because of the political and philosophical impact of the Puritan immigrants. Two Puritan groups were among the first Europeans in New England. The Plymouth colony was established in 1620 near Cape Cod, Massachusetts; their numbers were small and they produced only one notable writer, William Bradford (1590-1657), whose History of Plymouth Plantation remained unpublished until 1856. The Plymouth colonists believed in separation from the Church of England and had little contact with English society. The Plymouth colony had relatively little lasting influence politically; they have, however, maintained a mythic presence in American literature and culture, although their image was romanticized in such works as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). Far more influential than the Plymouth colony was the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the Boston area, the first settlement of which took place in 1630. The Massachusetts Bay colonists did not believe in separation from England and maintained closer ties with the political movements of the time. Massachusetts Bay produced a number of important writers, including John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, and Edward Taylor.

Puritan Beliefs

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Puritan movement was attractive to those who felt shut out of the economic life of the seventeenth century, including second sons, who were precluded from inheriting property, and small businessmen and landlords, who were adversely affected by English population growth. For these groups the idea of a strict spiritual and secular order was extremely attractive.

Unlike the Church of England, which believed in a hierarchy with the English monarch at its head, Puritans believed in independent congregations with elected ministers. They also believed that God had already chosen those who would be saved from damnation. These people were the “elect.” Although this choice had already been made, the Puritans also believed in the covenant of grace: the idea that Christ would save all those who believed in him and that people might prepare their hearts for the experience of this grace.

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay also believed that they were divinely selected to play a pivotal role in world history, serving as an example of an ideal society. Their concept of this ideal is shown in John Winthrop’s famous sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), delivered while the colonists were en route to America. In his sermon, Winthrop described an exemplary future in which the colonists would join together in a utopian community, sharing their burdens and joys and demonstrating their perfect understanding of the divine intention. Winthrop...

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Puritan Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Puritans were an intensely utilitarian society and thus believed that all literature should serve a purpose. Nonetheless they produced a sizable corpus of history, personal narrative, biography, and even poetry, and their attitudes and beliefs have had a profound influence on American literature in general.

Autobiographies, conversion narratives, and biographies were important Puritan documents because Puritans believed that the life of the individual was a microcosm of the life of the group. Thus the conversion experience, the individual’s journey from doubt to belief in the experience of grace, reflected the hoped-for journey of society from chaos to perfection. More important, the individual conversion narrative became a literary model and psychological pattern for a variety of other genres, following a trajectory of doubt and spiritual struggle leading gradually to growing confidence and final assurance, although even the elect experienced periodic lapses into despair. This classic Puritan experience can be seen in various diaries and personal narratives from Puritan writers such as Thomas Shepard, Michael Wigglesworth, Increase Mather, and Jonathan Edwards. The general pattern of the conversion narrative continues in such disparate literary forms as self-help books and celebrity biographies.

In following generations in the Puritan community, there was a move from autobiography to biography, from the description of the self to the...

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Puritans and Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Puritans’ contribution to identity rests on their view of themselves as a special people with a divinely derived mission and on their emphasis on the individual experience. The Puritans looked for symbolic significance in every event, no matter how trivial. All history could be seen to have a pattern that could be interpreted correctly. This tendency to see symbolic significance in every occurrence is echoed throughout American literature, from the scarlet A reproduced in the heavens in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) to the mysterious letter v in Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963). Puritan influence may also be seen in the importance given in American literature to written signs and symbols. The Puritans were literalists in their biblical interpretation, and the New Testament emphasizes the power of the Word.

The Puritans believed that the individual psyche was capable of rebirth in conversion, renewing one’s view of the world. Intellectual and emotional protest were channeled into a quest for spiritual awareness, the attempt to remake the self into a new consciousness. Puritan thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards recorded their rebirth in the experience of grace and the subsequent renewal of their perceptions. Their successors, such as the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, believed that a renewed perception could renew the world itself, could make nature itself a new experience. The ultimate effect of this concentration on self-renewal is a literature of self-consciousness: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Edith Wharton are typical of a literature in which the psyche is the main area of interest, and in which the development of the spirit and the consciousness becomes of more import than the development of a more perfect society.

The Puritan emphasis on the inner journey as emblematic of the outer experience and on the development of the self as more important than the development of society has marked American literature ever since, for good and for ill. On one hand it has led to a literature that is masterful in its depiction of the triumphs and travails of the individual consciousness. On the other, it has produced an occasional lack of interest in society itself, a denial of the idea that the individual consciousness is in fact part of a complex whole, and that the connections within that whole demand at least as much attention as the experiences of its individual parts.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. A more contemporary reassessment of the Puritan influence to augment the work of Perry Miller. Extensive bibliography.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Contains an overview of Puritan ideas and major authors.

Caldwell, Patricia. The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. An overview of this influential Puritan literary form.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1939. The starting place for critical study.

Miller, Perry, and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. A classic consideration of the Puritan influence on American literature.

Miller, Perry, and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. 2 vols. 1938. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. A collection of many of the major Puritan writers, with selections from their principal works.

White, Peter, ed. Puritan Poets and Poetics: Seventeenth Century American Poetry in Theory and Practice. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985. An anthology of Puritan poets, major and minor.