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and they produced only one notable writer, William Bradford (1590-1657), whose History of Plymouth Plantation remained unpublished until 1856.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.
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 described this community as a “city on a hill,” a model that would be studied by the entire world.
That such an ideal was unobtainable became apparent to the colonists almost immediately; however, Winthrop’s sermon has several attributes which characterize the Puritan worldview. First was a tendency to see parallels between the Puritan experience and such archetypes as the Israelites’ journey into the wilderness. This tendency allowed the Puritans to invest their history with great symbolic significance and to find meaning in the most mundane occurrences; it also encouraged them to believe that their experiences had a divine purpose. This tendency also prevented the Puritans from seeing the indigenous people...
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