Religion as Foundation

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Many of the colonies in North America were established to promote religious freedom, so religious beliefs have figured significantly in the prose literature of the North American continent. The belief that the colonists were like a new race establishing a New Jerusalem in the New World gave many of them great confidence in their pioneering work. William Bradford, in A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the Plantations Settled at Plymouth (1622; Bradford is generally considered author of the first half of this work, also known as Mourt’s Relation), in History of Plymouth Plantation (1856), and especially in the Mayflower Compact of 1620, demonstrates how his religious values as a Puritan permeated his daily life and his interpretation of events.

Similarly, John Winthrop presented his Puritan colleagues with his sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630) as a guide for the Massachusetts Bay Company. The role of the Bible in helping Winthrop design this new community was prominent, prompting the early Puritans to make him a governor of their colony. Samuel Sewall of the next generation in New England demonstrated similar religious values in his autobiographical work, The Diary of Samuel Sewall (1878-1882), published about 150 years after Sewall’s death. Cotton Mather, an early Puritan preacher, argued in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) that America was designed to illustrate biblical history, and to help interpret the Bible for a new world order. Mather’s writings, along with those of another Calvinist preacher, Jonathan Edwards in his masterful Freedom of the Will (1754), emphasize God’s holiness and grace in contrast to human depravity. Such beliefs prompted many of the early settlers to labor long and hard to demonstrate gratitude through industry.

Among the early settlers, several women distinguished themselves as prose writers with deep religious convictions. One of those was Mary Rowlandson, whose Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) demonstrates how readily these early settlers interpreted worldly circumstances in biblical terms. In the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Ashbridge showed herself to be a master of the...

(The entire section is 933 words.)