Puritan Literature Characteristics, Writers and Their Works
Puritan literature represents a significant and foundational aspect of American literary history. Emerging in the 17th century, Puritan literature was deeply influenced by the religious beliefs, social values, and historical context of the Puritans, a religious group that played a central role in the colonization of North America.
Origins and Characteristics of Puritan Literature:
Puritan literature emerged during the 17th century as part of the larger Puritan movement. The Puritans were English Protestants who sought to purify the Church of England from what they viewed as corrupt practices and doctrines. Many of them emigrated to the New World, specifically New England, seeking religious freedom and the opportunity to establish a society based on their religious principles. Several key characteristics are associated with Puritan literature:
- Religious Devotion: Puritan literature is profoundly religious in nature. It reflects the Puritans’ deep religious convictions, emphasizing the importance of salvation, personal piety, and a moral life. The central theme is often the relationship between God and humanity.
- Plain Style: Puritan writing is characterized by its plain and direct style. The Puritans believed that clarity and simplicity in language were essential for conveying religious truths. They shunned ornate or extravagant writing.
- Moral and Didactic Content: Puritan literature is didactic, with an emphasis on teaching moral lessons. It often includes sermons, religious tracts, and narratives that convey moral or theological messages. These works were meant to instruct, warn, and guide the reader in living a righteous life.
- Theology and Covenant Theology: Puritan literature frequently delves into theological discussions, particularly concerning the concepts of predestination, election, and the covenant. The Puritans believed that God had preordained who would be saved, and this influenced their writings on grace and salvation.
- Self-Examination and Personal Narrative: A common form of Puritan writing is the spiritual autobiography or personal narrative. Writers would document their spiritual journey, including their conversion experience and ongoing struggle with sin. The goal was to demonstrate the workings of divine grace in their lives.
Prominent Puritan Writers and Their Works:
Several influential Puritan writers made significant contributions to American literature during the colonial period. Their writings continue to be studied and revered for their insights into the religious, moral, and social values of the time. Some of the most notable Puritan authors and their works include:
- John Winthrop (1588-1649): As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop delivered a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630) in which he coined the famous phrase “City upon a Hill.” This sermon emphasized the idea of creating a godly community in the New World.
- Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Bradstreet was the first published American poet. Her collection “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America” (1650) contained poems expressing her deep religious faith, personal struggles, and contemplations on life, death, and the natural world.
- Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): Edwards was a preacher and theologian known for his fire-and-brimstone sermons, particularly “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). His sermons aimed to awaken his listeners to the consequences of sin and the necessity of salvation.
- Cotton Mather (1663-1728): Mather was a prolific writer and minister. His work “Magnalia Christi Americana” (1702) is a religious history of New England. He also wrote on scientific topics, such as the smallpox vaccine, and was an advocate for learning and education.
- Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711): Rowlandson’s narrative, “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God” (1682), also known as “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” is an account of her captivity by Native Americans during King Philip’s War. It blends her personal experiences with religious reflection.
Enduring Influence of Puritan Literature:
Puritan literature has had a lasting impact on American literary traditions and cultural values. Its influence can be seen in various ways:
- Religious and Moral Foundations: Puritan literature laid the religious and moral foundations of American literature. The themes of sin, redemption, divine providence, and the ethical life have continued to be central to American writing.
- Plain Style and Clarity: The Puritans’ preference for plain and clear language has influenced subsequent generations of American writers. The focus on direct and accessible prose can be seen in writers such as Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.
- Literature of Testimony: The Puritans’ tradition of writing personal narratives, testimonials, and spiritual autobiographies paved the way for the American literary tradition of self-examination and the exploration of individual experiences.
- Theological and Philosophical Ideas: The Puritans’ theological and philosophical ideas, such as predestination, the covenant, and the idea of the “City upon a Hill,” have left a mark on American literature, politics, and culture.
- Social and Political Impact: The Puritans’ pursuit of religious freedom and their establishment of self-governing communities in the New World had a profound influence on American ideas of liberty, democracy, and the separation of church and state.
- Cultural Identity: Puritan literature helped shape the cultural identity of the United States, emphasizing values such as individualism, self-reliance, and moral rectitude, which continue to be integral to the American ethos.
Puritan literature, emerging in the 17th century as a product of the religious, social, and historical context of the Puritan colonists in America, holds a unique and enduring place in American literary history. Its distinctive characteristics, including religious devotion, plain style, moral didacticism, and theological depth, have profoundly influenced the development of American literature and culture.
Notable Puritan authors who explored issues of religion, sin, salvation, and the individual’s connection with God included John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, and Mary Rowlandson. These works have had a profound impact on American culture, shaping its literary, moral, and religious traditions.
Puritan literature had a profound influence on American literature, as seen by the continuous examination of its themes in contemporary American writing and the emergence of a national identity based on individuality, religious liberty, and the quest for a better moral society. As a valuable and timeless component of the American literary canon, Puritan literature offers insights into the fundamental ideas of the country and its cultural heritage.
Who were the Puritans, and why did they come to America?
The Puritans were English Protestants who sought to purify the Church of England from what they viewed as corrupt practices and doctrines. Many of them emigrated to the New World, specifically New England, seeking religious freedom and the opportunity to establish a society based on their religious principles.
What are the key characteristics of Puritan literature?
Puritan literature is characterized by its deep religious devotion, plain and direct style, didactic content focused on moral lessons, theological depth, and the use of personal narratives and testimonials.
What is the enduring influence of Puritan literature on American culture and literature?
Puritan literature has had a lasting impact on American culture, shaping the nation’s religious, moral, and literary heritage. Its themes of faith, sin, redemption, and the individual’s relationship with God continue to be explored in American literature. It has also influenced the development of a national identity rooted in religious freedom and individualism.
How did Puritan literature contribute to the development of American culture and values?
Puritan literature emphasized moral and religious values, individual piety, and the pursuit of a godly life. These values have played a significant role in shaping the cultural identity of the United States, contributing to the nation’s ethos of religious freedom, self-reliance, and the quest for a virtuous society.