During the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the literature of the Puritans made the transition from distinctly English literature, to American literature. It represents the bridge in thinking between the older English style of writing and the newer, more independent American way of writing. The changes in Puritan literary styles reflect a larger change in social and religious thinking in New England. The Puritans shifted the focus of literature through several important shifts in both their teachings and the main cultural focus of the literature of the time. The ever evolving patterns of literary development drove onward as the Puritans attempted to maintain older ways. This resulted in a fascinating transformation from English-style religious and political writings, to almost secular poetry and diaries that speak more to the family and to God.
The Puritan movement rose out of the English reformation, and they built on the ideas of purification within the Church of England. Their arguments followed consistent patterns that surrounded sermon-style recitations of doctrine and held to a traditional Calvinist theology. Much of their literature, even the more secular parts of it, reflect the religious nature of their ideas and purpose as a group. i
Puritans emphasized predestination within their theology. They taught that all events were preordained by God, and that a small elect could be saved from damnation. These ideas contrasted heavily with the mainstream Church of England’s more traditional free-will based theology. The divisions within the Church slowly pulled apart the country along religious lines, leading to the English civil war and execution of Charles II as the most powerful expression of these tensions.ii
Puritanism was a reform movement within the Church of England, and their ideas were widely popular during the late stages of the English reformation. The numbers of Puritans grew for about a decade between the 1640’s and 50’s. They reached their peak of population and power in England during the 1650’s after the English Civil War had swept them into power in place of the monarch. Their resistance to the crown played a major role in the development of Puritanism in England.iii
The reformation in England was the direct result of the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII. Groups like the Puritans rose out of resistance to the more Monarchical religion which they saw as corrupted and unchristian. Puritans were the main representative of Calvinism in Great Britain during this period. iv
The Puritans largely fell out of favor with the English after the restoration of the Monarchy since they were associated with the Puritan republican dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. This decrease in public support and acceptance lead to persecution which served as the primary impetus for their movement to the New World. v
The trip to the New World was primarily driven by persecution, but it was also accompanied by internal religious strife within the Calvinist wing of English Christianity. The Puritans and Separatists were closely related groups whose aims in terms of the Church of England differed. The Separatists were not in support of internal reform of the Church of England, they wanted to separate from it completely. The Puritans were primarily in support of reforming the Church from within.vi
The Puritans suffered this major division between the Separatists who, are now known as the Pilgrims, and the main body of Puritans who followed the Calvinist Presbyterian model, just prior to the departure for the Americas. Puritans would eventually shift to a primarily Congregational system, though the Presbyterians originally favored the Episcopal polity since it remained part of the Anglican model of religious organization.
English Puritans wrote with a distinctly political bent, they were living in the heat of revolution and dissension that surrounded the English reformation. William Bradford, first governor Plymouth Colony, was also colony historian. His work was formal and factual, reflecting the Puritan and Separatist tendency to avoid fiction. He describes the first impressions of their new home in his history Of Plymouth Plantation.
Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor…savage barbarians…were readier to fill their sides with arrows than otherwise. vii
His language is stiff and formal, it is clearly not a poetic piece, and it is an example of the primarily non-fictional nature of earlier Puritan literature.
The reserved style of the Puritans was known as Puritan Plain Style literature. This writing was formal, kept to rigid boundaries, generally dealt with religious topics, and was never fictional. It was created in order to avoid offending God by making flashy or upsetting literature. It was designed with religious ideas in mind, and it affectedPuritan and New England literature for many years.viii
Contracts and agreements were very important to colonial culture in general, the Puritans being no exception. Covenants such as the Salem Covenant of 1629 and its extended form from 1636 would have been the extent of creativity in much of the written work of the Puritans.
We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.ix
The work of a small number of comparatively forward thinking people allowed for the change to more poetic or creative forms expression, still maintaining Puritan Plain Style.
American Puritan writers became distinct from their predecessors first in this important way. They focused more on family life and reflection upon God and upon their values; the atmosphere of political resistance and theological argumentation in which their movement was born was not as present in the new world. Historians and politicians such as Bradford would continue to write histories and non-fiction works, but poetry and diaries opened the door to significantly more creative works of literature. Writers such as Bradstreet shifted to more everyday themes in their work.
The more social and familial nature of New England Puritan literature is illustrated well in the works of Anne Bradstreet. Her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” Bradstreet describes the love she has for her husband, saying that “[her] love is such that Rivers cannot quench.”x She is dealing with subjects that would rarely have been touched upon in the political writings of men like Bradford.
Though the power of the Monarchy in religion and over their lives had been a driving factor of the Puritan exodus from England, as they settled into the life in New England, distance and disinterest widened the gap between the Puritans and their former oppressors. People like Bradstreet wrote diaries which formed the basis for a new, very different kind of literature.
Puritan Ministers and writers would develop more consistent forms of argumentation and preaching as their sermons and teaching changed form.xi The Presbyterian Episcopal model was largely abandoned without connections to the wider church, and Congregational ministers played an invaluable role in the growth of further literature.
Men like Jonathan Edwards, a much later Puritan minister, served to stir up the religious fervor of the Puritans and New England Congregationalists through sermons. His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God” was an important changing point in Puritan literature in that it introduced a much more aggressive and persuasive form of writing and speaking.
There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands. — He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it.xii
This excerpt from the sermon shows the new, much darker tone taken by Puritan ministers during the 18th century. This further shift away from the somber, factual works of the English Puritans drove the First Great Awakening and stirred many New England Puritans back to their faith.
This later Puritan work would again take up the fiery style of the earlier writers as religious fervor became more important in New England during the 18th century. The early part of the 1700’s was a period of absolutism for the Puritans which had been characteristic of New England Puritans from the beginning. Dealing in moral and metaphysical absolutes was another clear shift away from earlier English Puritan works.xiii
The descendents of the Puritans would also rekindle their older, more political spirit during the Revolutionary War. People such as John Adams and other major players in the Enlightenment and Revolution in New England were descended from Puritan families. These men were profoundly influenced by the culture of New England and its focus on the Congregational Church and on traditional values. In his letters to his wife Abigail, John Adams uses the style of post-Puritan writing.
Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven Months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious Effects . . . . We might before this Hour, have formed Alliances with foreign States. — We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada.xiv
Adams clearly has no specific religious motivation in his writing, but the return to writing of a more political nature among the genetic descendants of the Puritans shows an interesting contrast between purely English writing and purely American writing with the Puritans as the bridge between them.
Despite many social changes in later decades and centuries that would again alter New England, in their time the early American Puritans became distinct in the apolitical, and often less factual, nature of their poetry and writings. They maintained plain-style, but they also worked outside of the traditional confines of official documents, histories, theological texts, and sermons.
These changes developed the way that people interacted at a religious and social level because they fundamentally altered the way that people wrote and described the world around them. People’s conception of things of the changes that coming to the new world had on the literary character of the Puritans. Diary and sermon centered literature like that of the Puritans changes depending entirely upon the way that people think individually. The lack of fiction means that what is written down is clear and means exactly what it says.xv
Bradstreet and others would write what they were moved to write, and they would change the face of the English literary heritage by changing it into a newer form of literature and writing. This was essential to the development of American culture as we know it today. Without the major breaks with English style literature shown during the Puritan era, we would almost certainly see literature in a much less inspired and creative way.
One of the most important aspects of Puritan literature was that New England, being populated by middle-class families of farmers, had access to a much larger literary heritage than the other colonies prior to the revolution. New Englanders, especially those in Massachusetts, had a much higher standard of living than those in Virginia or other colonies. This allowed the time and energy needed to be devoted to literary endeavors.
Puritans are so prominent during the crossover period between British and American literature because they produced far more in terms of creative literature than those in the south. When the changes toward creativity and poetry were developing in the north, southerners were forced to write almost exclusively for technical or political reasons. The literary culture of the Puritans took much longer to take root in the non-Puritan colonies.xvi
The economic and social advantages New England had over the poorer, less accessible south allowed the Puritans to bring more than just English government and technology to the New World, but also to bring the culture. They introduced English literature where others couldn’t, despite their colony being founded significantly later.xvii
Because of a combination of their preexisting literary traditions, such as plain style, and their economic advantages, the Puritans were able to pioneer a new way of writing within a Calvinist perspective. They also transitioned between British and American literature by changing older literary styles. They put together literary works based on new and creative writing ideas, rather than purely political or theological subjects. They caused shift to a newer way of looking at poetry and literature in America, and the growth of Puritan literature from the rigid rules of plain style, to the beautiful poetry of Bradstreet, all the way to the enlightenment writings of Puritan descendents such as John Adams. This form of literature is exceedingly valuable within American literature, and it is part of the foundations of our national literary tradition.
i. A. F. Scott Pearson, Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism (Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1966) 359
ii. Puritanism and Predestination, Divining America. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/puritan.htm. (Accessed April 20, 2014)
iii. John Tulloch, English Puritanism and Its Leaders (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1861) 182
iv. BC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/english_reformation_01.shtml (Accessed April 28, 2014)
v. Puritanism and Predestination, Divining America. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/puritan.htm. (Accessed April 30, 2014)
vi. James P. Stobaugh, American Literature-Student: Cultural Influences of Early to Contemporary Voices (Google Books: Self Published, 2012) 23
vii. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Plymouth Colony: Bradford, 1630-1651) 78
viii. PAL: American Puritanism: A Brief Introduction http://archive.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap1/1intro.html (Accessed April 27, 2014)
ix. The Salem Covenant (MA: Salem, 1629)
x. Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (MassachusettsBay Colony: Bradstreet, 1678)
xi. Eugene Edmond White, Puritan Rhetoric (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1972) 160
xii. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Northampton MA: Edwards, 1741)
xiii. Eugene Edmond White, Puritan Rhetoric (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1972) 33
xiv. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760703jasecond (Accessed May 1, 2014)
xv. American Literature from Puritanism to Romanticism. http://www.northland.cc.mn.us/drake/AmLit/AmLIt–Puritanism%20to%20Romanticism.htm (Accessed May 1, 2014)
xvi. Jamestown and Plymouth: Compare and Contrast. http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/jamestown-and-plymouth-compare-and-contrast.htm (Accessed May1, 2014)
xvii. Jamestown and Plymouth: Compare and Contrast. http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/jamestown-and-plymouth-compare-and-contrast.htm (Accessed May1, 2014)
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