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Puritan Literature

Puritan Literature

Puritan Literature (1620-1750) is a literary movement that reached its peak popularity in New England around the 17th century. The goal of Puritan Literature was to uphold the word of God and the Bible. The goal was also to make the religion of Puritanism more accessible and relevant to the day-to-day person.

History of American Puritan Literature and Puritanism

To fully understand the history of American Puritan literature, one needs to understand Puritanism.

Puritanism is a religious movement that originated in the late 1500s that sought to reform the Church of England. The Church of England had separated itself from the Catholic Church in 1534. Puritans wanted to rid the Church of England of any ties to Catholicism.

Puritans believe in religious freedom. They also believe that the government should enforce moral rules through punishment and that everyone should live by the word of God and the Bible. Puritans also believe in an individual relationship with God and that only a select few have been chosen by God to go to Heaven. However, no one knows who is chosen; therefore, everyone should try to live as sin-free as possible.

Puritan Literature, Anglican Church, StudySmarterThe Puritans were dissatisfied with the Anglican Church causing many of them to rebel, Pixabay

Puritanism first emerged in England but grew in popularity in the New England region of North America. Although the Church of England had separated itself from the Catholic Church in 1534, by 1553, under Queen Mary, England was reverted to Catholicism. This meant many Puritans faced exile.

The Church of England separated from the Catholic Church because of King Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn instead. King Henry VIII's motivation to annul his marriage was because Queen Catherine had failed to produce him an heir. However, under the Catholic Church, marriages that had been consummated could not be annulled. Therefore, King Henry VIII, as head of the Church of England, decided to split from the Catholic Church so he could be granted a divorce.

When Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, she re-established the Church of England as separate from Catholicism, but Puritans still rebelled. They felt that there were still too many ties to Catholicism in the Church of England. They refused to follow the law and were persecuted. In the early 1600s, many Puritans fled England. They first went to Holland and then to the Americas. The first Puritan colony was the Plymouth Colony, followed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. More and more Puritan colonies spread throughout New England, reaching their peak in the mid-1600s.

Puritan Literature, Pilgrim, StudySmarterPuritan pilgrims were some of the first to arrive in the New England Colonies, Pixabay

Due to the growing distance many second or third-generation New Englanders felt from the Puritan Church and the aftermath of the Witch Trials, many New Englanders began to turn to Protestantism. Puritanism faded from popularity and became a way of living that focused on morality, austerity, and purity. Puritanism began to faction into groups such as the Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists.

The Witch Trials of the late 1600s were the persecution of people accused of being witches between February 1692 and May 1693. It was led by Puritan leaders in Colonial Massachusetts who felt that people, especially young women, were being possessed by the Devil and performing witchcraft. Around 200 people were accused. 19 of the 30 people found guilty were hanged.

Characteristics of Puritan Literature

There are a few key characteristics of Puritan Literature that are important to keep in mind. Although there is variation among genres (sermons, poems, letters, historical narratives, etc.) in Puritan Literature, there are many key similarities across all of them.

Puritan Literature, Bible, StudySmarterThe Bible was very important to Puritans and influential to Puritan Literature, Pixabay

First Person Point of View

Many Puritan authors chose to write their pieces from the first person point of view. By writing in the first-person point of view, Puritan authors were making the written pieces more personable. It also helped show how the narrator incorporated God and the Bible into their everyday lives. By creating a personable connection with the reader, the reader is more likely to accept the underlying message of the written piece and abide by it. Especially when in the form of a sermon or letter, the values of the author are displayed.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left," (Lines 13-20, "The Burning of Our House", Anne Bradstreet, 1666)
Here, the speaker is revealing her Puritan beliefs in the first person point of view. In the poem, the speaker's home is burning down and all of her possessions have been burnt to dust. However, she prays to God and accepts this is God's will. The message here is that the reader should let go of any attachment to possession and vanity, as God can give just as quickly as he can take away.

Religious Themes

Puritan Literature was not meant to be entertaining. It was meant to provide the reader with lessons on religious themes and on how to live a more virtuous and pious life by God's word. The main theme was predestination, which meant that everyone is born a sinner and that a select few had been chosen by the will of God to enter heaven. Because it is unknown whether a person has been selected by God or not, everyone should live virtuously and morally.

Oh get a part in Christ,And make the Judge thy Friend;So shalt thou be assuréd ofA happy, glorious end"

(Stanza 15, "The Day of Doom", Michael Wigglesworth, 1662)

In the context of Puritan Literature, how does this excerpt from Michael Wigglesworth's poem, "The Day of Doom", exemplify the key characteristics of Puritan Literature?

Simple Writing Style

The main goal of Puritan Literature was to teach and provide frameworks on how to live a life that follows the teachings of God and the Bible. Puritans did not view literature as a form of entertainment; therefore, they shunned elaborate and complex forms of writing. Rather, they wrote simply and directly. This allowed the author to reach their point faster and more clearly. It also allowed the author to write for a wider audience, as it appealed to multiple levels of education in society.

"It pleased God, before they came half seas over, to smite the young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first to be thrown overboard. Thus his curses fell upon his own head, which astonished all his mates for they saw it was the just hand of God upon him," (Chapter 9, Book 1, Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1651), William Bradford).

This is an example of the simple writing style of many Puritan writers. The language used in Bradford's journal Of Plymouth Plantation is plain and clearly describes events, people, and situations, without the use of heightened or elaborate language.

Biblical Allusions

The Bible was the main framework by which Puritans lived. Therefore, Biblical allusions commonly appear in Puritan Literature.

An allusion is a literary device that indirectly references another text, person, or event.

Biblical allusions most often come in the form of the author referencing a biblical character or event, indirectly comparing that biblical character or event to a character or event in the work of literature. Puritan authors would also use allusions to draw comparisons between a contemporary struggle to a struggle found in the Bible, with the hopes it would help the reader find clarity or a solution to the problem.

Instillment of Fear

Puritanism and Puritan Literature used fear often. By instilling a reader with a fear of God's power, they are more likely to make changes in their lives to live in accordance with the word of God and the Bible. Puritan authors would often describe the eternal damnation waiting for a sinner if they lived a life that went against the word of God and the Bible. Emotional tactics such as fear had great influence and impact, especially when it concerned the afterlife.

For it is said, that when that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. Then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction," (Number 4, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", Rev. Jonathan Edwards, 1741)

In this sermon given by Rev. Jonathan Edwards in 1741, Rev. Edwards uses fear to remind the congregation what will happen if they don't believe in God. He is referencing the "unbelieving Israelites" (Number 1), who did not live by the word of God or believe in him. When they fell into hard times, God did not help them. In this example of a "fire and brimstone" sermon, Edwards is warning the congregation that if they turn their backs to God, God will do the same to them.

Examples of Puritan Literature

There are many examples of Puritan Literature. Puritan Literature varied in genre and style, but it always had the same purpose: to educate the reader on how to live by the word of God and live by the Bible. Here are a few examples.

The Bay Psalm Book (1640)

The Bay Psalm Book was printed in 1640 in the colony of Massachusetts. The Bay Psalm Book was a translation of the Book of Psalms from Hebrew into English. The Bay Psalm Book was worked on by many Puritan authors and leaders, including Richard Mather and John Eliot. The purpose of the Bay Psalm Book was to provide the everyday reader access to the many traditional poems and hymnal prayers found in the Book of Psalms. By providing an English translation that any Puritan in the colony of Massachusetts could own, the Puritans reinforced their value of a personal relationship with God and invited more to adopt the values of Puritanism.

Did you know the Bay Psalms Book was the first book ever printed in the colonies? It was a compilation of translations based on personal Psalms books Puritan colonists brought with them on the Mayflower.

Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1651) by William Bradford

Puritan literature, Colony, StudySmarterOf Plymouth Plantation provides a glimpse into the lives of pilgrims in the New England Colonies, Pixabay

Of Plymouth Plantation is the personal journal kept by William Bradford, who was the leader of the Plymouth colony. It begins with the story of the pilgrims heading to the Dutch Republic in 1608, followed by the Mayflower voyage in 1620, and ends in 1651 with an account of where all the pilgrims are. Of Plymouth Plantation is regarded as a key piece of Puritan Literature because it gives an intimate and detailed account of the early lives of pilgrims in the Massachusetts colonies. It reveals many aspects of the Puritan way of life, such as what was considered virtuous and what was considered sinful.

But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, the great licentiousness of the young people of the country, and the many temptations of the city were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents," (Chapter 4, Book 1).

Analyze the writing style in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. What key characteristics of Puritan Literature can you find in this excerpt?

In this excerpt from Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford discusses the children of the Puritans who came to the New England Colonies. He is disturbed to see that they have been influenced by sin and led astray. Notice how Bradford says they were led by evil examples. Puritan Literature was meant to be an example of good Puritan behavior and allowed readers to model their lifestyles on the virtuous Puritan way of life they read about. Here, Bradford is saying that the younger people of the colonies are following bad examples such as licentious behavior. Puritans, like Bradford, placed heavy emphasis on living as sin-free as possible in the chance they are chosen by God to go to heaven. Bradford is concerned for the younger people in the colonies who are leading sinful lives and risking their chances of being saved.

"To My Dear Beloved Husband" (1650) by Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan pilgrim living in the colony of Massachusetts and was known for her Puritan poetry. Her poem "To My Dear Beloved Husband" provides a glimpse into an aspect of Puritan life not often seen in Puritan literature. It allows the reader to see the relationship between a husband and wife and how that is shaped by Puritanism.

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever"

In the 17th century, it was common for many people to have arranged marriages that were advantageous to their families either financially or socially. Puritans, however, believed marriage should be based on mutual love and that people had free will to choose their partners. In this poem, one can see that the speaker loves her husband and is upholding the Puritan value of marriage based on love.

Puritan Literature: List of Influential Authors

Here is a list of influential Puritan authors. This list does not cover every Puritan author, but it provides a good set of names one should be familiar with.

  • William Bradford (1590-1657)
  • Rev. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
  • Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
  • Thomas Vincent (1634-1678)
  • John Flavel (1628-1691)

The Influence of Puritan Literature

Puritan Literature is still highly influential, just as it was during its peak in the 17th century. Puritan Literature, with its simple writing style and accessibility to the everyday person, was easily circulated among members of society, particularly those in the New England Colonies. The circulation of Puritan Literature and ultimately its spread of Puritanism remained influential even after Puritanism lost its popularity in the 18th century. Puritan values such as working hard, avoiding promiscuous activities, and having an intimate relationship with God are still values held by many Americans today.

Puritan Literature - Key takeaways

  • Puritan Literature (1620-1750) was a literary movement started by Puritans that reached its peak in the 17th century and focused on guiding others to follow the word of God and uphold the Bible.
  • Many Puritans fled England in the 16th and 17th centuries when they were persecuted for rebelling against the Church of England, which they felt still had too many ties to the Catholic Church.
  • The key characteristics of Puritan Literature include the use of the First-Person Point of View, a focus on religious themes such as predestination, a simple writing style, incorporation of many Biblical allusions, and an instillment of fear in the reader.
  • Puritan writers include Anne Bradstreet, William Bradford, and Rev. Jonathan Edwards, whose contributions to Puritan Literature are still influential today.
  • Some examples of Puritan Literature include The Bay Psalm Book, Of Plymouth Plantation, and "To My Dear Beloved Husband".

Frequently Asked Questions about Puritan Literature

 The key elements of Puritan Literature include the use of the First-Person Point of View, a focus on religious themes such as predestination, a simple writing style, incorporation of many Biblical allusions, and an instillment of fear in the reader.  

There are many examples of published works belonging to Puritan Literature including The Bay Psalm Book, Of Plymouth Plantation, and "To My Dear Beloved Husband". 

Puritan Literature (1472-1750) was a literary movement started by Puritans that reached its peak in the 16th century and focused on guiding others to follow the word of God and uphold the Bible. 

The key characteristics of Puritan Literature include the use of the First-Person Point of View, a focus on religious themes such as predestination, a simple writing style, incorporation of many Biblical allusions, and an instillment of fear in the reader. 

Puritanism is a religion that focuses on the individual's relationship with God, living in accordance to the Bible and believing in Predestination. Puritan Literature is literature written by Puritans wishing to guide others into leading a more Puritan way of life. 

Final Puritan Literature Quiz

Question

What is Puritan Literature?

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Answer

Puritan Literature (1472-1750) is a literary movement that reached its peak popularity in New England around the 17th century.

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Question

What was the goal of Puritan Literature?

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Answer

The goal of Puritan literature was to honor the word of God and the Bible. The goal was also to make the religion of Puritanism more accessible and relevant to the day-to-day person. 

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Question

What is Puritanism?

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Answer

Puritanism is a religious movement that originated in the late 1500s that sought to reform the Church of England. 

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Question

What did Puritans believe?

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Answer

Puritans believe in religious freedom, that the government should enforce moral rules through punishment, and most importantly that everyone should live by the word of God and the Bible.

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What is the name of the first Puritan colony?

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Answer

Plymouth Colony 

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Question

Why did many New Englanders turn to Protestanism in the 18th century?

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Answer

Due to the growing distance many second or third-generation, New Englanders felt from the Puritan Church and the aftermath of the Witch Trials, many New Englanders began to turn to Protestanism. 

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What point of view is often found in Puritan Literature?

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Answer

The first person point of view

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What was the main religious theme found in Puritan Literature?

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Answer

Predestination

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What is the writing style of Puritan writers?

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Simple and plain

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What is an allusion in literature?

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Answer

An allusion is a literary device that indirectly references another text, person, or event that is known by both the reader and the author. 

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What kind of allusions did many Puritan writers use?

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Answer

Biblical allusions

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Why did Puritan writers want to instill fear into their readers?

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Answer

By instilling a reader or follower with fear, they are more likely to make changes in their lives to live in accordance to the word of God and the Bible.

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Question

What are some examples of the genres found in Puritan Literature?

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Answer

Sermons, poems, letters, historical narratives, etc. 

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