Puritan Literature

The Puritans were a group of Protestants in England during the 16th and 17th century who founded their reforming movement due to their dissatisfaction with the 1558 settlement under Queen Elizabeth I which reformed the Church of England following the reign of her half-sister, the Catholic Mary I. At first, Puritans were devoted to religious matters only. But many senior Puritans became politically active and were prime movers in the challenge to the monarch, Charles I, by Parliament that led to the English Civil War (1642 to 1649), and some of them came to power, notably Oliver Cromwell, the Huntingdon MP and general in the Parliamentarian army who became the Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland after the king's execution.

Many 17th century Puritans were deeply unhappy with the state of England and emigrated to the New World. From the 1630s onwards, many settled in New England and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which grew rapidly.

Puritan views were adopted by the congregations not only in New England, but also in the Netherlands, Wales and Ireland. Puritans were calling for purity of worship and personal piety. They believed that Christ was the only head of the church and they denied the monarch's supremacy and divine right to rule.

Puritans excluded decorations such as candles and images from their churches and rituals, placing greater emphasis on scripture and preaching. They refused to celebrate traditional holidays, including Christmas, which they considered to be in conflict with their principles. Puritans were well-educated, founding a number of schools and colleges, and they insisted that their children should get quality education.

Their literature consisted of prose or poetry. Because of their Puritan values, they disapproved of plays and dramas, and under Cromwell many of London's theatres, including those founded by William Shakespeare, which had been so popular in the Elizabethan era, were ordered to be closed.

Two of the most famous Puritan writers were John Milton (1608 to 1674), who wrote the poem Paradise Lost, and the preacher John Bunyan (1628 to 1688), the author of Pilgrim's Progress.

Puritan poetry concerned mainly topics related to the unworthiness of the humankind before God, the uselessness of possessions and the vulnerability of vanity. Ann Bradstreet and Michael Wigglesworth were prominent Puritan poets. Bradstreet's poems were dedicated to real life events. For instance, she described a fire that destroyed her home and wrote about the volatility of material possessions. She also expressed her inner fight after the loss of some of her grandchildren. Wigglesworth, in turn, concentrated his poems on the Judgment Day.

Puritan prose was focused on theological issues. Well-know Puritan writers Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather wrote mainly histories and sermons. Edwards is most famous for his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon, while Mather became popular with the Magnalia Christi Americana and The Wonders of the Invisible World. He is considered one of the fathers of literary criticism in America.

John Cotton and John Winthrop were among the first American Puritans who emigrated from England to the New World. Puritan writers also included Thomas Adams, Richard Baxter, James Durham, Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Shepard and Thomas Goodwin. These writers sought to glorify God. They wrote about politics and religion idealistically, though they pretended to be painting life realistically. Their society trusted plain speech as shown by William Bradford, who stressed on "plain style, with singular regard to the simple truth in all things."

As with their homes and churches, Puritan writers viewed ornate writing style as full of unnecessary adornments, while "painted sermons," were view to be an abomination. They used to stick to the simple, plain and orderly style, but implemented many techniques from the Bible like parables and analogies, similes and metaphors. Edwards was considered one of the greatest American literary artists. He shared common philosophical values with contemporaries Isaac Newton and John Locke. Edwards combined his knowledge of science and philosophy into writing religious literature.

Another important representative of Anglo-American literature from the colonial period was Benjamin Franklin, who created a connection between the late colonial period and the early years of nationalism. Franklin wrote Dogood Papers in 1722, which acquainted a new generation with the ethical legacy of Puritanism.

Some scholars trace this Puritan legacy all the way through another 100-plus years to Abraham Lincoln. Many claim that Puritanism, as well as influencing American culture and politics, was the basis for American democracy.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry
Perry Miller.
Doubleday, 1956
English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton
Everett H. Emerson.
Duke University Press, 1968
Librarian’s tip: Includes commentary on and excerpts of Puritan writing
Puritanism in Early America
George M. Waller.
D. C. Heath, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "The Puritan Literary Attitude" begins on p. 89
The American Puritan Elegy: A Literary and Cultural Study
Jeffrey A. Hammond.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
The Continuity of American Poetry
Roy Harvey Pearce.
Princeton University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Origins: Poetry and the Puritan Imagination"
The Literature of the American People: An Historical and Critical Survey
Arthur Hobson Quinn.
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Puritan Preachers and Prose Writers"
Studies in Literary Types in Seventeenth Century America (1607-1710)
Josephine K. Piercy.
Yale University Press, 1939
A History of American Literature, 1607-1765
Moses Coit Tyler.
Cornell University Press, 1949
Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present
John Gatta.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Landfall: The New World as New Creation," Chap. 2 "Meditating on the Creatures in Early American Life and Letters"
Puritan Rhetoric: The Issue of Emotion in Religion
Eugene E. White.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1972
The Columbia History of American Poetry
Jay Parini; Brett C. Millier.
Columbia University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor"
Female Captivity and the Deployment of Race in Three Early American Texts
Woodard, Maureen L.
Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring 1996
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Almost a Golden World: Sidney, Spenser, and Puritan Conflict in Bradstreet's "Contemplations"
Oser, Lee.
Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring 2000
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