Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Three: Pilgrims, Puritans, and Opponents

The New England Puritan settlers' influences upon the United States, even through today, should not be underestimated. Though the writing of this period is often less appreciated by readers than later works, the underlying cultural and historical foundations that derive from these early colonists in North America wind their way through our society and our literature in very significant ways. Interestingly, these influences come from a group that, measured by today's standards, would be considered rigid, fundamentalist, authoritarian, dogmatic, and unforgiving to those who did not believe as they did. Writing nearly a century ago, scholar Vernon Parrington described the movement in this manner.

New England Puritanism - like the greater movement of which it was so characteristic an offshoot - is one of the fascinating puzzles in the history of the English people. It phrased its aspirations in so strange a dialect, and interpreted its programme in such esoteric terms, that it appears almost like an alien episode in the records of a practical race. No other phase of Anglo-Saxon civilization seems so singularly remote from everyday reality, so little leavened by natural human impulses and promptings. Certain generations of Englishmen, seemingly for no sufficient reason, yielded their intellects to a rigid system of dogmatic theology, and surrendered their freedom to the letter of the Hebrew Scriptures; and in endeavouring to conform their institutions as well as their daily actions to self-imposed authorities, they produced a social order that fills with amazement other generations of Englishmen who have broken with that order. Strange, perverted, scarce intelligible beings those old Puritans seem to us—mere crabbed theologians disputing endlessly over Calvinistic dogma, or chilling the marrow of honest men and women with their tales of hell-fire. And we should be inclined to dismiss them as curious eccentricities were it not for the amazing fact that those old preachers were not mere accidents or by-products, but the very heart and passion of the times. If they were listened to gladly, it was because they uttered what many were thinking; if they were followed through tribulation and sacrifice by multitudes, it was because the way which they pointed out seemed to the best intelligence of their hearers the divinely approved path, which, if faithfully followed, must lead society out of the present welter of sin and misery and misrule into a nobler state. For the moment religion and statecraft were merged in the thought of Englishmen; and it was because the Puritan ministers were statesmen as well as theologians—the political quite as much as the religious leaders—that the difficult task of social guidance rested for those generations with the divines. How they conducted themselves in that serious business, what account they rendered of their stewardship, becomes therefore a question which the historian may not neglect.

The rest of Parrington's essay can be found at:

Writing more recently, American literary scholar Emory Elliott discusses the lasting influence of these early Puritan colonists.

Many scholars have argued that various elements of Puritanism persisted in the culture and society of the United States long after the New England Puritanism discussed in the following pages was recognizable. However, many of the verbal formulations that the early Congregational and Presbyterian clergy devised as ways to imagine themselves as a special people on a sacred errand into the wilderness of a New World have been sustained in the social, political, economic, and religious thinking of Americans even to the present. Two leading literary and cultural scholars of New England Puritanism and its legacy, Harvard Professors Perry Miller in the 1940s and 50s and, more recently, Sacvan Bercovitch, studied the rhetorical strategies of the New England Puritans and demonstrated the remarkable extent to which the leaders and clergy created a rich American Christian mythology to describe their Providential role as the new Chosen People in world history. Passed down through generations to our own time, many assumptions regarding God’s promises to his chosen American People have persisted through the American Revolution, the Civil War, and all periods of crisis down to our own time. Still visible in much religious and political rhetoric in United States are versions of the grand narrative of the Reverend Cotton Mather’s prose epic, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), where he proclaims: “I WRITE the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Deprivation of Europe, to the American Strand.” This vision of a Christian American utopia was first expressed by John Winthrop in his writings in the 1630s and remains alive in many religious and political forms in the United States today.

Elliott's engaging introduction to Puritan influences continues at:

Key Lecture: Paul Reuben has an informative introductory lecture on the Puritans here:

Some of the identified characteristics of the New England Puritan legacy on the culture of the United States include the following.

America held up as uniquely blessed; a chosen people for all others to emulate.

John Winthrop's original vision of America (or at least of his community of fellow settlers) as an exemplar of a more perfect society, built through strong community and social compact, was just the beginning of the Puritan cultural legacy the remains with the United States today. Hence, the embryonic concept of manifest destiny, that will loom large in this country's history, seems to begin with the Puritans. Echoes of this early vision find their way into some current manifestations of our "American Dream."

Strong intellectual foundations, dedicated to learning and literacy; the establishment of English as the national language.

New England Puritans were keen on recording everyday events in journals, reflecting on those events, and glorifying God. This required an educated populous. The theocracy set up by the Puritans also drove the need for institutions of higher education to train the next generation of ministers, clerics, and divines. The level of education and the quantity of writing the Puritans produced may have had a direct influence on the establishment of English as the primary language of North America. The Norton Anthology of American Literature states, "Since the English language arrived late to the New World, it was by no means inevitable that the English would dominate, even in their own colonies. But by 1700, the strength of the (mostly religious) literary output of New England had made English the preeminent language of early American literature. Boston’s size, independent college and printing press at Harvard (founded in 1636), and non-nationalist, locally driven project of producing Puritan literature gave New England the publishing edge over the other colonies."

Another legacy of the Puritan culture may have been an expectation for and quicker expansion of private and public education for the masses. As Kathryn VanSpanckeren notes,
It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans. Between 1630 and 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New England, as in the mother country -- an astounding fact when one considers that most educated people of the time were aristocrats who were unwilling to risk their lives in wilderness conditions. The self-made and often self-educated Puritans were notable exceptions. They wanted education to understand and execute God's will as they established their colonies throughout New England.

Interestingly, in Walter Bronson's comparison of early southern settlements (Virginian) to northern settlements (New England) in America, in the realms of literature and education, he notes this contrast.

The more intelligent Virginians were not indifferent to education; private schools were soon established, and a college was planned as early as 1622, although circumstances delayed its actual founding until 1693. But the Virginians, as a whole, had not much zeal for education; the difficulty of providing instruction for all was greatly increased by the sparseness of the population and in consequence the mass of the people were comparatively illiterate. Even the better class of planters, loving field-sports and life in the open air, cared less for books than did the New Englander. The clergymen, sent over by the authorities of the Church of England as good enough for a [southern] colony, were often ignorant and immoral. The indentured white servants (many of them paupers and convicts) and the negro slaves were . . . mostly indifferent to education.

This educational divide between the North and South will eventually work its way into the 19th century genre of literature known as southwestern humor, setting up a contrast between educated "easterners" and "down-home backwoodsmen or frontiersmen" within that subgenre of U. S. literature.

Social Compacts. Foundational attitudes of self-reliance and independence of the gathered community for the common good.

The 1620 Mayflower Compact of the Plymouth Colony of Pilgrims and Seperatists helped established an early form of self-governance in the New World based upon a majoritarian model, dedicated to the survival and welfare of that small community of colonists. The theory of social contracts were just developing as an important part of western European thought. Philosophers Hobbes and Locke would write at length about social contracts, later in the 17th century, dedicated to the idea that humans were born free but could agree to give up some freedom in exchange for the benefits of society and civilization. Just preceding these ideas, the Mayflower Compact now seems to loom large in the history of a country that would use many of the ideas of social contracts in its creation. A people gathered together, distant, isolated, and far from other "homelands" and civilizations would have a clear need to make arrangements for their own protection and mutual governance.

Puritan history in the mother country of England describes a story of revolt against an aristocratic monarch. During the English Civil War (1642-1651) the forces of King Charles I and Parliament clashed, leading to Charles' execution and the establishment of a Commonwealth, ending the rein of power of both the King and the Church of England. This provided a period of Puritan supremacy in England until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Some of the democratic thoughts and principles, and independent-mindedness, established during this period may have eventually influenced the revolutionary thought in the American colonies that would lead to independence over a century later.

The beginnings of the Puritan (or protestant) work ethic (often used to support an acceptance of the capitalistic economic system)

This is the legacy of where the concept of life-long dedication to hard work and devoted godliness could lead an individual to eventual happiness and success. Puritans believed that the outward appearances of material success were positive indications that an individual was, indeed, one of the elect, or one of God's chosen, and thus assured of a heavenly afterlife. This underlying legacy has advocates and critics. Scholars Sacvan Bercovitch and Edmund Morgan support these ideas in their writings. Critics such as Andrew Delbanco think New England Puritans were actually trying to return to a simplier world of the earliest Christians, and would have been shocked that they may have been perceived as the forerunners of a modern, democratic capitalistic world that relies upon materialism as a sign of success.

Perry Miller points out that Puritan writers and clergy ". . . tell the story, and tell it coherently, of a society which was founded by men dedicated, in unity and simplicity, to realizing on earth eternal and immutable principles and which progressively became involved with fishing, trade, and settlement. They constitute a chapter in the emergence of the capitalist mentality, showing how intelligence copes with or more cogently, how it fails to cope with a change it simultaneously desires and abhors. One remarkable fact emerges: while the ministers were excoriating the behavior of merchants, laborers, and frontiersmen, they never for a moment condemned merchandizing, laboring, or expansion of the frontier. They berated the consequences of progress, but never progress; deplored the effects of trade upon religion, but did not ask men to desist from trading; arraigned men of great estates, but not estates. The temporal welfare of a people, said Jonathan Mitchell in 1667, required safety, honesty, orthodoxy, and also "Prosperity in matters of outward Estate and Liveleyhood."

The Puritan dedication to hard work, based in religious typology and the ongoing need for survival in a new world, will remain even when some of the religious fervor of later generations of colonists fades. It will eventually be incorporated into the practical "can-do" Yankee attitudes of pragmatists like Benjamin Franklin less than a century later.

The Jeremiad or Puritan Sermon

Many literary critics and historians have pointed out the importance of the long-lasting genre of the jeremiad over the centuries in America. Donna Campbell defines these sermons in this manner. "The term jeremiad refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils, but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future." The combination of holding groups and individuals responsible for their failures while presenting positive options for a better future has long been embedded in the culture of the U.S. since the time of the Puritans. Emory Elliott points out the usefulness of jeremiads through the Revolutionary Period in American history, including their uses in "arousing the population" against Great Britian. He goes on to discuss the evolution of the jeremiad over time.

During the Civil War in the nineteenth century, clergy on both sides employed the jeremiad again to inspire support for their cause. In fact, in every war in which the United States has been involved, sermons and speeches about America’s manifest destiny and sacred errand and heritage have been central to the discourses of the war. For over two-hundred years, in State of the Union addresses and Fourth of July orations, American Presidents have preached similar jeremiads. They follow familiar jeremiad formula: we must beware of enemies who plot to destroy us; we must acknowledge the gap between our ideals and current realities; and we must reject corruption, greed, and selfishness, and other sins; and finally, we must work together to restore our superiority among the world’s nations. With God on our side, we shall continue the American Dream and fulfill our sacred Manifest Destiny.

Key Resources: See Donna Campbell's fuller descriptions of jeremiads at: along with her page on Sermon Structure at

Of course, the story of early American literature is not just one of the New England Puritans, but also a tale of challenges to them and their beliefs.

Henry A. Beers writes of some of these external and internal challenges. The Salem Witch Trials of this period offer a cautionary tale of how a fear of "outside forces and influences" is taken too far.

Besides the threat of an Indian war and their anxious concern for the purity of the Gospel in their churches, the colonists were haunted by superstitious forebodings of the darkest kind. It seemed to them that Satan, angered by the setting up of the kingdom of the saints in America, had "come down in great wrath," and was present among them, sometimes even in visible shape, to terrify and tempt. Special providences and unusual phenomena, like earth quakes, mirages, and the northern lights, are gravely recorded by Winthrop and Mather and others as portents of supernatural persecutions. Thus Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, the celebrated leader of the Familists, having, according to rumor, been delivered of a monstrous birth, the Rev. John Cotton, in open assembly, at Boston, upon a lecture day, "thereupon gathered that it might signify her error in denying inherent righteousness." "There will be an unusual range of the devil among us," wrote Mather, "a little before the second coming of our Lord. The evening wolves will be much abroad when we are near the evening of the world." This belief culminated in the horrible witchcraft delusion at Salem in 1692, that "spectral puppet play," which, beginning with the malicious pranks of a few children who accused certain uncanny old women and other persons of mean condition and suspected lives of having tormented them with magic, gradually drew into its vortex victims of the highest character, and resulted in the judicial murder of over nineteen people. Many of the possessed pretended to have been visited by the apparition of a little black man, who urged them to inscribe their names in a red book which he carried—a sort of muster-roll of those who had forsworn God's service for the devil's. Others testified to having been present at meetings of witches in the forest. It is difficult now to read without contempt the "evidence" which grave justices and learned divines considered sufficient to condemn to death men and women of unblemished lives. It is true that the belief in witchcraft was general at that time all over the civilized world, and that sporadic cases of witch-burnings had occurred in different parts of America and Europe. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, 1635, affirmed his belief in witches, and pronounced those who doubted of them "a sort of atheist." But the superstition came to a head in the Salem trials and executions, and was the more shocking from the general high level of intelligence in the community in which these were held. It would be well if those who lament the decay of "faith" would remember what things were done in New England in the name of faith less than two hundred years ago. It is not wonderful that, to the Massachusetts Puritans of the seventeenth century, the mysterious forest held no beautiful suggestion; to them it was simply a grim and hideous wilderness, whose dark aisles were the ambush of prowling savages and the rendezvous of those other "devil-worshipers" who celebrated there a kind of vulgar Walpurgis night.

Elliott writes of the challenges of Anne Hutchinson and John Williams, who were expelled from the Puritan community.

The most serious and destructive case of dissent arose from within the original group of settlers and involved a very prominent family. Having immigrated to Boston in 1634 to follow their minister John Cotton, Anne and William Hutchinson quickly became prominent figures in the community. William was elected deputy to the Massachusetts Court, and Anne continued her community service as a nurse midwife and spiritual adviser to women. As people grew weary of not receiving grace and others faked conversion experiences, all the clergy could do was to encourage people to pray, study the scriptures, and await grace and conversion. The Hutchinsons had followed Cotton from England because of his brilliant preaching and his firm commitment to the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace which held God’s grace was the only way salvation. But this doctrine was frustrating for many who felt that living a virtuous life of good deeds should count for something toward receiving grace and salvation. In order to soften the strict doctrine of predestination, some ministers began to preach what the Hutchinsons recognized as a Doctrine of Works—a heresy in Calvin’s theology. When the Reverend John Wilson, who was the pastor of the congregation in which Cotton was the teacher, seemed to go too far in the direction of suggesting that good works might lead to salvation, the Hutchinsons were disturbed. Wilson was one of several ministers who began preaching what they called the “Doctrine of the Preparation of the Heart.” They said that God would not be so cruel as to give people no hope of helping themselves to prepare for grace and that good works and gracious behavior laid the path for the coming of grace. Disturbed by what she heard as heresy, Anne began to hold weekly meetings in her home to discuss theology. She believed that Wilson and other “preparationists” were rejecting the Doctrine of Predestination and verged on heresy. She and her husband gathered others who sought to oust Reverend John Wilson, but the clergy closed ranks and declared Hutchinson to be the heretic. Unlike her husband, she refused to recant her opinion and was subjected to a sensational trial that included suggestions that she was in love with John Cotton. Cotton was forced to condemn her, and she was excommunicated. When she and her family were banished in 1638, they moved to Rhode Island for five years and then to New York where all of her family but one was killed in an Indian raid.

While the Hutchinson case is the most famous of many theological and political upheavals that occurred in the first decades of the colonies, Roger Williams was also disturbed by the preparation doctrine, and he disputed the use being made of Biblical typology to construct such notions as the Puritans being the new Chosen People and Boston being the new Zion. In addition, he challenged the role of the clergy in political and judicial issues as he believed in the separation of church and state, and he deeply opposed the taking of land from the Native peoples without compensation. His debates with John Cotton led Williams to leave Massachusetts and establish a colony in Rhode Island.

Finally, Walter Bronson comments on one of the early Puritan opponents and his writing in this manner.

Very different from the grave Puritan histories is the New English Canaan (1637) by Thomas Morton, a rollicking Royalist, who with thirty followers established himself at "Merrymount," near Boston, in 1626. He set up a Maypole eighty feet high, and danced about it with his jolly crew, the Indians joining in the revels, which it is probable were not wholly innocent. Morton's Puritan neighbors, greatly scandalized, cut down the wicked Maypole and when Morton persisted in selling guns and rum to the Indians, they shipped him back to England. There he wrote his book, describing the country and making fun of his strait-laced adversaries. Its intrinsic merits are small. But the figure of Thomas Morton dancing about his Maypole in reckless jollity, while the godly look on with horror-stricken visages, is like a dash of color in a somber landscape, and we could better spare a better man.

Specific Questions and Considerations

Questions of Fact (often the stuff that quizzes are made of)

For each assigned piece of writing, try to record any relevant information related to reporting the facts: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Also, for each assigned piece of writing, consider these broader questions:


When did the author write and what are his or her key works?
What overall subject, concept or question is the work about?
Does the writing fall within a particular genre or subgenre and, if so, which elements of that genre are being utilized or ignored?

Considering the Craft of Writing

What is the time/place of the setting?
Who are the major characters? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist?
Is there clear narrator? Is the narrator/speaker understood to be reliable?
Is the narrator/speaker an intentionally crafted persona.
How are plot expectations met, challenged, or exceeded?
Are there repeated images/concepts/symbols in the work?
If verse, how are the elements of poetry utilized and illustrated?

Reflection and Application

What is the theme, point, or moral of the writing?
How does the author wish readers to consider the subject?

Broader Questions and Considerations

Very briefly summarize the Puritan belief system and the way that these beliefs contributed to their harsh theocracy. Why do you think writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne would criticize the Puritans so much in his writings?

Briefly outline the Puritan cultural contributions to the founding of the United States.

Briefly outline the ways New England Puritans reacted to the native peoples that surrounded them.

Contrast William Penn's relationships with native peoples to that of the Puritans.

Briefly catalogue the ways that the Puritans reacted to other European settlers who believed differently than they did, such as Thomas Morton or Anne Hutchinson.

Do you believe there are any modern day parallels to the New England Puritans, groups of people of good will and faith who, perhaps, take their convictions too far or to such an extreme that some of their means may not justify their ends? Discuss.

Works Cited

Beers, Henry A. Initial Studies in American Literature. Chautauqua Press, 1891.

Bronson, Walter C. A Short History of American Literature. D.C. Heath and Company, 1909.

Campbell, Donna M. "Forms of Puritan Rhetoric: The Jeremiad and the Conversion Narrative." Literary Movements. 2009, February 24.

Elliott, Emory. “The Legacy of Puritanism.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. 2008, January.

Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2012.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. "Puritans and Politics." The Cambridge History of American Literature, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1917.

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 2011, October 1.

VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. Early American and Colonial Period to 1776." Outline of American Literature. Revised Edition. Info USA, U.S. Department of State. 2006.

Works Referenced

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self . Yale U P, 1975.

Delbanco, Andrew. The Puritan Ordeal. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Morgan, Edmund Sears. Visible Saints; The History Of A Puritan Idea. New York University Press, 1963.

Other Resources

"English Settlers' Views of Native Americans" Utopian Promise. American Passages. 2003.








Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University