Beginnings to 1800
Taken from Elements of Literature
• 1528- Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
– Fleet leaves
– Eight years
– Captured by Native Americans
― The term “Puritan” was first applied to those
Protestant reformers whose zeal to “purify” their
religion caused them to reject Queen Elizabeth’s
religious settlements of 1560.
― Puritans were influenced by John Calvin and his
concept of predestination and Martin Luther and
his ninety-five theses, among them his
“priesthood of believers” and his attacks on the
hierarchic structure and power of Roman
• Puritans were persecuted in England,
particularly under King James, who ascended
to the throne in 1603 and especially when
Archbishop William Laud rose to power in
1628 first as Bishop of London and then, in
1633, as Archbishop of Canterbury.
(Puritanism, however, remained strong in
England in the first half of the seventeenth
century, and, after the English Civil War (see
chronology 1642), rose to power, politically
and religiously, from 1650-1660.
• Beginning in 1608, many Puritans left England
for Leyden, Holland. In 1620, these Pilgrims, so-
called for their wanderings, sailed on the
Mayflower for the New World .
• Puritanism dominated New England culture in
the seventeenth century. By 1700, however, the
dominance of the Puritans had greatly
diminished, as a more secular culture had
developed. The witch trials of 1692 could be
interpreted as, at least in part, a display of
power meant to intimidate the populace.
• God is omnipotent and good. Individuals are innately
evil, helpless as to their own salvation, and insignificant
next to God.
• As John Calvin’s theory of predestination taught,
individuals are either saved (saints or elect) or damned.
• Neither faith nor good works insure salvation – a
condition decreed by God and not dependent upon the
beliefs and acts of humans.
• Although the clergy’s first duty is not the operation of
government, governments should function to enforce
obedience to God.
• The Bible is God’s direct communication to humans,
should be read daily and its guidance followed by
• No hierarchic chain of command should govern a church.
• The Puritans did not make use of vestments for church
services, and neither relics nor statues could be found in
their churches. Neither did they celebrate traditional
religious holy days or ceremonies. They did not celebrate
Christmas, for instance, because December 25 could not
be substantiated as the true date of the Nativity.
• Only those who were saved could be admitted to full
church membership and receive Holy Communion. Those
who were saved would “confess” to the congregation their
mystical experience through which God informed them of
• The Puritans were Biblical scholars fully aware
of Biblical typology. They believed their journey
and settlement in the New World were
extensions of that typology, that they were, in
fact, living the Biblical pattern as God’s chosen
people and in covenant with God like the ancient
Israelites. Thus, Puritan writing includes many
analogues between their own struggle and that
of Biblical peoples.
• The Puritans originally got their name from their enemies,
because they wanted to “purify” the Church of England.
• The Puritans emphasized education. It was a preeminently
literate culture which regarded illiteracy as a kind of sin.
• The individual Puritan wrote a lot. A diary was regarded as
a tool helpful for self-examination.
• Sermons were especially highly regarded.
• The Puritans wrote in what is called the “plain style.”
Extending the purification of religion to the purification of
language, they preferred the less ornate Geneva Bible of
1560 to the King James version of 1611.
• Only literary forms found in the Bible were acceptable.
Therefore, all forms of fiction were despised. (And nothing
in the Bible was fiction, for all was true.)
• The “plain style” of Puritan writing was reflected in the
straightforward, unadorned style employed in the other
arts. The Puritans detested frivolity and excess;
consequently, all their art work is practical and
functional. A graphic artist acted as the “Lord’s
remembrance,” painting portraits, which often included a
religious message or spiritual warning. A sense of
Puritan belief in divine order is reflected in their furniture
and neat architectural designs. Gravestones might make
use of stylized skulls or angel’s wings – death and
• Puritans had a profound influence on the
shaping of American culture in ways that
reached far beyond their religious beliefs.
• The Puritans discussed crucial issues publicly the
way later Americans would do in town hall
meetings, debates, and newspapers.
• They had faith in the public to understand
complicated issues of general concern, a later
ideal in democratic societies.
• Puritans believed that individuals were responsible for
what happened in their society and therefore had a
responsibility to be actively involved in community
• This belief is not much different from that of community
activists throughout American history and suggests
President Kennedy’s inaugural speech and his famous
challenge to Americans to ask what they could do for
• In both their religious and political theories, the Puritans
struggled with ways to grant the individual considerable
autonomy while preserving a community, a recurrent
issue in democratic societies.
• The Puritans promoted a watchdog mentality, as
neighbors spied on neighbors to detect any
wrongdoing. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller
found such snooping to be analogous to the
• The Puritans believed that art needed to
perform a function. It was not enough that a
work be simply beautiful or pleasing to the
Turn and Talk!
• Do Americans generally believe that art
and the artist must have a practical
function? Is “art for art’s sake” an
acceptable credo in America?
• The Puritan respect for individual rights and
opinions as well as their antagonism toward
hierarchies created a society more litigious than
those where decrees emanate from above.
• The Puritans were known for their frequent
lawsuits. The lawsuits were so commonplace
that it would not have been considered unusual
for a property owner to be involved in, say,
twenty-plus lawsuits through the course of his
life. Miller considers this aspect of Puritan
culture in The Crucible.
Turn and Talk!
• Like Puritan culture, is America male
dominated? How does Puritan or
American male dominance compare to
that of other countries and cultures that
you have experienced or read about?
Influence on Society
• The Puritans were not as dour as many think. They were
lovers of life, who would wear colorful clothes if they could
obtain them; they did drink alcohol, but had little tolerance
for the drunkard. They did not, however, permit dancing or
• Puritan culture was dominated by men who considered the
secondary position of women to derive from Eve’s creation
from Adam’s rib. The ideal Puritan woman was married,
subservient to her husband, humble, and devoted to God,
husband and children. This did not mean there were no
• Frequently, just to survive in seventeenth-century New
England, a woman had to be rugged, resourceful, and
independent. Numerous women took over their father’s or
husband’s businesses in times of sickness or after his death.