The Puritans and the Pilgrims both migrated to North America to escape religious persecution due to their views about the Church of England. They created very little literature because writing was viewed as satanic in both cultures. All that was written in Puritan New England were works to glorify God and record journeys for historical purposes. The most famous poets of this period include Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, kept a journal of the events that took place on the journey over on the Mayflower and life within the colony. Jonathan Edwards, a minister during the Great Awakening wrote the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” These authors illustrated the following religious beliefs in their works: natural depravity, irresistible grace, and unconditional election.
Puritans believed that all men sinned and that all men were of an evil nature. Ministers instructed them to search their souls for sins and ask God for forgiveness. In the 1730’s and 1740’s the Puritan religion began to lose followers. Several ministers went to extreme measures to get their followers to adhere to the teaching in the Bible more sternly. “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints.”(101). The prior excerpt demonstrates the natural depravity of men. Puritans were instructed to frequently search through their souls for instances of which they had done evil doings. The act of constant soul searching wore many puritans down and caused them to convert to a different faith while others were driven in to a psychotic state. Edwards also stated that “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards Hell;…”(103).
The passage refers to the wickedness of men. Hearing every Sunday that you possess natural wickedness which drags you down towards hell is one of the reasons the Puritan faith became unpopular and eventually died out. In his sermon, he also stated “So that thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of Hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it;…”(103). Edwards and other preachers of the Great Awakening depict God as an angry and cruel man and end up losing many followers of the Puritan faith in the end as members of the faith viewed God as mean and inhumane and they felt he was inaccessible to them.
Another Puritan belief that was prominently displayed in their literature was unconditional election. Unconditional election states that God decides whether a man will go to heaven or hell before he or she is even born. The poet, Anne Bradstreet illustrates the theme in her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House” “And, when I could no longer look,/ I blest His name that gave and took,/ That laid my goods no 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.”(53).
This example states that even though her house and earthly possessions are ruined she can take comfort in the fact that the Lord has a house waiting for her in heaven. In another one of her poems,” To My Dear and Loving Husband”, Anne represents the same theme “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.” (51). Edward Taylor, another poet of the colonial era, writes
poem in the mindset of being one of the unconditionally elect. He states in the poem “Huswifery” “Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will,/ Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory/ My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill/ My wayes with glory and thee glorify./ Then mine apparel shall display before yee./ (70). Taylor proclaims he is asking God to clothe him in knowledge of the next life and that he believes he is of the unconditionally elect for asking for this understanding.
Yet another reoccurring theme in the writings of the puritans was irresistible grace. Irresistible grace states men survive by the grace of God. William Bradford uses this theme many times in his account of the Pilgrims journey to the new world titled Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford wrote, “But herewith they broke their mast in three pieces and their sail fell overboard in a bery grown sea, so as they had like to have been cast away. Yet by God’s mercy they recovered themselves, and having the flood with them struck into the harbor.”(34). He indicates that the Pilgrims were at the mercy of God and by his grace they found the harbor and survived. Bradford later refers to an instance when some Pilgrims were exploring the area around a possible camp site. “Men, Indians! Indians!” And withal, their arrows came flying amongst them.
Their men ran with all speed to recover their arms, as by the good providence of God they did.” (33). Here Bradford glorifies God for allowing the Pilgrims to get to their weapons before them all fell victims to the arrows of the Indians. Bradford greatens the name of God once more in the account of John Howland. “…as they thus lay in a mighty storm, a lusty young man called John Howland, coming upon some occasion above the gratings was, with a seele of the ship, was thrown into sea; but it pleased God he caught hold of the topsail halyards…” (28). Unlike the man who feel overboard and drowned, for taunting the sick and poor, John Howland had the graces of God extended to him and was rescued from the stormy waters.
Throughout the Colonial Age Puritans and Pilgrims emphasized three major themes in their literature. They wrote of irresistible grace, the natural depravity existing in all of man kind, and predestination for those among the unconditionally elect. Three writers of the period, Bradstreet, Taylor, and Bradford, use their works to glorify God and announce themselves among the unconditionally elect. The fourth, Jonathan Edwards wrote a sermon in an attempt to scare followers in to the more strict puritans ways of past in an attempt to save the religion.