The Puritans who risked their lives, fortunes and futures to start a new life in what was then known as the new world, which is to say the American colonies, brought with them from their native land a desire to start a new life free from religious persecution and full of the faith in God that had brought them through many obstacles to a fresh start. In that search for a new life, Puritans likewise sought moral and spiritual guidance from their leadership. One of the most important ways that this guidance came to be was through the use of the written word.
Perhaps no better writers existed during that time than John Smith, William Byrd and William Bradford. In this essay, the writings, beliefs and philosophies of these three men will be presented, universal themes in their works will be discussed, and a conclusion to the paper will bring all of the research into proper prospective. The Works and Philosophies of John Smith Many who study the writings of the early American writers consider John Smith to be not only a highly skilled writer, but likewise what can fairly be called a social, political, and religious commentator of his times.
To begin, however, there is a point of clarification that is generally agreed upon, which is the fact that while John Smith was undoubtedly a devout Christian and a man of simple habits and pure living, he was not technically a Puritan by designation, but pure of heart and spirit nonetheless (Hammond, 2000). It would be more precise to categorize Smith as a devotee of the development of the New England colonies upon a foundation of obedience to God as well as the law of man. Before his life in America, Smith was
a decorated hero of the English crown, but underwent a change of heart upon realizing that the English lords for whom he had fought so many battles only wanted to enslave the American colonists in a sense. Because of this, Smith soon became a champion of New England’s obedience not to England, but to the word of God. Some of Smith’s best known writings told the story of the struggles of the New England colonists, while still professing the critical role that God plays in the well being of all people, and the importance of piety and faith.
Ultimately, this gave Smith a wide audience in the Puritan community and made him one of the most renowned Puritan writers, although he was not technically a member of the sect (Hammond, 2000). Standing in contrast to the piety, serious writing style, and religious obedience of John Smith stands William Byrd, whose writings used a combination of satire and cutting wit to show the difference between the religious and non- religious communities. Writings of William Byrd
William Byrd took a drastically different path than Smith in terms of his writing and social commentary; through a blend of satire, humor and parody, Byrd professed that there is a marked difference between the secular and sacred elements of society, and that indeed people could live on either side in harmony. In his book “The History of the Dividing Line”, Byrd is writing of his explorations of the North American continent and the border between Virginia and North Carolina, but beyond the literal, there lies a great deal of content, philosophy and wisdom.
Indirectly, Byrd metaphorically makes a distinction between a life that is defined by obedience to God and one that is guided more by a type of common sense to differentiate between right and wrong and the importance of the decisions and choices on makes in their life (Hammond, 2000). In this book, Byrd discusses the vast wilderness, which is to say the unknown territory that the early Americans must explore and learn how to inhabit if they are to enjoy everything that life has to offer.
On a more philosophical level, however, this wilderness is shown as the unknown areas of evil that the human mind can create and explore if the will of the individual is to turn away from God and be disobedient. Also, on a philosophical level, Byrd draws a parallel between the pure and fresh land that the early American settlers have been given, as a sort of gift from God, and the other pure blessings that God provides. In either case, it is up to the individual to embrace and enjoy them, or squander and destroy them.
Seemingly bridging the gap between the sacred of Smith and secular of Byrd is William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth Colony of New England, the second Governor of the colony, and generally recognized as the founder of the first Thanksgiving feast. William Bradford’s Body of Literature As was stated in the previous section of this paper, William Bradford can fairly be seen as the midway point between the secular and sacred writers, incorporating both in combination in his writings.
His best known work, “History of Plymouth Plantation”, shows evidence of this belief system, which also projected into his leadership of the colony. Bradford firmly believed that it was the grace of God which brought the colonists to a new life in the Plymouth colony, and it was this same grace which helped them to survive their first brutal winter, when many of their citizens perished due to the harsh conditions.
Also, however, Bradford believed that the efforts of the individual were essential to survival (Hammond, 2000), in a sort of thinking that goes by the old adage that God helps those who help themselves. Giving God due praise and worship for blessings, Bradford also put forth the philosophy that the work of humans was needed to nourish the body as God was needed to nourish the soul. Bradford has been acknowledged as the father of the concept of industry in America to produce needed goods and provide a livelihood for people.
Perhaps Bradford developed a respect for those who were not particularly devoted to the church but were guided by a will to survive when these people, known at that time as “Strangers”, made the passage to New England along with the devout Pilgrims, demonstrating that what they lacked in piety they more than made up for in determination to succeed. This experience, it is fair to say, may have influenced Bradford to write in a style that acknowledges the importance of God, but also recognizes the value of the individual aside from their soul. Conclusion
This paper has presented information about three early Puritan writers who used varying degrees of faith and philosophy, secular and sacred, to create historical writings that are still being discussed, and are highly respected, centuries after their creation. These works stand as an ultimate monument to the men, their times and belief systems. In retrospect, these early Puritan writers would surely be pleased with this outcome. References Hammond, J. A. (2000). The American Puritan Elegy: A Literary and Cultural Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
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