Literature in America: The Pre-Colonial Period

Categories: American literature

Native Americans passed their history from generation to generation using myths, creation stories, tales, legends and songs. Native American oral history is the beginning of literature in early America.

The first written literature in pre-colonial America consisted of poems, journals, letters, sermons and accounts written by early explorers, settlers, and religious people seeking wealth and religious freedom in America. These early written works were significantly influenced by British writers. Early American literature contains many elements, but religion was the major theme in the writings of the early Americans.

The Puritans wrote in Puritan “plain-style” and their literary works conveyed the strong Puritan belief that God dictated every facet of their lives. The literature of this time reflected the Puritanical strong belief in virtue and sin, punishment and Godly rewards.

William Bradford was a deeply religious man who, after arriving in America on the Mayflower, was elected to serve as governor of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bradford wrote the first history of the Plymouth colony, Of Plymouth Plantation, in 1651.

This early writing told of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement and included elements of fear, conflict and the struggle for survival, the colonists faced in America. Bradford wrote about the initial relief the Puritans felt when the Mayflower landed on American soil for the first time, after the long and miserable journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element (“Early Americas Digital Archive’ 2003).

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The Puritans realized immediately they were completely unequipped to survive, having arrived in the winter. They had little food and skills, no shelter and were overwhelmed with fear at the first sight of Native Americans. Bradford wrote that the colonists knew from the onset that settling in America was going to be a struggle for survival, filled with conflicts, and how fearful they were in this new land filled with savages and wilderness.

And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather- beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue (“Early Americas Digital Archive’ 2003).

William Bradford described the early attempt of colonization in America, as a time of starvation, brutality, fear and hardships. Bradford documented the trials and tribulations of the Puritans in his detailed journal, Of Plymouth Plantation.

Another element, religion, is deeply rooted in early American literature as evidenced in A Model of Christian Charity, a sermon by John Winthrop. Winthrop was a religious man who studied and trained himself into a Puritan. Winthrop sailed to America the Arbella in the spring of 1630, where on board, he composed his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. Winthrop considered the Massachusetts colonists in a covenant with God and each other, and he wrote:

For we must consider that we shall be the City upon a hill. They eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present from us, we shall be made a story and a by word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors of God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going (‘A Model of Christian Charity ‘ 2015).

The city they established on the hill was based on Christian principles and this new unified colony would be the model for future colonies. John Winthrop states in the sermon that the Puritans must help and show kindness towards one another in this new land. He says that if they don’t honor this agreement, God will punish them and bring devastation to the colony.

In regard to the bond of marriage between Him and us, wherein He hath taken us to be His, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make Him the more jealous of our love and obedience. So He tells the people of Israel, you only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I punish you for your transgressions (‘A Model of Christian Charity ‘ 2015).

The separation of church and state was another element in early American literature. Roger Williams, a clergyman from England that John Winthrop hailed as a “godly minister” when Williams came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop offered Williams a job in the Boston church, but Williams declined, feeling that the church was not suitably committed to the worship of God. Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible for it required people to interpret God’s law and people would inevitably err (Barry 2012). He felt that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon a human being’s relationship with God. Williams wrote that “forced worship stincks in God’s nostrils” (Barry 2012).

This dispute between Williams and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony led to Williams banishment from the colony. Williams brought land from the Narragansett Indians and wrote that “having, of a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place PROVIDENCE, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience” (Barry 2012). Williams meant religion when he said conscience. (Barry 2012). Williams most famous writing on separation of church and state is found in, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Discussed, in A Conference between Truth and Peace, published in 1644. Williams wrote that mixing church and state corrupted the church, and that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics (Barry 2012).

When they have opened the gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the candlestick and made his Garden a Wildernesse. Puritan writers regularly cited the Bible in their letters, poems, sermons, and books and they appreciated the writings that worshipped God and warned of evil. The early works of American literature are chronicles of adventure, politics, conflict, struggle and hardships the explorers and Puritans endured as they established new colonies throughout New England.

Works Cited

  1. “Early Americas Digital Archive.” Of Plymouth Plantation | Early Americas Digital Archive (EADA), 2003,
  2. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Winthrop Society: Descendants of the Great Migration, 2015,
  3. Barry, John M. “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2012, government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/.

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Literature in America: The Pre-Colonial Period. (2021, Apr 22). Retrieved from

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