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A Comparison of Two Literary Periods

The Ages of Puritanism and Reason


Thesis: The great change in ideology during the transition between

the Puritan Period and the Age of Reason came about as

Americans began putting their faith in their capabilities to

reason, rather than in God.

I. Introduction

II. Body

A. Age of Puritanism

1. Introduction to Period

2. Beliefs of Puritans

a. Thoughts to God

b. Belief in Bible

c. Belief in Grace

d. Work to reward

e. Application of person

f. Application to government

B. Age of Reason

1. Introduction of Period

2. Reason in everything

a. Application of beliefs

b. Principle of freedom

c. Interests of rationalists

C. Proof in literature

1. Ways of Puritans

2. Ways of rationalists

III. Conclusion

Derek Scott

Miss Deborah Greene

English III Honors

9 January, 2000

In America, as in any civilization, societies will certainly go

through numerous changes. Common customs, beliefs, and traditions

evolved even in the period between now and the Colonial Period.

One very significant turn of religious or philosophical direction came

about during the early years of the New World. The great change in

ideology during the transition between the Puritan Period and the Age

of Reason came about as Americans began putting their faith in their

capabilities to reason, rather than in God.

The first permanent settlement was established in the New

World in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. It was followed thirteen years

later by a settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims

coming to Plymouth were devout Puritans. They were labeled

Separatists because after failed attempts at reformation, they had

broken away from the Church of England. They were of a culture all

their own. Their personal, social, and political lives were all God-

centered. With the Colonial Period, as with any other, the best clues

of its history were left in its literature.

Puritans wrote to provide spiritual insight and instruction

according to biblical guidelines (Thompson 11). Their writing was

simple and straight to the point. Puritan writing can be easily

recognized because of the many references to God. God became not

only the center of their thoughts, but the center of their literature as

well. After all, “A Puritan’s thoughts turned to God on every occasion”

(Thompson 15). In trying situations or even everyday scenarios, they

always asked themselves what God would have them to do. The

Puritan beliefs were based solely of the Bible.

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 endeavoring 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. (Doren 31)

Most Puritans believed the same doctrine. “They believed

themselves to be the correct interpreters of God’s commandments as

revealed in the Bible” (Hodgins 24). They were strict advocates of Old

Testament law, but they focused on the principle of Grace. Puritans

believed that they must have an enormous change to come over

them. This change, given by God, was called “grace.” It cleansed all

the sins someone had committed and made him a new person

(Hodgins 6).

Most Puritans believed the Calvinistic theory. John Calvin was

an advocate of predestination. They believed that God had planned

who would be chosen and who would be damned. This did not mean,

however, that the chosen were to take their prize for granted. They

were required to serve God to the fullest (Thompson 8). Puritans

were working toward a greater reward. They were firm believers in

the afterlife. They believed that the chosen went to heaven and the

damned went to burn in an eternal hell. The Puritans thought that the

way to heaven was obvious enough in their own lifestyle. This caused

them to focus more on hell in their writings and sermons.

The Puritans treasured simplicity. They especially believed that

religion should be simple. They had very plain, unadorned churches

and ceremonies (Hodgins 6-7). They could not see any necessity in

things that others might find important. To paraphrase Perry Miller,

they were very frugal and hardworking. They believed that every man

should have a vocation and work diligently at it. This thought was a

Puritan belief as well as a rational one. God gave everyone a talent.

He is, however, responsible for improving it for himself (Miller 40).

The men were in charge of providing for their families. Women were

to be good mothers and wives.

Their biblical beliefs were not only applied to personal and home

lives, but they were also applied to issues that affected large numbers

of people. The government and the Church were closely bound from

the very beginning. The Puritans wrote the Mayflower Compact to

state the purpose of their government. They wanted to make sure

that it stayed God-centered and that it treated everyone justly and

equally (The Americans 25). Although Britain had supreme control

over the colonies, the Puritans had a great deal of power in their own

local governments, which were mostly ignored by the leaders in the

Motherland. “For the moment, religion and statecraft were merged in

the thought of Englishmen it was to set up a Kingdom of God on

Earth that the Puritan leaders came to America ” (Doren 32-33).

Every community member was involved in the practices of the

Church. “Statesmen were often active clergy members. Quite often,

their constituents were members of their congregation” (Harrison


With everyone involved in the never-ending quest for grace, how

did it ever end? There were three enemies of orthodoxy intellect,

sensibility, and will (Doren 72). Americans were getting smarter.

They had begun a new country on their own. It was not that they no

longer believed in God; they simply understood that he had given

them the knowledge to make rational, logical choices. This change

was what made the mindset of the Age of Reason and concluded the

Age of Puritanism (Harrison 322). Simply put they had learned to

use the wonderful gift of the mind. They became rationalists. They

believed that humans could take care of themselves and make their

own decisions without much regard to tradition, custom, or law

(Hodgins 50).

This massive change did not exactly occur overnight. It took

quite sometime for there to be noticeable difference in morality and

philosophy. One observable difference was the application of the

beliefs held by the people. “The periods were different in that the

Puritans were more concerned with their daily lives while rationalists

became wrapped up in the pressing political issues of their time”

(Harrison 325).

It was time for freedom. Americans had suffered from British

oppression for too long. Freedom was the belief most supported.

They talked about it, wrote about it, and fought for it (Hodgins 50).

The people were outraged at the actions of the King. He had

betrayed his people. Their territory and population had grown

immensely. As the British government began to reduce their growth,

it imposed ridiculous taxes, tariffs, and duties, making the colonists

pay for everything. The final straw was the passing of the Intolerable

Acts and the army being sent to enforce them. This action started the

wheels of revolution turning (Commager 14).

During a time when revolution was at hand, there were also

other events happening at the same. However, they were often

overshadowed by political problems. Many of the traits or beliefs

were still evident in the writing. The principles of hard work, frugality,

education, self-improvement, and self-reliance carried over

(Thompson 8). With a few modifications of these guidelines and

some additions such as an interest in science, gave people the ethics

that would prevail for sometime. Just as the Puritans before them,

Americans in the late half of the eighteenth century wrote to

understand and explain their new lives. Their beliefs showed through

in their styles. They held these ideas because America was no longer

a wilderness; it was becoming a complex society, separate from its

predecessor (Hodgins 50).

If question had arisen about the aforementioned theories, they

would have been easily proven by the literature from the two periods.

For example, Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Upon the Burning of Our

House” was a clear illustration of typical Puritan thought. It reads,

“And to my God my heart did cry/To strengthen me in my distress”

(Thompson 15). Like any true Puritan, her thoughts immediately turn

to God without question. Within the same poem, she also wrote “I

blest his name that gave and took, That laid my goods now in the

dust/Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just./It was His own, it was not

mine ” (Thompson 15). She recognized God’s supreme knowledge.

She knew that he had prepared a place for her in heaven. She wrote,

“Thou hast an house on high erect, Framed by that mighty Architect,/

With glory richly furnished, Stands permanent though this be fled.”

The belief in heaven often took a back seat to the preaching of hell

fire and damnation. Jonathan Edwards’s sermon Sinners in the

Hands of an Angry God had vivid descriptions of the torment which

humans would endure if they did not heed to God’s calling. He said

that humans were only kept out of the fire by the mere pleasure of a

merciful God (Doren 61). He had chosen to let them live because of

his wonderfulness. However, “the supreme and powerful authority of

God was not to be questioned” (Harrison 34), nor was anything else

for that matter.

However, even the simplest and least important writings of the

Age of Reason contained questioning. Throughout the text of the

Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout, Benjamin Franklin asked

many questions to his ailment, the Gout. He questioned repeatedly

why he was suffering. He easily concluded that his indulgences were

the cause (Thompson 101-106). In fact, Franklin included most every

rationalistic belief in his works. He especially showed his interest in

science. By doing this, he explained that everything natural was to

have a scientific cause (Thompson 103). Everything was practical in

the Age of Reason. People believed that they should try to improve

themselves not by prayer and fasting, but by setting goals (Thompson

106). America as a whole set a goal for itself. The Declaration of the

Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was adopted on July 6,

1775. Congress issued this document to let every man know the

reason for gathering armies together and preparing for revolution.

They protested in the name of liberty against the force that would

make the colonies slaves. They proclaimed that they would fights

until they had reached freedom (Doren 141). It was supported by

many other documents. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argued that

it was preposterous for a huge continent to belong to a little island. It

convinced people from all walks of life (Commager 18). The writings

of the Revolutionary Period were topped off by one final work. The

Declaration of Independence was one of the most remarkable

documents of the Age of Reason because it contained so many

remarkable examples of the usage of reasoning. Thomas Jefferson

and the other writers did not simply tell the world that America was

declaring its independence from England, they explained why

(Thompson 144-147).

In the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, the writings very

vividly described the philosophy, ethics, and interests of the early

Americans. An analysis of their works and criticisms of their works

would allow a reader to gain a fuller understanding of the differences

and similarities of the two eras. But, as one can clearly see, the

periods, although adjoining chronologically, were actually almost

complete opposites.

Commager, Henry Steele. The Great Declaration. Indianapolis:

Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1958.

Doren, Carl Van, ed. Cambridge History of American Literature. New

York: The Macmillan Company, 1969.

Harrison, John F. History of Early American Literature. London:

Longman Press, 1969.

Hodgins, Francis. Adventures in American Literature. Orlando:

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1985.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1967.

The Americans, A History Annotated Teacher’s Edition. Evanston:

McDougal, Littell, and Co., 1992.

Thompson, Eileen, et al. Prentice Hall Literature. Englewood Cliffs:

Prentice Hall, 1991.






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