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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.
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
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
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
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”
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
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
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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