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Puritan Literature

Puritan literature is the body of works written in America by the two successive waves of immigrants to the
New World: the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony.
Their movement is the direct product of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The Renaissance is the rebirth of classical learning which began in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries
and soon spread across Europe, bringing the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern
civilization. It affected all fields including literature and religion. Drama and poetry flourished (Shakespeare,
Cervantes..) and the study of ancient texts in Greek and Hebrew (the Old Testament) led to a more critical
study of the Bible.
The Reformation (1534) The Protestant Church of England was formed by King Henry VIII free
from the Pope and Roman Catholicism.
Pilgrims and Puritans were originally members of the Anglican Church but they were extreme
reformers who wanted to purify it still more, to restore it to its “pure and unspotted” condition. They
opposed the elaborate pageantry of the Church of England which remained similar to that of Roman
Catholicism (veneration of images and relics, choirs, bells and music, decorated robes and crosses, stained
glasses; decorations which kept the mind away from the sermon and the word of God). They also objected to
the hierarchy of Pope and bishops which had no justification in the Bible. Any human being can be a priest
as advocated by Martin Luther in “the priesthood of all men”. They were people of the Book who believed
that the Bible was the word of God and that it should rule their lives, not kings or popes.
The Separatists (who separated from the Church of England) left to Holland after being persecuted
by James I because they questioned his authority. They called themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by
William Bradford from the Old Testament “for they knew they were pilgrims”. Then they left Holland to go
to America, running away from a corrupt world to spread the true teachings of the Christian religion. They
founded the Plymouth colony but soon faced hardships. As dissenters, they did not have financial help and
were later swallowed by the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The Puritans, like the Pilgrims, wanted to purify the Church of England; but unlike them, they did
not think that it was beyond reform. So they migrated as official members of the Anglican Church seeking a
New Jerusalem in America to worship as they wished.
The religious doctrines of the Pilgrims and the Puritans were based on the teachings of two
reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (who translated the Geneva Bible). They relied on
five principles:
1. Total Depravity: Adam and Eve disobeyed and therefore stained all mankind with their original sin
2. Limited Atonement: Jesus’ sacrifice obtained God’s forgiveness only for a limited few, “the elect”.
3. Irresistible Grace: salvation is given only by God and could not be obtained by other means.
4. Perseverance of the Saints: those chosen will remain in a state of grace to the end of their lives and then
taken to heaven.
5. Predestination: God has predestined all events.
Like the Jews of the Old Testament, the Pilgrims and the Puritans were convinced that they were the
“elite”, the chosen people favoured by God and were certain they worshipped the true God. So they suffered
for their religious ideals and fled from persecution to a America. Just as Moses had led the Israelites away
from slavery in Egypt, Puritan leaders brought their followers away from oppression in England. Their
journey to the New World is not an ordinary migration, it is a new Exodus, ordained by God and foretold in
the Bible.
Like a patriarch of the Old Testament, William Bradford recorded in his annals God’s choosing of
his people, their exile, their wandering and their settlement in the Promised Land.