Colonial literature from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has made a large impact on society today. Literature from both the Puritan era and the Age of Reason contribute to this impact. Puritans were religious separatists who wished to ‘purify’ the Church of England of its catholic heritage. They believed in predestination; the idea that some people were saved and others were damned. The Puritans would scrutinize themselves for signs of grace from God. Following the Puritan era was the Age of Reason. This was a period of scientific and political enlightenment.
It stressed the idea that basic truths can be arrived at through reason, not faith. People began to improve their present, worldly life rather than preparing themselves for an afterlife in Heaven. Three qualities of American writing from the Colonial period are the beliefs of providence, self improvement, and divine mission. The belief in God’s providence is a major feature found throughout Colonial literature. God’s providence was the idea that it was in God’s power to control the salvation and damnation of humans. Their destinies were predetermined and they would live their lives looking for signs of grace.
Every outcome of an action was considered a sign as God’s providence. They believed God’s intervention in their everyday lives revealed their fate. The belief in providence is predominately seen throughout Puritan writing, one of which being William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. William Bradford was a Puritan leader who later became the governor of Plymouth Colony. His narrative described the Puritans’ arrival to the New World. He focused on the relationship the Puritans had with God. He mentioned many signs of God’s providence. The first act of providence was on the seaman.
There was a strong, able body seaman who always cursed and condemned the poor sick people on the ship, wishing them to be cast overboard. God then intervened and revealed the seaman’s fate. Bradford wrote, ” But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, in which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard” (24). God’s providence exposed the seaman’s damnation. His death was a sign that he was not one of The Elect and did not possess the quality of grace.
William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation embodies the belief of providence, a characteristic of Colonial literature. Another characteristic of Colonial literature is the idea of self-improvement. This idea is represented in both Puritan and the Age of Reason literature. It is the idea that people need to attain moral perfection. Benjamin Franklin, an autodidact of the Age of Reason, experimented with the idea of self-improvement. He found self-improvement to be a logical idea that every person should experience because it would better themselves and society.
In his autobiography, Franklin wrote, “I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping, and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct” (80). Franklin devised a method to help him become virtuous. He created a list of thirteen virtues and a plan to attain each one. He believed self-improvement was a realistic approach to achieve moral perfection which would develop a better society.
The belief in self-improvement is permeated throughout Colonial literature because it was useful to many people. In the Puritan era, moral perfection was essential to get into Heaven and to avoid Hell. In the Age of Reason reaching moral perfection was a reasonable idea that would better society. It secularized the Puritan values making moral perfection a more rational idea rather than religious. The belief in divine mission is also a characteristic of Colonial literature. Divine mission is the idea that America is a divinely guided nation.
Americans believe that God is on their side. This idea is common throughout American writing from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Puritans believed in divine mission and built a pious nation under God. They believed they were “The Chosen” people of God. In the Age of Reason, this concept continued. Thomas Paine, a radical, revolutionary, pamphleteer expressed the idea of divine mission in his papers, The Crisis. Paine wrote The Crisis papers to boost the morale among the common men and soldiers during the time of the Revolutionary War.
He assured a victory against Britain because America was a divinely guided nation. He wrote, “… that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could intervene” (95). Paine argued that God would help them and not leave them in their time of need. He believed that the idea of divine mission would contribute to a victory over England.
Because of God’s celestial powers, the belief in divine mission was widely used throughout Colonial literature. Colonial literature has influenced American history and society. The qualities of writing from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have contributed to this impact. The concept of divine mission is exemplified daily in classrooms across America when children stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. They all say, “… one nation under God… ” Also, the phrase “In God We Trust” is embossed on American currency and was adopted as our nation’s motto.
Even now America is viewed as a divinely guided nation. In addition, self-improvement is exercised in the education system. People try to fulfill their greatest potential by improving their knowledge. The public school system enables all individuals the right to an education that will precipitate to a more successful life. In higher education, scholarships are available to those who excel academically but cannot handle the financial obligation. It is clear that qualities of literature from the Puritan era and the Age of Reason are still relevant in today’s American society.