The Puritan Period


Anne Bradstreet
(1612 - 1672)
Edward Taylor
(1642 - 1729)

Introduction to The Puritan Period


The Puritans were a religious collective who can be said to have invented their identity by means of the word. Arriving in large numbers to America during the first half of the 17th century, they constantly modified and expanded that identity through a flood of sermons, histories, hagiographies, jeremiads and, to a lesser extent, poems. Taken as a whole, this body of literature constitutes a unique example of rhetorical self-definition. The Puritans believed that their society in New England would provide, in John Winthrop’s phrase, “A Modell of Christian Charity”; they believed that their special role in history had been fore-ordained in the Bible and that God had reserved the New World as a second Garden of Eden for them to prepare for the second coming of Christ. Identifying themselves with the Israelites of the Old Testament, they interpreted America as their own Promised Land, thus already making it, in effect, a kind of dream – more than a geographical reality, an imaginative or literary figure.

John Winthrop (1588-1649)

A page from The New England Primer, 1646

This peculiar “errand into the wilderness”, as Perry Miller called it, would have enormous and profound historical repercussions. The Puritans had to elaborate a set of overarching ideals, based on the strict Protestant theology of John Calvin (1509-1564), which were conceived to resolve the many ambiguities implicit in their religious beliefs and their historical enterprise, for example, their conviction that they had been chosen by God to carry out his plan in a new Paradise (America) which was, nevertheless, hostile. Along with their primary mandate to glorify God and purify the world, the need to justify their role in history and to rationalize the many contradictions inherent in their beliefs was one of the major purposes and functions of Puritan literary expression.

The Puritan settlement of New England began in 1620 with the founding of Plymouth Plantation by a group of Separatists led by William Bradford. The colony of Massachusetts Bay was founded in 1630, and shortly thereafter began the Great Migration, which would bring to America large numbers of Puritans seeking to escape repression in England. By the end of the century, however, religious zeal was declining in most Puritan communities, and the movement as a whole suffered an almost fatal blow with the crisis of the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692. It underwent an unexpected resurgence, known as The Great Awakening, during the first half of the next century.

Imaginary scene of confession at Salem Witchcraft trials

Up until the final decline of the movement at the middle of the 18th century, the most important form of Puritan literary expression was the sermon. From its very beginning, Puritanism was intent upon reforming, or “purifying” the Church of England; thus the name “Puritan”. The most immediate way to this purification was to be found in a strict adherence to the Word of God, which is given in the Holy Scriptures. The main purpose of the sermon, therefore, was to interpret that Word or, to provide biblical exegesis. Church services were numerous; among some groups the congregation met as often once a day and twice on Sundays. Puritan ministers had to be extremely well-educated to carry out this extensive textual search for the meaning of the will of God and to explain it coherently and effectively to the faithful. Their sermons were often collected and published and made up, along with the Bible itself, the most common reading material in many Puritan households.

Figures such as John Cotton (1585-1652), Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), Increase Mather (1639-1723), his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) were well-known for the power and effectiveness of their sermons.

Theological text by John Cotton, 1645

A sermon by Increase Mather, 1675

The writing of historical texts also acquired a central importance within the Puritan theocracy. This was a result of their typological approach to the study of the Bible. Believing that characters and event in the Old Testament were Types for characters and events in the New Testament (Anti-types), and convinced of their central importance in preparing the world for the end of time, they searched for anticipations of their own activities and accomplishments in both books of the Bible. This approach to history brought together biblical and secular events and served to justify the Puritans’ self-righteous concept of themselves as occupying a privileged place in God’s plan for nature and humanity.

Perhaps the best example of a “secular” Puritan history is William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (first published in 1856), which gives an account of the first Puritan colony on American soil with an eye to recording what Bradford hoped and believed would be a significant chapter in the journey toward the Day of Judgement and the ultimate victory of Puritan faith. One of the best-known works of “holy” history is Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which has been discussed so brilliantly by Sacvan Bercovitch in his crucial study, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975).

Poetry played only a small part in the life of the Puritan colonies in America. Most Puritan poetry was, of course, religious in nature. And even that poetry that wasn’t written primarily with religious intentions – poems concerning local and regional events, everyday domestic experiences in an agricultural society in a new land, and personal issues – was almost inevitably tinged at the same time by the Puritan requirement never to lose sight of God and His ways. The Bible, of course, was the central focus of almost all Puritan poetry, providing the fundamental source of subject matter, ideas and imagery, not to mention models of rhythm for the language. Virtually all poetry that was published had, by necessity, to lend itself to the Puritan task of combating Satan, purifying the world and glorifying God. Probably the most popular Puritan poet was Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705), whose long religious poem “The Day of Doom” (1662) went through four editions in the 17th century and 6 in the 18th. However, it is undeniable that the more private and personal poems of Anne Bradstreet (c.1612-1672) and Edward Taylor (c.1645-1729) have much more interest for contemporary readers. For this reason we have chosen these two authors to represent the poetry of America during the Puritan period.


Autor:Paul Scott Derrick (University of Valencia)