, Research Paper
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 139).
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.
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Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
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Thompson, Eileen, et al. Prentice Hall Literature. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.