Religion in Colonial American Literature

Updated on July 23, 2013
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris' Painting "The Mayflower Compact" 1620
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris' Painting "The Mayflower Compact" 1620 | Source

Religion in Colonial American Literature

As people immigrated to America from England, they brought their religious ideals with them. These strong religious beliefs are evident in the writings of colonial American literature. Religion affected all aspects of life, and literature serves to provide evidence of the bond of religion to early American life. Colonial literature, written in simple and expressive style, presents history of colonial times, rules to live by according to pilgrim and Puritan ideals, and the punishment that goes along with violating those ideals.

Religion in Colonial America

Religion in England during the early 1600s followed King James’ Protestant ideas yet remained very similar to Catholicism. Religion was governed by the state, and citizens were expected to follow state religion under the rule of King James. Some people disagreed with King James’ interpretation of the Bible and his religion and decided to flee England. These people traveled to America. Among them was William Bradford. Bradford and the pilgrims arrived in America in 1620. They were united by their strong religious beliefs and the desire to live in a community free of the religious persecution they would have suffered in England for their beliefs.

The pilgrims separated from the Protestant religion of England, but others would follow them to the New World who held on to the Biblical teachings of the church. The Puritans agreed with the pilgrims that Protestantism was too closely related to Catholicism and should be purified. Ten years after the first pilgrims arrived in America John Winthrop and the Puritans landed in the Massachusetts Bay colony (PBS, 2012). Puritan life strictly followed the teachings of the Bible and the community followed the English practice of combined church and state.

"Embarkation of The Pilgrims" 1857  William Bradford depicted in center
"Embarkation of The Pilgrims" 1857 William Bradford depicted in center | Source

Examples of Religion in Colonial Literature

“Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford

In “Of Plymouth Plantation” William Bradford writes about his experience traveling to the new world and early colonial life in America. His commentary shares views of the separatists’ religious beliefs. Bradford offers examples of “God’s providence” when God intercedes to assist the pilgrims on their way, such as when sailors who mistreat them are punished through illness or death. “There was a proud and very profane man…he would …condemning the poor people…but it please God…to smite this young man with a grievous disease” (Baym, 2008, p. 61, para. 1). Bradford goes on to write “praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever…let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor” (Baym, 2008, p. 61, para. 1). Even Bradford’s name for the people, “pilgrim,” offers religious connotations because a pilgrim is known as someone who journeys out of religious devotion ( LLC, 2013). Bradford’s account includes numerous religious references.

John Wintrhop
John Wintrhop | Source

“A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop

John Winthrop also includes many religious passages in his literary works. On the journey to America Winthrop offered “A Model of Christian Charity” as a sermon of expectations for the Puritans in the New World. This sermon reminds the people of their obligation to God. Winthrop writes “there are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: justice and mercy…the moral law or the law of the Gospel” (Baym, 2008, p. 77, para. 2). Winthrop’s writing offers examples of Puritan belief, such as that humans exist so serve God, the Bible provides proof of God’s will, predestination, original sin, and that good can be accomplished with hard work and sacrifice. John Winthrop provides readers with an interesting view of Puritanism in America.

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather | Source

“The Wonders of the Invisible World” by Cotton Mather

Another Puritan who includes religion in his writings was Cotton Mather. Mather served as a pastor in the Second Church of Boston (Baym, 2008). Although he wrote many sermons and theological works, he is best known for his historical accounts of the Salem Witch Trials. In Mather’s “The Wonders of the Invisible World” Mather shares his views of the battle between God and the Devil for his people. Mather writes “the New Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the devil’s territories” (Baym, 2008, p. 144, para. 3). Cotton Mather gives a historic account of the witch trials relating how these people were influenced by the Devil as witches to do his bidding “Martha Carrier was indicted for the bewitching of certain persons” (Baym, 2008, p. 146, para. 3). He concludes his writing in “The Trial of Martha Carrier” with “Martha Carrier, was a person of whom confessions of the witches…agreed that the devil had promised her she should be Queen of the Hebrews” (Baym, 2008, p. 149, para. 2). Mather’s religious views are evident in his writings, which were frequently seen in colonial literature.

"Examination of a Witch" T.H. Matteson 1853 depicting Salem Witch Trials
"Examination of a Witch" T.H. Matteson 1853 depicting Salem Witch Trials | Source

Religious Influence on Literary Format

Colonial literature was dominated by religious influence. The formats for these writings were theological studies, hymns, histories, biographies, and autobiographies. The theological studies and hymns were based on religious views. The histories, biographies, and autobiographies provide historical detail of the importance of religion in everyday colonial life. William Bradford’s history of the arrival at Plymouth provides religious overtones. John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christianity” is clearly a religious sermon. Even Cotton Mather provides court histories that are overshadowed by religious beliefs more than factual evidence.

Religious Influence on Literary Style

Colonial writing was characterized by plain speech. This style of writing was used as a way of honoring God by stating his ideals clearly and without vanity. The works of William Bradford present his humility before God and that all is done for “God’s will” and his rewards are “God’s providence.” John Winthrop offered his rules for Puritan life in “A Model for Christian Charity” through clear language, and specific Biblical references “according to our Savior…”whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, this was practiced by Abraham and Lot in entertaining the Angels and the old man of Gibeah” (Baym, 2008, p. 77, para. 3). Winthrop quotes Bible verse and makes limited interpretation to simplify God’s message for the Puritan people. Cotton Mather also writes in simple expression what he considers the details of history “the chief matters of fact, which occurred in the trials of some that were executed…you are to take the truth, just as it was; and the truth will hurt no good man” (Baym, 2008, p. 146, para. 2).

Literary Interpretation of Historical and Political Events

The histories, biographies, and autobiographies of colonial times present details of colonial life biased by religious belief. William Bradford presents early pilgrim days in Plymouth with much detail. Despite his descriptive writing he offers reasoning for events based on religious beliefs, such as God favoring them with good health and safety and punishing those who go against God’s laws. John Winthrop served as Puritan governor for 20 years and his writings reflect his religious ideas of government, specifically the “city upon a hill” from the “Sermon on the Mount." Winthrop’s Puritan ideals shaped how he governed and the historical accounts from that time. Cotton Mather also carried on the Puritan ideals of God’s will in his historical accounts of the Salem witch trials. His tainted viewpoint presents what he considers to be fact, such as afflictions caused by witchcraft, more than evidence of any wrongdoing.

"Puritans Going to Church" George Henry 1867
"Puritans Going to Church" George Henry 1867 | Source

Colonial literature was formatted in simple expression and style reflecting the dominance of religion in society. Religion affected all aspects of life, and colonial literature provides evidence of the strong religious beliefs of the time. The writings of Bradford, Winthrop, and Mather provide examples of religion in literature throughout the 1600s. The pilgrim and Puritan ideals of pleasing God and punishing those who go against God’s will are evident in the writings of colonial American literature.


Baym, N. (Ed.). (2008). The Norton anthology of American literature. (Shorter 7th ed. Vol. 1). New York: NY: W.W. Norton. LLC. (2013). Pilgrim. Retrieved from

PBS. (2012). God in America. Retrieved from


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    • profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 

      5 years ago

      I learned a lot in this hub. What I love the most is that you presented the information in a neutral tone - something not everyone can do successfully.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Nancy, this was a great and informational hub about Colonial America. Congrats on HOTD! Voted up for interesting!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      You did such a great job writing and researching this subject. Kudos! Voted up

    • whonunuwho profile image


      5 years ago from United States

      Always interesting to review the early religious movement in this country, especially. The people were able to express themselves in a new country, free from such restrictions and being bound by unbending rules governed by much persecution when not obeyed. Religion has been a key part of lives about this globe and without it in some form, can you imagine the chaos and destruction when there are no set guidelines for people to live a peaceful daily life. Thanks for your well presented work my friend. whonu

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      5 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      This is very interesting hub briefing the old beliefs and insights of people during Colonial American immigration and literature. The discussion is very illuminating and thought provoking. Voted up.

    • NancySnyder profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy Snyder 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Hi Mel, thanks for your comment. Yes it is true that Nathaniel Hawthorne did not live during the period that he wrote about so extensively. I believe this is because he was born in Salem Massachusetts, and his ancestors played a role in the Salem witch trials. He seems to call attention to the sad events of the Puritan times while poking fun at them at the same time. It is almost like he feels guilty for the sins of his ancestors. My favorite story by Hawthorne is "Young Goodman Brown." If you have not read it you really should. It is a short story, but really puts the whole Puritan emphasis on living a "good" life into perspective.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      7 years ago from San Diego California

      There was definitely a different mindset among the people of that era than what exists today. I understand that The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne was not a work of colonial literature, it came much later, but it gives some important insights into that mindset, particularly in how people actually believed that the devil was around every corner and that witches walked among us. Hawthorne examines this point of view in a manner that is very non satirical, as if he actually sympathizes with the idea. I enjoyed reading your analysis.


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