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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise

Instructor Overview, Bibliography & Resources, Glossary and Learning Objectives for this Unit.

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Puritan and Quaker Utopian Visions, 1620-1750

When British colonists landed in the Americas they created communities that they hoped would serve as a “light onto the nations.” But what role would the native inhabitants play in this new model community? This Unit compares the answers of three important groups, the Puritans, Quakers, and Native Americans, and exposes the lasting influence they had upon American identity.

Instructor Overview

Borrowing a phrase from the New England Calvinist minister Samuel Danforth, the historian Perry Miller described the Puritans who came to America to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony as having embarked upon an “errand into the wilderness.” Here, the metaphor of the “errand” captures the immigrants’ belief that they were on a sacred mission, ordained by God, to create a model community and thereby fulfill a divine covenant. While Miller was interested in the specific errand the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans envisioned for themselves, we might use his notion of the “errand” to consider the motivations behind the journeys of other groups who came to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What kind of errand did the Quakers in Pennsylvania believe they had embarked upon? The Pilgrims at Plymouth? The Anglicans, Catholics, and Sephardic Jews who also settled on the East Coast in the seventeenth century? Whatever they believed their errands to be, New World settlers were confronted with a variety of challenges the physical difficulty of living in an unfamiliar land, friction with other immigrant groups, dissent within their own communities, conflicts with Native Americans that complicated their attempts to create ideal communities. Unit 3, “The Promised Land,” examines the Utopian visions and dystopic fears represented in the works of William Bradford, Thomas Morton, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Edward Taylor, William Penn, Sarah Kemble Knight, John Woolman, and Samson Occom. This unit provides contextual background and classroom materials that explore how these early texts contributed to American literary traditions and helped create enduring myths about America.

The video for Unit 3 focuses on three texts that together represent the diverse early American visions of “the promised land.” John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians, and William Penn’s “Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians” all participate in a tradition of understanding personal and communal experience as the working of God’s will. Thematically, stylistically, and generically, however, the texts are very distinct from one another, revealing important differences in the authors’ religious convictions and positions within their communities.

Winthrop, a wealthy man and a leader within his Puritan congregation, delivered his lay sermon on board the ship Arbella before disembarking in Massachusetts. The sermon serves as an optimistic blueprint for the ideal Christian community, or “City upon a Hill,” extolling the virtues of a clear social and spiritual hierarchy, interpreting the Puritan mission as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and exhorting fellow congregants to maintain their purity. A generation later, Rowlandson wrote from a different Puritan perspective, as a woman held captive by Native Americans whom she viewed as agents of the devil. Her narrative of her wanderings and sufferings is an example of a Jeremiad, recounting the “trials and afflictions” that destroyed her earlier spiritual complacency and testifying to the sweetness of her repentance and eventual salvation. Penn, a Quaker and the wealthy proprietor of the Pennsylvania land charter, took an entirely different view of Native Americans in his letter to the Delaware Indians, written before he left England for the New World. His text is imbued with the tolerance and pacifism of Quaker belief, envisioning a utopian community in which Europeans and Native Americans would “live soberly & kindly together.”

The video’s coverage of Winthrop, Rowlandson, and Penn introduces students to these writers’ influential utopian and dystopian visions of the promise of America. How do these texts serve to form enduring myths about America’s status as a chosen nation? About its role as an example to the rest of the world? About its inclusiveness? How do these early visions of America’s status overlap, undermine, or compete with one another? Unit 3 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video’s introduction to early articulations of “the promised land” by exploring writers who represent other, diverse traditions, such as Samson Occom (a Native American Calvinist minister), William Bradford (a Separatist Puritan), Thomas Morton (an Anglican protestor of Puritan doctrine), and many others.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials contextualize the writers of this era by examining several key stylistic characteristics and religious doctrines that shape their texts: (1) the role of typology–the Puritans’ understanding of their lives as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy on both a communal and an individual level; (2) the importance of plain style–a mode of expression characterized by simplicity, accessibility, and the absence of ornament–in Puritan and Quaker speech, writing, clothing, architecture, furniture, and visual arts; (3) the diversity of Puritan and Quaker attitudes toward and ways of interacting with Native Americans; (4) the centrality of the Apocalypse, or the end of the world as it is prophesied in the Book of Revelation, to Puritan thought; and (5) the relevance of weaned affections–the idea that individuals must learn to wean themselves from earthly loves and focus only on spiritual matters–as a theological doctrine.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how students might connect the readings in this unit to those in other units in the series. Students might ask, for example, Why are the Puritans considered such an important starting point for American culture and literature? Why do later writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louise Erdrich invoke the Puritans in their own work? How do Rowlandson’s and Penn’s perceptions of Native Americans compare to Christopher Columbus’s, Thomas Harriot’s, and John Smith’s perceptions? How do the Native American perspectives offered in Unit 1 complicate Puritan and Quaker understandings of Indian culture? Why does Winthrop’s metaphor of the “City on a Hill” resonate so deeply in American culture? How are the Utopian visions of the writers in Unit 3 adopted, reformulated, or undermined in the work of writers presented in later units?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. discuss the variety of ways in which European settlers imagined Native Americans;
  2. understand how myths about America’s foundation were formulated, debated, and challenged by these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers;
  3. explain the basic theological principles of the Quaker and Puritan faiths;
  4. understand how the physical hardships of immigration and the challenges of living and traveling in unfamiliar landscapes shaped the culture of European immigrants in the New World.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
John Winthrop, Mary Rowlandson, William Penn

Who’s Interviewed:
Gary Nash, award-winning author and professor of American history (UCLA); Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history (UCLA); Priscilla Wald, professor of American literature (Duke); Emory Elliott, professor of English (UC, Riverside)

Points Covered:

  • Description of the diverse early settlers in America and their diverse utopian visions and expectations for the New World.
  • Introduction to the Puritans and their belief in their own status as God’s “chosen people.” John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” explicates the nature of their “sacred errand” and outlines a blueprint for the model Puritan community.
  • Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett Indians offers a later, more dystopian vision of New England. Her text functions as a jeremiad, denouncing the sinfulness of her society, urging repentance, and providing a model for salvation. Louise Erdrich’s 1984 poem “Captivity” offers a contemporary reinterpretation of Rowlandson’s experience.
  • Introduction to the Quakers and their commitment to nonviolence, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Penn’s “Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians” shows a respect for Native Americans’ culture and rights that is quite different from Puritan attitudes toward Native Americans. Theological differences between the Quakers and the Puritans led to hostility and persecution.
  • Internal doubts and external enemies plagued the Puritans, as evidenced by the witchcraft trials of the 1690s. Neither Quakers nor Puritans succeed in creating perfect communities, but they are the sources of lasting myths and guiding principles that have shaped America over the centuries.


  • Preview the video: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritans, Quakers, and other European immigrant groups arrived in the “New World” with optimistic plans to create utopian societies that would fulfill God’s will on earth. John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity among the Narragansett Indians, and William Penn’s “Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians” all participate in a tradition of understanding personal and communal experience as the working of divine will. From Winthrop’s vision of the Puritan congregation as “a City on a Hill” to Rowlandson’s nightmarish account of personal and communal sin and redemption to Penn’s idealistic commitment to peace and tolerance in his dealings with Native Americans, these texts demonstrate a shared belief in America’s promise, even as they offer very different perspectives on how that promise should be realized. While groups like the Puritans and the Quakers failed to turn their utopian dreams into realities, their visions, ideals, and even ideologies have left an indelible mark on American conceptions of national identity and continue to shape American literary traditions.
  • What to think about while watching: How did the Puritans and Quakers respond to the social and political pressures caused by their immigration to a “New World”? How did they react when they came into contact with other immigrant groups and with Native Americans? How do the writers and texts explored in the video formulate enduring myths about America? How have their values and beliefs shaped American culture and literature?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 3 builds on the concepts outlined in the video to further explore the diversity of the utopian visions and dystopic fears that shaped the early American experience. The curriculum materials offer background on Puritan and Quaker writers and texts not featured in the video, as well as information about some of the other religious and cultural traditions that developed in America. The unit offers contextual background to flesh out the video’s introduction to the historical events, theological beliefs, and stylistic characteristics that shaped Puritan and Quaker literature.

Suggested Author Pairings

William Bradford and Thomas Morton
Both Bradford and Morton chronicle the challenges of life in and around the Plymouth colony, in a few cases treating the same events. To the extent that these accounts are fundamentally at odds with one another, they bring into relief the cultural values that their authors wished their respective communities to embody and foster. In Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford sought not only to describe life and events in the Plymouth colony but also to locate within the colony’s history a divine design that accorded with his Puritan beliefs. In contrast, Morton, a non-Puritan, devotes much of his New English Canaan to satirizing the Puritans in Plymouth and to promoting New England colonization more for its potential financial profits than for its spiritual possibilities. Even the differences in their rhetorical styles reveal their conflicting values and beliefs. When compared to Bradford’s plain style, Morton’s elevated language and classical allusions indicate a writer preoccupied with the kinds of worldly concerns and social hierarchies that the Plymouth colonists sought to eschew. The two writers also offer very different perspectives on Anglo relationships with Native Americans.

John Winthrop and William Penn
Both Winthrop and Penn were leaders when their respective colonies were founded, helping to shape systems of government and setting the tone for future American political formations and values. Of course, their views were very different from one another and thus form an illuminating contrast. Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” presents his vision of the ideal Christian community, encouraging Puritans to maintain an exemplary piety and interpreting the Puritan mission as that of a “chosen people” fulfilling biblical prophecy. Penn’s “Letter to the Lenni Lenape Indians” (written, like Winthrop’s “Model,” prior to its author’s actually arriving in America) reveals a different worldview, endorsing tolerance and religious and cultural pluralism in its respect for Native American culture and civil rights. The two documents, then, make plain the very different assumptions and values that underwrote Puritan and Quaker culture: a sense of exclusivity, shared orthodoxy, and “chosen-ness” on one hand, and tolerance and pluralism on the other. Both had an enduring effect on the development of American culture and American mythology.

Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor
Bradstreet and Taylor, both poets and Puritans, are a natural pairing. Both deal eloquently with difficult Puritan theological issues, such as anxiety about election and the struggle to “wean” affections from worldly interests. In this vein, they are frequently celebrated for their poignant evocations of family life and domestic culture, manifested by their use of simple, homely metaphors. Although Bradstreet’s work was published in her lifetime and Taylor’s was not, they share concerns about the problem of literary authority and the writer’s relationship to her or his audience: Taylor’s “Prologue” and Bradstreet’s “Prologue” and “The Author to Her Book” struggle with questions about the writer’s agency and the compatibility of poetry and Puritan piety. While both were apparently uninterested in or unwilling to see their own work published (Bradstreet’s poetry was published without her knowledge or consent), they both left carefully copied and preserved manuscripts at their deaths, suggesting that they took their vocations as poets very seriously. Bradstreet’s work is obviously complicated by her position as a woman in a patriarchal society, creating tensions not present in Taylor’s poems. Although both poets worked in the “plain style” on occasion, they both experimented with other poetic traditions. Bradstreet’s poems tend more toward the classical, while Taylor’s depend on biblical imagery and elaborate, extended poetic conceits.

Mary Rowlandson and Sarah Kemble Knight 
Rowlandson’s and Knight’s narrative accounts of their respective journeys provide important insight into the role of women in early New England. Both texts chronicle journeys that were unusual undertakings for women though obviously to totally different ends. Rowlandson’s journey was an unwilling one, and she struggles to maintain the Puritan ideal of passive femininity even while actively working for her own survival. Knight, on the other hand, embarked on her travels voluntarily and clearly embraces her role as a businessperson, active in a traditionally masculine realm. While Rowlandson filters her every experience through scripture and searches constantly for signs of God’s will, Knight barely mentions spiritual issues and concerns herself instead with witty social commentary. Perhaps their only point of overlap is their racism and intolerance of cultural practices different from their own. Written only twenty years apart, these two narratives reveal the diversity of the New England experience and the increasing secularization of Puritan culture.

John Woolman and Samson Occom 
Both Woolman’s Journal and Occom’s Short Narrative function as spiritual autobiographies, narrating their authors’ conversion to and acceptance of Christianity. While Woolman’s Quakerism was quite different from Occom’s evangelical Christianity, both men experienced a profound conversion in early youth, and both found their calling as missionaries. Both wrote their pieces to persuade Woolman’s to serve as a guide for those seeking “inner light,” and Occom’s to plead for Indian rights and to salvage his reputation after his sincerity and commitment were attacked. Most importantly, Occom and Woolman share a concern with social justice and a desire to abolish racism, intolerance, and poverty. Though Occom’s commitment to exposing and eradicating these social problems was the result of personal, first-hand experience while Woolman’s was more a sympathetic response, both wrote movingly on these subjects. Many of the problems Woolman and Occom identified and worked to end continue to haunt American culture, giving their work enduring relevance.


Apocalypse – The end of the world as it is prophesied in the Bible, especially in the Book of Revelation. Viewing their experiences through the lens of biblical history, the Puritans understood themselves to be living in the “end time,” with Christ’s Second Coming at hand. They believed that their purity as a nation would actually bring about the Apocalypse, at which time Christ would return and reign for a millennium. Then, the earth would be destroyed, the elect would be ushered into heaven, and all others would be cast into hell. Puritan ministers performed complex analyses of scriptural predictions in order to pinpoint the exact day the Apocalypse would occur.

captivity narrative – A uniquely American literary genre, the captivity narrative recounts the experience of a white European or, later, an American, during his or (more usually) her captivity and eventual release from hostile enemy captors (generally Native Americans). Enormously popular since their inception in the seventeenth century, captivity narratives influenced the development of both autobiographical writings and the novel in America.

covenant theology – The Puritans believed that they had formed a “covenant,” or contract with God. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, they felt themselves to be a “chosen nation,” the people through whom God would fulfill his divine plan on earth. Their covenant, however, was not the same as the Old Testament covenant God had formed with the Israelites. The coming of Christ had changed the terms of the contract, enabling them to live under a “covenant of grace.” Right behavior would follow from their acceptance of and faith in the covenant. On an individual level, Puritans agonized over the status of their covenant with God, but as a group they were more confident. Having entered into voluntary church covenants, and thus into a kind of national covenant with God, they were assured of the centrality of their role in God’s cosmic plan.

election – The Puritan belief that some individuals were predestined by God to be saved and taken to heaven while other individuals were doomed to hell. One’s status as a member of the elect did not necessarily correlate with good works or moral behavior on earth, for God had extended a “covenant of grace” to his chosen people that did not have to be earned, only accepted with faith. Despite the apparent ease with which a believer could attain everlasting salvation, Puritans in practice agonized over the state of their souls, living in constant fear of damnation and scrutinizing their own feelings and behavior for indications of whether or not God had judged them worthy.

inner light – The Quaker concept of a manifestation of divine love that dwells within and thus unites all humans. Also called the “spirit,” or the “Christ within,” the inner light could be experienced without the mediation of a minister or the Bible and was thus powerfully egalitarian and radical in its implications. Quakers viewed the inner light as more important to spiritual development than the study of scripture.

jeremiad – A form usually associated with second generation Puritan sermons but which is also relevant to many other kinds of Puritan writing (Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative is often cited as an example of a jeremiad). Drawing from the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Isaiah, jeremiads lament the spiritual and moral decline of a community and interpret recent misfortunes as God’s just punishment for that decline. But at the same time that jeremiads bemoan their communities’ fall from grace, they also read the misfortunes and punishments that result from that fall as paradoxical proofs of God’s love and of the group’s status as his “chosen people.” According to jeremidic logic, God would not bother chastising or testing people he did not view as special or important to his divine plan.

plain style – A mode of expression characterized by its clarity, accessibility, straightforwardness, simplicity, and lack of ornamentation. In early America, the plain-style aesthetic had broad cultural relevance, shaping the language of prose and poetry, the design of furniture and buildings, and the style of painting and other visual arts. Rejecting ornamental flourishes and superfluous decoration as sinful vanity, plain stylists worked to glorify God in their productions rather than to show off their own artistry or claim any renown for themselves. This aesthetic appealed to both Quakers and Puritans.

Puritans, Separatist and non-separating – All Puritans dreamed of creating a purified religious community, free from the hierarchies and worldly rituals they felt contaminated the established Church of England. While non-separating Puritans hoped that they could reform the church from within, the Separatists believed that they needed to break from the Church of England entirely. The Separatists represented a minority among Puritans, and they experienced even greater persecution in England than non-separating Puritans did. In America, the Plymouth colony led by William Bradford was Separatist while the Massachusetts Bay colony led by John Winthrop was non-separating.

typology – A Puritan method of both reading scripture and using it to understand the significance of historical and current events. In its strictest sense, typology refers to the practice of explicating signs in the Old Testament as foreshadowing events, personages, ceremonies, and objects in the New Testament. According to typological logic, Old Testament signs, or “types,” prefigure their fulfillment or “antitype” in Christ. Applied more broadly, typology enabled Puritans to read biblical types as forecasting not just the events of the New Testament but also their own historical situation and experiences. In this way, individual Puritans could make sense of their own spiritual struggles and achievements by identifying with biblical personages like Adam, Noah, or Job. But this broad understanding of typology was not restricted to individual typing; the Puritans also interpreted their group identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, identifying their community as the “New Israel.”

weaned affections – This Puritan theological doctrine held that individuals must learn to wean themselves from earthly attachments and make spiritual matters their priority. Inappropriate earthly attachments included material possessions such as one’s home, furniture, clothing, or valuables. The doctrine of weaned affections could also proscribe things that we do not usually think of as incompatible with spirituality, such as a love of natural beauty, or a dedication to secular learning, or even an intense devotion to one’s spouse, children, or grandchildren. According to orthodox Puritan theology, anything tied to this world�even relationships with family members�should be secondary to God.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.

The American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978.

Colacurcio, Michael. Doctrine and Difference: Essays in the Literature of New England. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Demos, John. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Levin, David. “William Bradford: The Value of Puritan Historiography.” Major Writers of Early American Literature, ed. E. H. Emerson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1972.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1956.

Nash, Gary. PPhiladelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002.

Schweitzer, Ivy. The Work of Self-Representation: Lyric Poetry in Colonial New England. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Slotkin, Richard and James K. Folsom, eds. So Dreadfull a Judgment: Puritan Responses to King Philip’s War, 1676-1677. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1978.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Images and Reality in the Lives of
Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750.
 New York: Knopf, 1980.

Further Resources
“Apocalypse: The Evolution of Apocalyptic Belief and How it Shaped the Western World” (A Frontline Special). PBS Video. P.O. Box 791. Alexandria, VA 22313-0791. 1-800-328-7271.

Delbanco, Andrew. The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1995.

Early American Psalmody: The Bay Psalm Book, Cambridge, 1640. Mission Music in California: Music of the Southwest. New York: Smithsonian Folkways, [05108].

Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1969.

Keller, Robert M. The Dancing Master, 1651-1728 [computer file]: an illustrated compendium. Annapolis, MD: Colonial Music Institute, 2000.

Ludwig, Allan I. Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1999.

Native Americans of the Northeast (Series). U of Massachusetts P. P.O. Box 429, Amherst, MA 01004. [email protected]. Customer Service: 413-545-2219. Fax: 1-800-488-1144

David Nicholls, ed. The Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Opening chapters on Indian music, secular and sacred music to 1800, and African American music to 1900.
Plimouth Plantation. P.O. Box 1620 Plymouth, MA 02362 Phone: 508-746-1622. Fax: 508-746-4978.

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia. Archives and Analysis of Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691. Electronic Text Center, Alderman Library. Box 400148. University of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA 22904. Phone: 434-924-3230. Fax: 434-924-1431.

“Preserving America’s Utopian Dream,” Cultural Resource Management. (Online and in hard copy). Vol. 24 No. 9. National Park Service.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Exhibit). The Library of Congress. 101 Independence Ave, SE Washington, DC. 20540. General Information: 202-707-5000. Exhibitions Information: 202-707-4604

The Religious Society of Friends.

Simmons, William S. Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1986.

St. George, Blaire. Conversing by Signs: Poetics of Implication in Colonial New England Culture. Chapel Hill U. of North Carolina P., 1998.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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