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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Utopian Promise – Activities

Overview Questions

  • What different European and Native American groups inhabited the eastern shores of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? What kinds of strategies did they adopt in order to forge community identities? What and whom did they exclude? What and whom did they embrace? How did their respective visions and ideals undermine, overlap, and compete with one another?
  • What qualities characterize the jeremiad form? How do jeremiads work to condemn a community’s spiritual decline while at the same time reaffirming the community’s identity and promise?
  • How did the Puritans use typology to understand and justify their experiences in the world?
  • How did the image of America as a “vast and unpeopled country” shape European immigrants’ attitudes and ideals? How did they deal with the fact that millions of Native Americans already inhabited the land that they had come over to claim?
  • How did the Puritans sense that they were living in the “end time” impact their culture? Why is apocalyptic imagery so prevalent in Puritan iconography and literature?
  • What is plain style? What values and beliefs influenced the development of this mode of expression?
  • Why has the jeremiad remained a central component of the rhetoric of American public life?
  • How do Puritan and Quaker texts work to form enduring myths about America’s status as a chosen nation? About its inclusiveness and tolerance? About its role as a “City on a Hill” that should serve as an example to the rest of the world?
  • Are there texts, or passages in texts, in this unit that challenge the myths created by the dominant society?
  • Why are the Puritans, more than any other early immigrant group, considered such an important starting point for American national culture?

Video Activities

What characteristics of a literary work make it influential over time?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is new about Penn’s “Letter to the Lenni Lenape”? How does he view Native Americans? How is his attitude toward Native Americans different from the Puritans’ attitudes toward them?
Context Questions: What is typology? What events and institutions did the Puritans choose to understand typologically? How did typology help them make sense of the world and their position within it?
Exploratory Questions: Can you think of later, post-Puritan examples of jeremiads? Where can you see the influence of the jeremiad form in contemporary literature, culture, and politics? Why has the jeremiad remained a central component of the rhetoric of American public life?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined in the literature of this period?
Video Comprehension Questions: What did John Winthrop mean when he proclaimed that New England would be “as a City on a Hill”? What benefits and responsibilities would such status incur for a community?
Context Questions: How did internal doubts and external enemies problematize and challenge the Puritans’ conception of their “sacred errand”? How did Native Americans and “witches” fit into the Puritans’ sense of their mission?
Exploratory Questions: How have Quaker beliefs and convictions influenced the development of American values?

What is American literature? What are the distinctive voices and styles in American literature? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What are the characteristics of a jeremiad? How does Mary Rowlandson’s text function as a jeremiad?
Context Questions: Why do you think Louise Erdrich chose to reimagine Mary Rowlandson’s experience in her poem “Captivity”? How does Erdrich’s poem both draw from and challenge Rowlandson’s narrative?
Exploratory Questions: Why do you think the Puritans, more than any other early immigrant group, have historically been considered the starting point for the United States’s national culture? Why did leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan choose to invoke John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” image in their late-twentieth-century speeches?

Apocalypse: The End of the World as They Knew It

[4563] Anonymous, The Joseph Tapping Stone, King’s Chapel, Boston, Massachusetts (1678), courtesy of Wesleyan University.

John Winthrop reports in his Journal that in 1637 a Puritan woman was driven to despair by her inability to ascertain whether she was one of God’s “elect,” destined for heaven, or one of the damned: “having been in much trouble of mind about her spiritual estate, [she] at length grew into utter desperation, and could not endure to hear of any comfort, so as one day she took her little infant and threw it into a well, and then came into the house and said, now she was sure she should be damned for she had drowned her child.” Although such a response to spiritual crisis was certainly extreme and anomalous, it was not uncommon for Puritans to experience intense anxiety about their spiritual condition. Puritan theology hinged on the concept of election, the idea 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.

For the Puritans, anticipation of God’s final judgment had relevance not just to the individual but to the community as a whole — and as a collective, they were far more confident about their spiritual status. Extending the notion of the covenant to the group, they operated under the conviction that they were the “chosen people of God,” or the “New Israel,” sent to New England to bring about the Kingdom of Christ on earth. Within the context of biblical history, they understood themselves to be living in the “end time” as it is prophesied in the Book of Revelation, with Christ’s Second Coming near at hand. All around them, comets, eclipses, and other “wonders” pointed to the imminence of the Final Judgment. Puritan ministers performed complex analyses of scriptural predictions in order to pinpoint the exact day that New England would herald the Apocalypse, the time at which Christ would return and reign for a thousand years. According to the Puritans, this millennium would usher in the end of history: the earth would be destroyed, the elect would be ushered into heaven, and all others would be cast into hell.

The centrality of millennial apocalyptic beliefs to Puritan culture can be indexed by the extraordinary popularity of Michael Wigglesworth’s poem “The Day of Doom.” With its terrifying images of hellfire and damnation and its stern accounts of God’s wrathfulness, the poem might seem grim and unappealing to modern readers. But Wigglesworth’s lengthy verse description of the Apocalypse was a bestseller among seventeenth-century Puritans; scholars estimate that after its publication in 1662, one copy existed for every twenty-five New Englanders. Many Puritans were apparently moved to learn its 224 eight-line stanzas by heart. As the title indicates, the action takes place on Judgment Day, when a vengeful Christ divides humanity into two groups: the righteous sheep at his right hand and the sinful goats at his left. The goats’ wickedness and religious heresy are exposed, and they are condemned to a burning lake in hell. The poem graphically describes the horrific punishments awaiting the non-elect:

With iron bands they bind their hands,
and cursed feet together,
And cast them all, both great and small,
into that lake forever.
Where day and night, without respite,
they wail, and cry, and howl,
For tort’ring pain, which they sustain
in body and in soul.

With its plain language and catchy rhyme scheme, “The Day of Doom” functioned for Puritans as a kind of “verse catechism,” useful for teaching basic theological tenets. It frequently was employed to instruct children, who would thus grow up with a thorough understanding — however terrifying such knowledge might have been to them — of the coming Apocalypse. In this cultural climate, death was approached with both fear and ecstatic expectancy, for it could bring either eternal torment or admittance to everlasting paradise. Only upon death could Puritans finally resolve the spiritual uncertainty that dominated their lives: death offered final and incontrovertible proof of their spiritual identity as either sheep or goats. The importance of death within Puritan culture is signaled by the attention they gave to funerary customs, including the carving of tombstones. Prior to the mid-1650s, Puritans usually left graves unmarked or indicated them only by simple wooden markers. Such non-decorative practices accorded with Puritans’ rejection of all religious imagery as idolatrous “graven images” such as the Bible forbade. But by the 1660s, Puritans’ preoccupation with death led them to erect elaborately carved gravestones decorated with symbolic images and engraved with language that both commemorated the deceased individual and expressed orthodox ways of understanding human mortality. Typical gravestone iconography ranged from traditional symbols of the transitory nature of earthly existence (skulls, skeletons, hourglasses, scythes) to emblems suggesting the possibility of resurrection and regeneration (wings, birds, flowers, trees, the sun). Eventually, gravestones also came to include representations of cherubs and human forms.

One of the most common images found on early Puritan gravestones is the winged death’s-head, prominent on the pediment of the Joseph Tapping stone (Boston, 1678). At first glance, the image seems grim and despairing, a visual corollary to the Latin inscriptions on the lower right panel of the stone (Vive Memor Loethi and Fugit Hora, or “Live mindful of death” and “Time is fleeting”). Yet the wings attached to the death’s-head suggest the possibility of resurrection and ascension to heaven, thus pictorially signifying the conceptual duality of Puritan attitudes toward death as both a fearful event and a potential means to eternal salvation. The architectural symbolism of columns and tablets on the Reverend Abraham Nott stone (Essex, Connecticut, 1756) similarly functions as a visual emblem of apocalyptic thinking, suggesting the rebuilding of the temple and the Second Coming of Christ as it is prophesied in Revelation. With their iconographic fusion of religious and aesthetic values, gravestones offer important evidence about the interrelationship of spiritual concerns and attitudes toward death in Puritan culture.


  1. Comprehension: What kinds of images decorate the gravestones featured in the archive? Which images are most prominent? What do you think the images would have signified to Puritan viewers? How might the images have offered spiritual comfort to those mourning the dead?
  2. Comprehension: Basing your opinion on the gravestones featured in the archive, how do you think Puritan gravestones changed over time? How might these differences reflect shifts in cultural values?
  3. Comprehension: What is the concept of “election” in Puritan theology? Read Anne Bradstreet’s spiritual reflections in her letter “To My Dear Children.” How does she struggle with her faith and the question of her own election? What conclusions does she come to?
  4. Context: In sermons delivered in the 1630s and 1640s, the Puritan minister John Cotton predicted that the Apocalypse would occur within the next fifteen years. Years later, at the end of the seventeenth century, his grandson Cotton Mather asserted that Puritans should expect the Apocalypse very soon. Using the timeline provided in this unit, examine the events that were occurring in New England in the 1630s, 1640s, and 1690s when these predictions were made. Why do you think Puritans living in this period would have felt that the end of the world was near at hand? What events and anxieties might have made these apocalyptic predictions seem realistic?
  5. Context: Compare Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom” with Taylor’s “Meditation 42” and Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit.” Compare the poets’ visions of the afterlife. Do they have different views about God’s wrathfulness? About his mercy? What do their descriptions of heaven have in common? How are they different?
  6. Context: Examine the engraved images on the gravestones featured in the archive; then skim the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Do you find any overlap in the imagery deployed? When you find similar imagery used (birds or flowers, for example), examine the context carefully. Do you think the stone carvers invested these symbols with the same meaning that Bradstreet or Taylor did? Why or why not?
  7. Exploration: As you have read, apocalyptic thinking gained great cultural currency in New England in the seventeenth century. In our own time, anxiety about the Cold War and the dawning of the year 2000 created a great deal of interest in the Apocalypse. How does late-twentieth-century thinking about the Apocalypse compare to Puritan apocalyptic ideas? How do contemporary films and literature having to do with the Apocalypse compare to Puritan writings?
  8. Exploration: Puritans often used Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom” to teach children basic religious and social principles. What effect do you think the poem would have on young children? How does the poem compare to Victorian and twentieth-century poetry created for children? How do you think American attitudes toward childhood have changed since the seventeenth century?
  9. Exploration: Examine the Puritan gravestones in the archive; then think about other, later American graves you may have seen (Grant’s tomb, Kennedy’s eternal flame, battlefield grave markers, etc.). What kinds of cultural values and attitudes toward death do these later graves reflect? How are they different from Puritan values?

[2121] Anonymous, Goffe Rallying the men of Hadley (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75122].
Indian attacks on villages in western Massachusetts during King Philip’s War challenged the viability of English settlement in New England and led many to question why they had fallen so far from God’s favor and to wonder whether the Apocalypse was near.

[3370] Anonymous, The Rebekah Gerrish Stone (1743),
courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.
This stone depicts the conflict between time and death: a candle is flanked by a skeleton on the left, about to snuff out the fire, and a winged angel on the right, with an hourglass in hand, making a prohibitive gesture toward the skeleton. This dispute reflects the dual nature of time and Judgment found in Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom” and the more concrete dualism of the Apocalypse: some will be sent to hell and some to heaven.

[4427] John Stevens, The Mary Carr Stone (1721),
courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.
The Mary Carr Stone, in Old Common Burying-ground in Newport, Rhode Island, reads “Here lyeth the Body of Mary the Wife of John Carr, Dyed Sepr; ye 28th: 1721: in ye 21st: year of her age.” The carving was made by the elder Stevens, a carver known for both the quality and the innovativeness of his work. The stone’s imagery emphasizes rebirth. The sides and bottom feature intricate leaf patterns, pilasters, rosettes: flower and leaves were associated with the life of man (Job 14) and fecundity. At the top is a cherub with wings, and at the base is a pair of peacocks, symbols of immortality.

[4433] Michael Wigglesworth, The Day of Doom. Or, A Short Description of the Great and Last Judgment. With a Short Discourse about Eternity. By Michael Wigglesworth. The Seventh Edition, Enlarged. With a recommendatory epistle (in verse) by the Rev. Mr. John Mitchel (1715),
courtesy of the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, University of Virginia.
Originally published in 1662, this New England bestseller was often memorized by the pious: by 1715 it was already in its seventh edition. The poem tells of the coming of Christ on judgment day and the separating of the sheep (saved) from the goats (unsaved). A jeremiad, the text uses fire and brimstone to encourage sinful readers to repent.

Souls in Need of Salvation, Satan's Agents, or Brothers in Peace?: English Settlers' Views of Native Americans

[2583] The First Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629), courtesy of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Public Records Division.

When English immigrants set sail for the “New World” in the early seventeenth century, many of them believed that they would be settling what William Bradford called “a vast and unpeopled country.” When they arrived in America, however, they found not an empty wilderness but a developed region with a large population of Native Americans. Despite tendencies to view “the Indians” as a monolithic group, it is important to realize that Native American culture was extremely diverse; different tribes spoke different languages, created different political structures, and developed distinct cultural practices. Often, they fought among themselves over rights to land and game. Native American communities developed different strategies for dealing with the European settlers who began descending on their land in the seventeenth century: some opted to resist, some fled their traditional homelands, some sought accommodation, and some struck compromises. Cultural misunderstandings and intolerance plagued Indian-European relations, hampering negotiations and sometimes leading to violent confrontations.

Many Puritans who arrived in New England were convinced that the Indians they encountered represented remnants of the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” a part of God’s nation of chosen people that had gone astray and needed to be converted and saved. This belief was in fact one of the central premises of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter: its colonial seal featured a picture of a Native American uttering the words “Come over and help us.” Such imagery enabled the Puritan fantasy that Native Americans were voluntarily inviting them to North America, where they were anxiously awaiting the colonists’ charity and spiritual instruction. In practice, Native Americans found that Puritan conversion practices could be extremely coercive and culturally insensitive. For Indians, accepting Christianity generally involved giving up their language, severing kinship ties with other Indians who had not been “saved,” and abandoning their traditional homes to live in European-style “Praying Towns.” Many Native Americans were understandably hostile toward Puritan missionaries, perceiving their work as a threat to Indian social bonds and cultural practices. Except for the persistence of a few zealous missionaries like John Eliot, Puritans’ enthusiasm for proselytizing among the natives had waned by the late seventeenth century.

Puritan-Indian relations were further troubled by recurring disagreements over land use and land rights. Part of the problem stemmed from the groups’ fundamentally different attitudes toward land ownership. To the New England Indians, “selling” land did not mean granting exclusive, perpetual ownership to the buyer; instead, it involved accepting a new neighbor and sharing resources. The Puritans, on the other hand, were committed to the notion of private property and expected Native Americans immediately and permanently to vacate their land upon its sale. Some Puritan settlers felt that they were entitled to Native American land because, in their view, the Indians were squandering the land’s potential by failing to enclose it or to farm it in the English manner. The problems inevitably caused by these radically different concepts of land use and land ownership were compounded by the Puritans’ increasing conviction that the Indians’ claims were invalid anyway, because God intended to bestow New England upon the English. By 1676, the minister Increase Mather wrote confidently about the Puritans’ property rights over “the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers has given to us for a rightful possession.”

As Mather’s rhetoric makes clear, many Puritans saw Indians less as “the Lost Tribes” than as irredeemable “heathens.” Shifting the biblical context through which they understood the Native Americans, Puritans likened them to the Canaanites or Amalekites, heathen peoples whom God sent as a scourge to test the nation of Israel and whose extermination was necessary for the fulfillment of his divine plan. This antagonistic perspective on the part of the Puritans enabled what critic Richard Slotkin calls “a new mythology of Puritan-Indian relationships in which war and exorcism replaced tutelage and conversion.” As early as 1636, the English settlers engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe. In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford described the carnage wrought by the Puritans as a “sweet sacrifice” and “gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully.” Captain John Underhill also chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing a sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village. Puritan-Indian hostilities erupted again in 1676 with King Philip’s War, one of the most devastating wars (in proportion to population) in American history. Former Puritan allies like the Narragansetts banded together with other Algonquian tribes to oppose the English. In her narrative of captivity among the Indians during King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson frequently employs standard Puritan demonizing rhetoric, calling her captors “infidels,” “hell-hounds,” and “savages,” and insisting that they are a “scourge” sent by God to chasten and test his chosen people. She reserves a special hatred for Native Americans who had experienced Christian conversion (the “Praying Indians”); in her view, they were nothing but hypocrites. Still, tensions and contradictions mark Rowlandson’s narrative; she comes to see some Indians as individuals capable of humanity and charity, thus complicating her black-and-white worldview. English victories in both the Pequot War and King Philip’s war, combined with the ravaging effects of European diseases like smallpox, resulted in the depletion of Native American populations in New England and enabled Puritans to seize most remaining Indian lands in the region by the early eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, we do not have extensive records of Indian/Puritan encounters during the seventeenth century composed from a Native American perspective. But some written accounts, pictographs, archaeological evidence, and transcriptions of oral traditions survive to give an indication of what Indians thought about the English settlers in New England. Some of the most interesting records remain from Natick, an Indian “Praying Town” east of Boston. Established in 1651 by missionary John Eliot, Natick consisted of English-style homesteads, three streets, a bridge across the Charles River, as well as a meetinghouse, which housed a school, and the governing body. The Indian residents of Natick were taught to read and write in their native language of Massachuset, using letters from the Roman alphabet. In 1988, anthropologists Kathleen Bragdon and Goddard Ives translated the town records from Natick into English and published an accompanying grammar for the Massachuset language under the title Native Writings in Massachusett. Our understanding of native lives and the Algonquian view of conquest has been further enhanced by Williams Simmons’s ground-breaking collection of Algonquian oral tradition from southeastern New England, The Spirit of New England Tribes, and Indian Converts (1727), and Experience Mayhew’s biographies of four generations of Wampanoag men, women, and children from the island of Martha’s Vineyard. These documents suggest that Indian converts often adapted Christianity to suit their needs and to face the trials of conquest, rather than merely being transformed into “Red Puritans.”

In the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn and the Quakers demonstrated that Indian-European relations did not have to be based on intolerance or violence toward native cultures. Initiating contact with the Delaware in his “Letter to the Lenni Lenape,” Penn showed respect for Native American culture, pledged to treat Native Americans as equals, and acknowledged their land rights. The Pennsylvania seal provides a telling contrast to the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, revealing important differences in the two colonies’ attitudes toward and treatment of Native Americans. Rather than depicting the Indians as inferior beings in need of help, the Pennsylvania seal offers an image of harmony and equality: a Native American and a European share a pipe, while the motto proclaims “Let us look to the Most High who blessed our fathers with peace.” Under Penn’s leadership, the Quakers were scrupulously fair in their negotiations of land deals with Native Americans. The wampum belt featured in the archive, which functioned within Delaware culture as a kind of land deed, testifies to the Quakers’ willingness to participate in and respect Indian cultural practices. As a result of their commitment to tolerance and mutual respect, the Quakers and Indians lived in peace in Pennsylvania for over half a century.


  1. Comprehension: How did the Puritans’ understanding of the Bible shape their attitudes toward Native Americans? How did Quaker theology shape their relationship with Native Americans? How did the theology of Native American Christians affect their attitudes towards whites?
  2. Comprehension: How did Puritans justify seizing Native American land? Can you find examples of these justifications in any of the texts covered in this unit (Bradford, Rowlandson, Knight, Winthrop, or Occom, for example)?
  3. Context: What does John Underhill’s sketch of the Puritan attack on the Pequot community tell you about the Puritans’ method of war or their feelings about that particular battle? How does the presence of Narragansett allies (the outer ring of figures in the sketch) complicate our understanding of the battle? How does the sketch compare with the written account of the Pequot War William Bradford gives in Of Plymouth Plantation?
  4. Context: Samson Occom composed his “Short Narrative” almost a century after the conclusion of King Philip’s War. How do white attitudes toward Native Americans seem to have changed by his time? How do they seem similar? How does his narrative challenge whites’ ideas about Indians?
  5. Exploration: How do later eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century romanticized visions of Native Americans as “noble savages” relate to Puritan and Quaker ideas about Native Americans? Why do you think the “noble savage” concept became so popular later in American history?
  6. Exploration: How do white Americans’ attitudes toward Native Americans through the centuries compare to their attitudes toward other non-white groups?

[1210] John Underhill, The Figure of the Indians’ Fort or Palizado in New England and the Manner of Destroying It by Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason (1638),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-32055].
In 1636, the English settlers engaged in a campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe. Captain John Underhill chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing this sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village.

[2583] The First Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629),
courtesy of the Massachusetts Bay Secretary of the Commonwealth, Public Records Division.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s official seal features a Native American uttering the words “Come over and help us.” The “help” requested is the gift of the Gospel, as explained by John Winthrop in his “Reasons to be considered for iustifieing the undertakers of the intended Plantation in New England.”

[2825] William Hubbard, The Present State of New England. Being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England (1677),
courtesy of Special Collections, the University of Pennsylvania Library.
Like Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, this history of King Philip’s War views Native Americans as agents of Satan who have been sent to test the Puritans. It includes one of the early maps of New England.

[2850] Brass medal given Christian Indians as a reward for service,
courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, N38319/N38320. Photo by Carmelo Guadagno.
Christianized Indians fought on both the Native and the British sides in King Philip’s War, which led to confusion on the part of colonists as to who was a “good” and who was a “bad” Indian. Brass medals were awarded to those who served the British.

[5054] Gleasons Pictorial, In Honor of the Birthday of Governor John Winthrop, Born June 12th, 1587 (1854),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120506].
Woodprint engraving of head-and-shoulders portrait of Governor John Winthrop, flanked by statues of a Native American (left) and a pilgrim (right) and with a homestead below.

[5214] Iroquois Wampum belt,
courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Wampum, usually found in bead form and made from Quahog shells found along the southern New England coast, was an important item for exchange and political dealings among Indians; after European settlement, it came to resemble a type of currency.

[6326] Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15915].
The Thanksgiving holiday has gained mythic status through representations of the event as a critical occasion of the Plymouth colony.

Puritan Typology: Living the Bible

[4439] Judea Capta coin (71 c.e.), courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

The Puritans developed typology as a mode both for reading scripture and for understanding 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 themselves 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.”

Tied to their typological understanding of their communal identity was the Puritans’ belief that they had entered into a covenant with God. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, the Puritans felt themselves to be a “chosen nation,” a 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.” According to this doctrine, God had freely extended salvation to the Puritans, salvation that did not have to be earned through good works, only accepted with faith. Right behavior would follow from acceptance of and faith in the covenant. On an individual level, Puritans agonized over the status of their covenant with God (that is, their election), 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 the cosmic drama of God’s plan. Like the Israelites of old, they had received a “special commission” from God and had come to the New World to fulfill their mission.

The typological implications of the Puritans’ covenant theology are apparent in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the sermon John Winthrop delivered on board the Arbella while traveling to New England. Proclaiming that “the God of Israel is among us” and has formed a “near bond of marriage between him and us, wherein he hath taken us to be his,” Winthrop interprets the Puritans as the antitype of the Old Testament Jews. His famous declaration that New England shall be “as a City upon a Hill” elevates the Puritan community to the status of an exemplary society with the potential to fulfill scriptural prophecies. The same typological worldview that characterizes Winthrop’s speech also moved the Puritans to name some of the settlements they created in the New World after scriptural references; New Canaan and New Haven, for example.

As the Puritan community grew and changed, it became clear that typological interpretations were neither stable nor uniform. Different people could interpret events as having different kinds of typological significance, sometimes to ends that Puritan leaders considered unorthodox or subversive. During the divisive Antinomian Controversy (1637), for example, John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson engaged in a kind of war of rival typological interpretations. During her trial, Hutchinson interpreted herself as the Old Testament figure of Daniel and the Puritan court as the lion’s den: she claimed that God had told her that just as he “delivered Daniel out of the lion’s den, I will also deliver thee.” Seeing her own trial as the antitype of Daniel’s encounter with the lions, she declared to the court that they would see “this scripture fulfilled this day.” John Winthrop was outraged by this reading of events, sarcastically noting that if Hutchinson’s typologizing were to be believed, “she must be delivered by miracle, and all we must be ruined.” He went on to impose his own typological interpretation of Hutchinson’s role in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy: “One would hardly have guessed her to have been an Antitype of Daniel, but rather of the Lions after they were let loose.”

Despite these internal skirmishes over proper typologizing, Puritan leaders found that their typological interpretations of external threats, by uniting their congregants in a shared spiritual mission, could serve as an effective method for consolidating the community. For instance, Puritans justified their seizure of Native American lands and their wars against Native Americans by typologizing Indians as “Amalekites” or “Canaanites,” heathen peoples whom God sent as a scourge to test the nation of Israel and whose extermination was necessary for the fulfillment of his divine plan. In this way, Puritans marshaled biblical typology to legitimate their destruction of Indian culture. Typologizing opposition and challenges as “tests,” “scourges,” or “punishments” sent by God allowed Puritans to read even their misfortunes as paradoxical proofs of God’s love and of their status as his “chosen people.” After all, they reasoned, God would not bother chastising or testing them if he did not view them as special. In her narrative of her captivity, Mary Rowlandson struggles to understand an experience that would otherwise have been inexplicably frightening and horrific as evidence of God’s chastising hand, at first disciplining and ultimately delivering her. Rowlandson’s story of holy affliction and deliverance touched a chord with the entire Puritan community. Ministers such as Increase Mather determined to read her individual experience as a communal lesson: God had not tested and punished Rowlandson alone; he had tested and punished the Puritan nation through her. In this way, Rowlandson herself functions as a type of the Old Testament judea capta, or Israel in bondage. Her purifying ordeal in the wilderness reflects God’s punishment of the “New Israel” for its sins. Her redemption from captivity reflects New England’s reinstatement in God’s favor.

Of course, her narrative also offers evidence that typology provided Rowlandson with a more personal, individualized kind of comfort. She articulates her suffering through the words of Old Testament figures, drawing strength from understanding her own experience through theirs. Likening herself to Job, the good servant of God who is afflicted by a bewildering set of misfortunes in order to test the depth of his faith, Rowlandson seeks comfort in the notion that God’s ways are beyond human understanding, but that his servants must remain patient and faithful. Like Rowlandson’s narrative, the Eliakim Hayden gravestone (Essex, Connecticut, 1797) offers an example of typology applied to the individual life. The carved design of the stone shows Noah’s ark, floating on the floodwaters, while a dove flies overhead with a cross in the background. Puritans understood the Old Testament story of Noah as a prefiguring, or type, of Christ, and the flood as a type of baptism. The cross and the dove carved on the stone, then, serve as antitypes representing Christ offering salvation for Adam’s original sin. The epitaph clarifies the typological imagery: “As in Adame, all mankinde / Did guilt and death derive / So by the Righteousness of Christ / Shall all be made alive.” Implicitly including Hayden’s life within its typological reading, his soul is clearly one that has been “made alive” through Christ, the gravestone iconographically invokes biblical prophecy and folds the Puritan individual into its scriptural schema.


  1. Comprehension: How does Rowlandson’s Narrative understand her captivity as typologically significant both for herself as an individual and for her community as a whole? Does Rowlandson’s need to understand her experience on two levels create tensions within the text? If so, how?
  2. Comprehension: How would you interpret the Eliakim Hayden gravestone typologically? What do the images carved on the stone mean? What do you think the images that look like eyes at the top of the stone represent? How do the images relate to the rhymed aphorism in the epitaph?
  3. Comprehension: How does John Winthrop use typological interpretations of current events to political ends? How do the typological interpretations in the “Model of Christian Charity” compare to his typological understanding of Anne Hutchinson seven years later? Do the motivations behind his typologizing change over time?
  4. Context: Read Edward Taylor’s “Meditation 8.” How does Taylor join the Old Testament type of “manna” with the New Testament antitype of Christ as the bread of life? How does a typological reading change the significance of the homely metaphor of bread and bread baking in this poem?
  5. Context: What kind of status did the Puritans’ commitment to typology grant to the Bible? How might it work to blur the line between text and life? Why do you think the concept of typology never gained currency within Quaker theology?
  6. Context: How does Mary Rowlandson typologize herself in her narrative? To which biblical personages does she choose to compare herself? Why?
  7. Context: On September 2, 1772, Mohegan minister Samson Occom preached to a mixed audience of native peoples and whites about the execution of convicted murderer and drunkard Moses Paul, a Mohegan. For white ministers and their parishioners, American Indian drunkenness was only one of a long series of signs that confirmed their typological understanding of Native Americans as either helpless, “heathen,” or satanic. Even Occom’s supporters occasionally expressed fear that American Indians could never be incorporated into Christ’s body politic. Occom uses as his inspiration a quotation from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a letter that insists that Gentiles, not Israelites, are the true inheritors of Christ. How does Occom use typology to redefine the community to which he preaches?
  8. Exploration: Why do you think the Puritans wished to interpret their relationship with God as a contract? What responsibilities, benefits, or anxieties do you think this contractual understanding of spirituality caused for the Puritans?
  9. Exploration: What kinds of assumptions do people make when they embrace the idea that they are part of a “chosen nation”? Who is excluded from “chosen-ness”?
  10. Exploration: Do you see the influence of typology in any later American writings? When do Americans seem most likely to turn to strategies like typology to make sense of the world and their place within it?

[1243] Peter Pelham, PORTRAIT OF COTTON MATHER (1728),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-92308].
This portrait of Cotton Mather was composed in the year of his death, 1728. The grandson of John Cotton and the eldest son of Increase Mather, Cotton Mather became the foremost theologian of his generation. Recognized as the most passionate defender of the centrality of the traditional Puritan authority in a world becoming increasingly secular, Mather is often blamed for the religious hysteria that spawned the Salem witch trials.

[6324] Sarony & Major, THE LANDING OF THE PILGRIMS ON PLYMOUTH ROCK, DEC. 11TH 1620 (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4311].
Although no evidence directly links the Mayflower‘s 1620 landing to Plymouth Rock, this location has come to represent the birthplace of English settlement in New England.

[7181] Michael Colacurcio, THE PURITANS AND BIBLICAL TYPOLOGY (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
“I think the most common and widespread Puritan investment in typology is the question of whether their own experiment was predicted biblically. Whether the end of all history was, in fact, some kind of metaphorical Zion, a new heaven and a new earth that might be the equivalent of New England, rather than any state of Israel that we now recognize.” Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history to 1900 (UCLA) is the author of Doctrine and Difference: Essays in the Literature of New England.

The Doctrine of Weaned Affections: In Search of Spiritual Milk

[4643] Anonymous, Detail of the left panel of the Peter and Mary Tufts Stone, Malden, Massachusetts (1702), courtesy of Wesleyan University.

One of the most important theological doctrines for many Puritans is what has been called the “doctrine of weaned affections.” This doctrine holds that individuals must learn to wean themselves from earthly attachments and instead make spiritual matters their priority. Obviously, inappropriate earthly attachments included material possessions such as one’s home, furniture, clothing, and valuables. But 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, 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. While the idea of weaned affections may have been emotionally practical given the seventeenth century’s high mortality rates, it was still a difficult doctrine to live by. Mary Rowlandson’s bitterness about being separated from her home, family, and domestic comforts attests to the power these attachments held for her, even though she insists that she welcomes and has been purified by God’s testing of her spiritual commitment. Anne Bradstreet’s vivid poetic evocations of her love for her family and her home also offer evidence of the tensions created by the doctrine of weaned affections. Her reflections on her relationships with nature, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and even her house are poignantly balanced by her reminders to herself that her affections belong elsewhere.

Implicit in the language of “weaned affections” is the imagery of breastfeeding, nursing, and weaning. In fact, Puritan ministers frequently employed breast and breastfeeding imagery in their sermons and poetry, appropriating this female bodily function as a metaphor for proper spiritual nourishment and dependence upon God. In the Puritans’ symbolic understanding, the Bible was spiritual milk, and the minister was the breast at which his congregation suckled. Male ministers were comfortable figuring themselves as feminine “breasts” because the metaphor granted them a kind of spiritual, parental authority as vessels for God’s word and providers of sustenance for their congregants. The Peter and Mary Tufts gravestone (Malden, Massachusetts, 1702) exemplifies the willingness of Puritan men to appropriate breast imagery to spiritual ends, featuring an obviously male, mustached figure with breasts.

Puritan children were taught from an early age about the importance of renouncing earthly nourishment and affection in favor of “spiritual milk.” One of the first texts written and printed for an audience of children, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Babes, Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments for their Souls Nourishment (England, 1646; Boston, 1656), emphasized the doctrine of weaned affections. Spiritual Milk offered a formal catechism for children to memorize, imparting a sense of the corruption and depravity of the earthly human condition through a series of ritualized questions and answers:

Q: Are you then born a Sinner?
A: I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.
Q: What is your Birth-sin?
A: Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling in me.
Q: What is your corrupt nature?
A: My corrupt nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sin, and only unto sin, and that continually.

Cotton’s Spiritual Milk was often included in the New England Primer, a popular Puritan textbook designed to promote children’s literacy and religious training. The Primer itself worked to instill in children a sense of the transitory nature of earthly existence and the necessity of focusing on spiritual concerns. Teaching the alphabet through moral aphorisms, the Primer preached “G: As runs the Glass / Man’s life doth pass” and “Y: Youth forward slips / Death soonest nips.” Puritans thus learned early that, since life on earth was fleeting, they should not become attached to things of this world and should instead reserve their most intense affections for the spiritual realm.


  1. Comprehension: Why does the Tufts gravestone feature a man with breasts? What would this imagery have signified to Puritan viewers? How might it have served to comfort mourners?
  2. Context: How does Anne Bradstreet deal with the doctrine of weaned affections in her poems “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet,” “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment,” and “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House”? What tensions arise as a result of her love for her family and for her material possessions? To what spiritual use does she turn the experience of losing grandchildren and her home? Is she entirely resigned to the notion that “my hope and treasure lies above”?
  3. Exploration: Although Cotton’s catechism in Spiritual Milk for Babes may seem bleak and rather demoralizing for children, it was used as a teaching device through the nineteenth century. How do you think the worldview espoused in the catechism influenced American culture? Do you see evidence of Cotton’s Puritan beliefs, or responses to them, at work in later American literature?

[1219] Anonymous, The Mason Children: David, Joanna, Abigail (1670),
courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.3.
This rare early New England portrait of children offers insight into the merchant class. Children were considered small, sinful adults–hence the adult head-to-body ratio, clothing, and posture. The lack of sensuality reflects the religious mores and plain style of the time.

[1355] Joseph Badger, Faith Savage Waldo (ca. 1750),
courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Originally a house, ship, and sign painter, Joseph Badger took up portraiture in Boston around 1745. Here Faith Savage Waldo (Mrs. Cornelius Waldo, 1683-1760) holds a book, perhaps signaling her piety as well as her social position, which is reinforced by the quality of her dress and drapes.

[4643] Anonymous, Detail of the left panel of the Peter and Mary Tufts Stone, Malden, Massachusetts (1702),
courtesy of Wesleyan University.
This detail from the Peter and Mary Tufts gravestone, erected in Malden, Massachusetts, around 1702, features a male figure with breasts. Puritan ministers frequently employed breast and breastfeeding imagery in their sermons and poetry, appropriating this female bodily function as a metaphor for proper spiritual nourishment and dependence upon God.

[6749] Anonymous, New England Primer (1807),
courtesy of the Gettsyburg College Special Collections.
The New England Primer (first published in Boston in 1690) was a popular Puritan textbook designed to promote children’s literacy and religious training.

[7179] Emory Elliot, Interview: “Winthrop and the Puritan Motivations for Settlement” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Elliott, professor of English (University of California, Riverside), discusses John Winthrop and the rallying of the Puritans to work together.

Plain Style: Keeping it Simple

[4475] Old Ship Church, 88 Main Street, Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, interior (1681), courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MASS,12-HING,5-].

The term plain style refers to a mode of expression characterized by its clarity, accessibility, straightforward 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 evidence of sinful vanity, plain stylists worked to glorify God in their productions rather than show off their own artistry or claim any renown for themselves. As the Puritan minister John Cotton put it, “God’s altar needs not our polishings.” By shunning extraneous embellishment, practitioners of the plain style hoped both to make their messages easily understandable and to avoid any distractions that might divert their audience’s attention from God. The simplicity, humility, and directness of the plain-style aesthetic appealed to both Quakers and Puritans, for despite profound theological differences, both groups sought religious purity through the rejection of worldly interests.

Early Quaker and Puritan church architecture provide perhaps the clearest examples of the ideals of plain style, since these buildings are conspicuously free of the stained glass and carved and painted religious decorations we tend to expect in houses of worship. Instead, Puritan and Quaker meetinghouses are consciously spare, defined by their linear design, exposure of structural supports, and open lighting. The unpretentious interiors have no carvings or altars (Quaker meetinghouses would not even have pulpits), creating unadorned spaces that allow congregants to concentrate on their individual relationships with God. These structures express the ideals of plain style and serve as examples of a distinctly American architecture.

Some seventeenth-century American paintings also reveal the influence of the plain-style aesthetic. The portraits of the Freake family painted by an unidentified Boston artist in the 1670s are characterized by a flatness of form and a precise linearity that render the human figures somewhat two-dimensional and deprive the subjects of sensuous, tactile qualities. While the portraits’ depiction of the rich fabrics and expensive finery that mark the Freakes as a wealthy mercantile family is somewhat at odds with Puritan plain-style ideals, the flat, simple artistic style of the paintings shares in the plain-style aesthetic.

Plain-style ideals also shaped the development of literature among Puritan and Quaker writers. Though many Puritans used elaborate, highly ornate metaphorical language to convey their religious ideals, some developed a more simplified literary style (most famously William Bradford). Characterized by the absence of rhetorical flourishes and limited use of figurative language, texts composed in the plain-style tradition focus on making their meanings straightforward and accessible. When metaphors appear within plain-style texts, they usually derive from the Bible or refer to homely, everyday objects rather than classical allusions. But the restraint of plain-style writing does not signify a lack of artistry; rather, it can be elegant, powerful, and persuasive in its very simplicity.


  1. Comprehension: Why would early congregants of the churches featured in the archive have found them architecturally suitable for Puritan or Quaker spiritual practices? What “plain-style” characteristics are visible in the construction of these churches? How does the plain style aesthetic embodied in this architecture complement Quaker and Puritan religious values and beliefs?
  2. Context: Puritan poets Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor are sometimes identified as plain stylists and sometimes seen as part of other poetic traditions (such as classical, ornate, or metaphysical). When does their work seem to participate in the plain-style aesthetic? When does it seem to be doing something different? Do some topics or concepts lend themselves better to plain-style representation?
  3. Exploration: Do you see the plain-style aesthetic as an influence on any later American art or literary movements? Do these later turns toward plainness and simplicity reflect the same values as the Puritan and Quaker use of plain style?

[1223] Anonymous, John Freake (1671-74),
courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
The unknown artist called the “Freake Painter” painted this likeness of John Freake, a Boston merchant. Like the other works attributed to the Freake Painter (scholars have identified a group of eight portraits painted in or near Boston in 1670-74), this painting is defined by its intricate detail, in combination with a rigidity in the subject’s posture. John Freake’s upright stiffness suggests his high moral stature as a public figure in the spiritual community of Boston.

[1351] Anonymous, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary (about 1671 and 1674),
courtesy of Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Between 1671 and 1674, an unidentified artist known as the “Freake Painter” painted this portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Freake, the wife and daughter of Boston merchant and lawyer John Freake. The original 1671 painting depicted Elizabeth alone with her hands in her lap, holding a fan. Baby Mary was added in 1674, an addition that accentuates Elizabeth’s virtue as a wife and mother.

[2793] The Quaker Meeting,
courtesy of George Fox University.
Quaker churches like this one are plain-style buildings defined by their linear design, exposure of structural supports, and open lighting. These unpretentious interiors have no altars or pulpits, creating unadorned spaces that allow congregants to concentrate on their individual relationship with God. Illustration from Sydney George Fisher, The True William Penn. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1899).

[4475] Old Ship Church, 88 Main Street, Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, Interior (1681),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MASS,12-HING,5-].
The Old Ship Church is named for the interior curve of the roof, which resembles a ship’s hull. It is the oldest meetinghouse in continuous ecclesiastical use in the United States.

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Try to imagine how one of Mary Rowlandson’s Narra-gansett or Wampanoag captors would have experienced the events that she describes during her captivity. Remember that the Indians were provoked by the Plymouth colony’s decision to execute members of the Wampanoag tribe, as well as by longstanding tensions with European settlers over land rights. By the late seventeenth century, many Native Americans in the New England region were suffering from disease and starvation as European settlers encroached upon their traditional homes and hunting grounds. Given this background information, write a short narrative of the conflict at Lancaster, the capture of Mrs. Rowlandson, and the subsequent journey into the wilderness from the point of view of a Native American.
  2. Poet’s Corner: Read Anne Bradstreet’s “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet” and Edward Taylor’s “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children.” Make a list of the images and metaphors the poets employ to characterize their familial relationships. How do Bradstreet and Taylor employ similar images to different ends? Draw upon Bradstreet’s and Taylor’s metaphors and images to write your own poem. Write about what these images signify to you personally; your poem need not be about family, religion, or God.
  3. Multimedia: Imagine that you have embarked on a journey through colonial America. Explain the nature of your journey (you might be a traveling missionary, like John Woolman or Samson Occom; you could be a captive, like Mary Rowlandson; or you might be on a business trip, like Sarah Kemble Knight). Using the American Passages archive and slide-show software, create a multimedia photo album of the highlights of your journey. Include captions that explain and interpret your experience for a modern audience.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You are a Puritan missionary. You believe that God has called you on a sacred mission to convert Native Americans and to “propagate the gospel and kingdom of Christ” among them. Write up notes for yourself and your assistants delineating the aspects of Puritan theology that you think are most important to convey to the Indians. Outline how you will present and teach these concepts to them. Finally, compose a memo justifying your conversion practices to the group that funds and oversees your work, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
  2. You are a Quaker missionary from Pennsylvania. You believe that God has called you on a sacred mission to convert the Puritans who live north of you in Massachusetts. Compose a journal entry to send to your Quaker congregation at home, explaining your reasons for undertaking this mission and noting the concepts you wish to teach the Puritans. Explain what you think is wrong with Puritan theology and Puritan social practices, and outline what kinds of alternatives Quakerism offers.
  3. You have been hired as the lawyer for Thomas Morton and the Mar-re-Mount community in the wake of the maypole incident. How will you defend them against the Puritan prosecution? Try to anticipate Puritan arguments as you compose your defense.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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