American religious experience traces its roots and origin from the time the land was discovered. Even before the discovery of America by westerners, the natives who are believed to be Red Indian had their religion that was widely practiced. The gusto and diversity of American religious history is well documented and captured in antebellum literature and culture.
In the antebellum era, religious forms that existed in America were largely a reflection of their parent organizations in Europe. However, the events that characterized the time transformed the religious movements making them uniquely American in the mainstream as well as new faiths that formed.
At the time, the dominant groups were direct creations of protestant evangelism. However, the time can be described as the spiritual awakening of America as it saw the eruption of religious diversity that makes it difficult for one to describe a comprehensive religious or theological label.
The period covering the year 1800 through 1865 onwards experienced religious realities that saw the formation and rise of powerful liberal and conservative movements competing for influence among the people.
The movements’ ideologies elicited strong reactions and opening rare debates about God, spirituality and the relationship between God and his creation principally, human beings. It is safe to conclude that the era saw a religious “volcano” that was more or less as a result of experimentation that was possible in the new found freedom.
The momentous events that shaped religious America at the time above saw the rise of numerous authors who expressed their opinion concerning the religious climate that prevailed. For instance, American literature was greatly influenced by puritan religious literature that can be compared to modern naturalism.
The Heath Anthology of American Literature by Lauter Paul has documented a number of quotes from different authors who sought to air their views about the religious climate of the time. Their texts have made rich contribution to American literature that will make the basis of analysis in this paper.
William Bradford (1590-1657)
“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.
But here I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader too when he well consider the same. (1908)”(Lauter 164).
William Bradford traces his roots to Yorkshire England. From an early age, he was plagued by misfortunes that ensured he was orphaned of both parents by the age of seven years. He would later find solace in religion.
By the time he was entering his early teens Bradford was an ardent listener to a non-conformist minister Richard Clyfton who fronted Puritanism. A congregation formed by the minister including Bradford as one of the members departed for the now Massachusetts to run a way from the conservatism that characterized Europe by then (Lauter 164).
Bradford engaged in Politics after arriving in America, getting elected to the position of Governor of Plymouth that he held till his death. The quote above refers to his thanking God for the safe arrival of immigrants in the new land while at the same time underscoring his strong religious beliefs.
His strong background in religion and politics helped him write his fist literally work “Of Plymouth Plantation” (Lauter 165). The challenges of setting up a new colony ensured he did not finish the piece and it was never published. Bradford also wrote a Plymouth journal, poems and numerous dialogues. In his works, Bradford drew comparison of the journey by Plymouth settlers, to the themes found in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Additionally he considered the Puritans journey to the new land as a covenanted agreement with God that can only be compared to that He gave to the Israelites. The interpretive style of Typology that he used in his works was later used as a model for historians in the US especially in New England
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–1556)
“When I was afflicted in this way, my only comfort and consolation was to think about the suffering of our redeemer Jesus Christ and the blood he shed for me, and to consider how much greater was the torment he suffered from the thorns than what I was suffering at that time (1993)” (Lauter 57)
Cabeza de Vaca was a noble assigned by the Emperor Carlos V to be the treasurer and sent to an expedition t the gulf coast. He was involved in a power struggle with orates to which he lost and wanted to establish his new area of exploitation. He successful experiences in Mexico but other parts of North America proved to be quite challenging for him. While in Florida, the governor abandoned and Narvaez lost almost all his men. They were finally capture d and enslaved by the Indians till his eventual return to Mexico (Lauter, 63).
The experiences he went through in North America were overwhelming and he chose writing as away to express himself. Narvaez used the medieval genre of hagiography that dwelled on the life of saints. In effect, the Christian conversion tale that the genre represented was the first in the US literary tradition.
The genre writings assume that the losses that people suffer are God’s plan to transform a chosen person for God’s purpose. In Narvaez case, he recounted how he was stripped of and lost all the signs of civilization including clothes, status and social context.
The quote above is one of the many that he used to describe his religious ways. He was a committed Christian who wrote and practiced the word or God from the Native American perspective as well as Catholic prayers (Lauter 67). Critics and other scholars agree that Narvaez is New World, mestizo and his literary contribution played a big part in creating the American culture.
Roger Williams (1603-1683)
“Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain worship against his will (1990)” (Lauter 180).
Roger Williams is touted as one of the first people to express freely of the cherished American ideals of Democracy and religious freedom and emancipation as demonstrated by the above quote.
Many people including his friend contend that he was a Godly and ambitious person with a unique sense of judgment (Lauter 180). He was a very tolerant person and advocated fro freedoms to extreme positions that he was branded a rebel to the church order that prevailed then. Roger represented the struggle for spiritual liberation as well as separatism as taught by Puritans.
It is believed his literal mind was the biggest asset he had and employed in analyzing Christian scripture to encourage religious tolerance. Later, he forsook the puritans and became a chaplain. In his quest to separate the church from the state and to advocate against political leadership of the church, Williams had various run-ins with authorities. He sailed to the new land in 1630 with the great migration Lauter 182.
In America, he produced his first work of literature “A key into the Language of America.” like Bradford; he too lent to the American literature the style of dialogues that characterizes his boo in almost every chapter. Dialogue together with the general observations in the book provide moral through meditation and analogy.
The book also does offer views about Indian civilization, damnation of pagans and paradoxical comparisons as well as comparisons on civilization and barbarism. William did write other works that presented rhetorical presentations, erudite arguments rich on biblical and classical perspectives and quotations. “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution” was his most famous work that was an explicit case presentation for authorities as well as society to leave the human conscience to evolve unimpeded.
American literature is reminiscent of Williams works. Tolerance that is experienced in both religious and secular literature that came after William’s through today is the ultimate goal of William’s teachings and principles. The dialogue style and the openness that is found in American literature today owe a lot to Williams’ works and spirit.
Edward Taylor (1642–1729)
“In this sad state, God Tender Bowells run Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life (1950)” (Lauter 232).
Edward Taylor is celebrated as being the US’s most accomplished poet. Despite his accomplishments in the literally world, all his works were unpublished (Lauter 232). The quote above is from one of his poems that he published in the 17th century and that serves to highlight his religious believes.
He was also a minister in the Congregational Church in Westfield. In his poems, Taylor heavily used colloquialisms as well as the imagery of provincial farming and weaving. He is thought to have studied at the Cambridge University where his protestant dissentment grew. He was supported by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Common Wealth but was unable to tech in after failing to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662. He was also unable to pursue his clerical career and practice worship.
Taylor wrote a number of funeral elegies for public figures and verse declamations that were in support of the English Language. However, he pursued a varied approach to poetry by adopting the lyrical approach. His poems were directed at his wife to be. In addition, his other poems like “Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children” (1682?) bought out his personal feelings how is faith in God was tested when many of his children died at infancy (Lauter 237).
The poetic traditions and beliefs that Taylor had were deeply rooted in Calvinism and are apparent in every American literary text. He laments of the fallen language and that he reckons needs divine intervention. His contribution through poems and soul-searching writings helped the development of American literature that encompasses both faith and art.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)
“True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures (1959)”(Lauter 315).
Novelist William Dean believes Jonathan gave America provinciality world standing (Lauter 316). He studies in Collegiate School, now Yale University where he received a B.A in 1720. In 1722 he received a pastor’s job at Presbyterian Church. Jonathan preached sermons emphasizing Calvinist principles but that touched on Augustinian and Pauline tenets (Lauter 328)
His literary works included A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God and Treatise Concerning Religious Affections that attempted to de politicize issues about salvation and gave them a more philosophical touch. However the best of his works that would give him wide acclaim was The Freedom of the Will.
The book concentrated on human beings’ self determination. Self determination is rooted in Calvinism where he believes supported success as away of determine one’s fate before God. Self determination therefore was achieved through material success. Today, thanks to his works and other like minded authors, American literature is vibrant on the issues of self determination, which are especially supported by democratic and capitalistic principles.
The quotes presented above had different influences religious literature had on the development of American literature as we know it today. While there has been a great deal of development since the seventeenth century, the influence that the works had on the development of American literature will last for as along as literature exists.
Lauter, Paul. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Concise Edition Cengage/Wadsworth Publishing. N.d. Print.
Sources for the quotes can be found on the links attached
Taylor – www.jstor.org/stable/361590
Roger Williams – http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Roger_Williams_%28theologian%29
Alvaz Nunez – http://americanaejournal.hu/vol4no2/gomez-galisteo
Jonathan Edwards – http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/delight.html
William Bradford – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Plymouth_Plantation