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 Introduction to 17th Century

 

Concept & Background in the ColonialPeriod of American Literature

 

Plimouth Colony, 1627

 John Calvin's Five Points

 The Puritans / Early American Women Writer: Voices in the Wilderness

 

 
 John Calvin's Five Points
  Calvin (1509-1564) was a Protestant reformer in Geneva, Switzerland whose theological beliefs he summarized in "five points" which became the basis of the Presbyterian church and formed the basic theological tenets of Puritan theology. Calvin's points, based on a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, are:

Total Depravity--Human beings are totally evil, born sinners because of Adam and Eve's sin of disobeying God in the Garden of Eden; God is all, hmans nothing and the source of all evil in the world.

Unconditional Election--Although not obligated to do so, God has chosen to save ("elect") certain people, with NO reference to their lives or works; in fact, he knows beforehand who will be elect (predestination).

Limited Atonement--Christ did not die for all, but only for the Elect.

Irresistible Grace--God's grace is freely given by Him (to the Elect) and can neither be earned nor refused. Grace is God's saving power to redeem and save us through the forgiveness of sins, newness of life, the power to resist temptation, and peace of mind and heart.

Perserverance of the Saints--God gives the Elect the full power to do God's will and live uprightly to the end of their lives.

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 The Puritans / Early American Women Writer: Voices in the Wilderness
 

The "Pilgrims," so named in the ninete enth century, were Dissenters from the Puritans, who wanted to reform the Anglican Church not separate from it as the Dissenters did (thus their other name, Separatists). The Puritans were a group of Anglicans who wanted to reform the Anglican Church theologically, not just politically as Henry VIII had done in declaring himself head of the church. The Separatists were followers of Robert Brown (thus their other name, the Brownists) who taught the following, beginning in about 1580: "The true church is a local body of genuine believers in Jesus Christ, united to him and to each other by a voluntary covenant. Such a church is self-governing, with Chirst as its real head. It chooses its own pastor and other officers as prescribed by the New Testament, but in r eality every member is responsible for every other. No church has authority over any other, and thus there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy. . . . On the other hand, . . .Puritans were alarmed at this radicalism, which to them seemed little more than spiritual and political anarchy. They resented also the implication that true understanding of the Bible could be attained simply and directly by Divine revelation, thus placing the unlettered lower classes on a par with their educated superiors. . . ."

--from Rod Horton and Herbert Edwards, Backgrounds of American Literature.

Both Puritans and Dissenters believed in a "God of History," like the God of the Israelites, who would intervene actively and constantly in their lives.

Both, therefore, believed in a "Covenant Theology," believing that each individual and each congregation must enter into a two-way covenant with God , based on the Old Testament theme of covenant (c.f. Exodus' Ark of the Covenant), as a way to explain the Calvinist doctrines of Election and Perserverance of the Saints and God's relationship with His creation. Both Puritans and Dissenters were "Calvinist." The doctrine of Limited Atonement, that Christ did not die for all humanity but only for the Elect, and that God has "elected" to save these few, which election is foreknown (because God is all-knowing) and foreordained and therefore not based on one's life or "goodness" (because, since Adam and Eve's Fall, no humans are Good), is based on Calvin's interpretation of many Biblical passages, for example, this one from the book of Romans, 8:29-30: "29. For those whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be first-born among many brethren. 30. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called h e also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Notice how verse 29 relates to Calvin's doctrines of Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, and how verse 30 relates to Calvin's doctrines of Irresistible Grace and Perserverance o f the Saints.)
 

Early American Women Writers: Voices in the Wilderness
Puritan writers.
Who were the Puritans?
Word has got negative connotations now, but religious radical views aside, they were pretty interesting people.
The first Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the seriousness of Reformation Christianity. Known as the "Pilgrims," they were a small group of believers who had migrated from England to Holland -- even then known for its religious tolerance -- in 1608, during a time of persecutions.
Like most Puritans, they interpreted the Bible literally. They read and acted on the text of the Second Book of Corinthians -- "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." Despairing of purifying the Church of England from within, "Separatists" formed underground "covenanted" churches that swore loyalty to the group instead of the king. Seen as traitors to the king as well as heretics damned to hell, they were often persecuted. Their separation took them ultimately to the New World.
According to Kathryn VanSpanckeren, a specialist in American literature, "It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans."

  • Between 1630 and 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New England, as in the mother country
  • They wanted education to understand and execute God's will as they established their colonies throughout New England.
    Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. This world was an arena of constant battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, a formidable enemy with many disguises.
    Scholars have long pointed out the link between Puritanism and capitalism: Both rest on ambition, hard work, and an intense striving for success. Although individual Puritans could not know, in strict theological terms, whether they were "saved" and among the elect who would go to heaven, Puritans tended to feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth and status were sought not only for themselves, but as welcome reassurances of spiritual health and promises of eternal life.

    The manifestation of this belief is one of the first big differences in American writing.

    Moreover, the concept of stewardship encouraged success. The Puritans interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper spiritual meanings, and felt that in advancing their own profit and their community's well-being, they were also furthering God's plans. They did not draw lines of distinction between the secular and religious spheres: All of life was an expression of the divine will -- a belief that later resurfaces in Transcendentalism and authors like Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott
     

    From a lecture given by Margarette Connor, 21 September 2000 at the American Library of Geneva

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