Evolution of American

Evolution of American Literature during Puritanism and Enlightenment

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Evolution of American Literature during Puritanism and Enlightenment


Puritanism is a religious reformist movement that emerged in the late 16the and early 17th centuries, seeking to cleanse the church and get rid of all remaining ties it had with the Roman Catholic Church. Puritans lived by a religious and moral code that impacted their lives and those people around them. The enlightenment period, also known as the age of reason, emerged in the eighteenth century in American colonies, England and Western Europe. Proponents of enlightenment held that advances in industry and science announced progress for humankind and a new era of egalitarianism. Enlightenment literature writers were dedicated to the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice as the innate rights of a human being. On the other hand, writers during Puritanism had one goal to honor the Bible and God through their work. Puritan authors were rather religious, and they wrote their works in a way that was easier for people to understand and relevant for their everyday life. This essay uses the texts Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards and Voltaire’s Letters on the English to show how American literature has evolved since its inception.

Jonathan Edwards Purpose in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

In writing Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards’s purpose is to convince the readers to find salvation in Christ and repent their sins. Like other puritan literature, Edwards’s literature was direct and primarily focused on giving instructions based on a biblical point of view (Scanlan, 2019). Edwards delivered this famous sermon on July 8, 1741, in Connecticut. He delivered the sermon as a monologue to get rid of emotions in the speaker so that the words alone could speak to the listeners. Edwards’s sermon was renowned for the critical role it played in the Great awakening. He used a “hellfire and brimstone” tone which made many people think of him as a screamer in the pulpit which he was not. In his sermon, three themes stand out; that corrupt sinners will be judged, time is running short for sinners, and only God has the free choice to lengthen the day of mercy. Edwards uses metaphors to showcase how unbelieving human beings are in the text. He even describes the powerful and greatest rulers as grasshoppers and despicable and feeble worms. In Edwards’s viewpoint, a sinner is described as a loathsome insect like a spider which God is preparing to destroy with fire. Each of the metaphors used in the sermon reiterates how disgusting, weak and puny the sinner is before God’s eyes. In God’s eyes, there is simply no room for justification or pride. Essentially, sinners cannot be admired or respected; they have to be born again.

Voltaire’s Purpose in Letters on the English

Voltaire holds a special position in the world as a symbol of Enlightenment. He was a tremendously prolific writer who gained popularity for his acerbic wit and satires. Voltaire’s purpose for writing his works was to push for freedom of expression and religion and the separation of the state and the church. Worth noting, Voltaire drafted numerous attacks against the powerful French establishment and the Catholic Church. In his text, Letters on the English, Voltaire attacks the French government system, which was rapidly suppressed. Voltaire’s Letters on the English is a series of essays that he wrote based on his life experiences while living in England from 1726 and 1729. The first seven letters talk about religion. Voltaire wrote this text because England was the only place that had given him the freedom to publish his texts. It is where he learned to speak. Voltaire believed in the efficacy of reason above all. He strongly believed that the only way people could achieve social progress was through reason. He also opined that political reason, religious reason, or any other form of authority was immune to challenge. In his works, Voltaire strongly emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. In the first four letters, Voltaire talks about the Quakers’ beliefs, history, and customs. Voltaire appreciates the simplicity of the rituals practiced by Quakers. Particularly, Voltaire praises Quakers for their lack of communion, lack of baptism, and lack of priests (Van Engen, 2017). In the text, Voltaire writes, “we are not of the opinion that sprinkling water on a child’s head makes him a Christian.” Further, he writes, “How! No communion? said I” which implies they did not take the holy communion. As regards to lack of priests, Voltaire writes, “You have, then, no priests?’ said I to him. “No, no, friend,” replies the Quaker.” At the same time, Voltaire expresses concern for the manipulative character of organized religion. In the fifth letter, Voltaire compares Anglican religion to Catholicism. He writes, “With regard to the morals of the English clergy, they are more regular than those of France.” Notably, Voltaire criticizes how the Anglican religion has managed to stay true to the Catholic rituals.


In closing, Voltaire and Jonathan Edwards showcase how American literature has evolved during the literary movements of Puritanism and Enlightenment. While Edwards’s sole purpose of writing was to convince listeners to repent and turn away from sin, Voltaire wrote to push for freedom of expression and the separation of the state and church. The literature written during Puritanism was meant to cleanse the church and cut ties linking the Anglican Church to the Catholic Church. This literature impacted the lives of puritans by pushing them to live by a moral code. On the other hand, literature of the enlightenment period used biblical points of view to instruct believers into following Christ and repenting their sins.


Scanlan, T. (2019). The pragmatist turn: religion, the enlightenment, and the formation of american literature by giles gunn. Early American Literature, 54(1), 281-285.

Van Engen, A. (2017). A medieval puritan welcomes the early American enlightenment: what Bible commentaries can offer postsecular and literary studies. Early American Literature, 52(2), 423-442.