The Native Americans passed their history from generation to generation using myths, creation stories, tales, legends and songs. Native American oral history is the beginning of literature in early America.
The first written literature in pre-colonial America consisted of poems, journals, letters, sermons and narratives written by the early explorers, settlers, religious and notable figures. These early written works were significantly influenced by British writers. Early American literature contains many elements, but religion is the major theme throughout the writings of the early Americans.
The Puritans, Roger Williams, William Bradford, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, and Mary Rowlandson all wrote in the “plain-style”. Their literary works convey the Puritan belief that God dictated every facet of their lives and their works reflect a vehement belief of virtue and sin, reward and punishment.
William Bradford was a deeply religious man who, after arriving in America, on the Mayflower, was elected to serve as governor of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bradford wrote the first history of the Plymouth colony, Of Plymouth Plantation, in 1651. This early writing told of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement and included the elements of fear and conflict and the struggle for survival, the colonists faced upon their arrival in America. Bradford writes about the initial relief the Puritans felt when the Mayflower landed on American soil for the first time after their long and miserable journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
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 (“Early Americas Digital Archive” 2003).
The Puritans, after stepping off the Mayflower onto land, realized they were completely unequipped to survive, having arrived in the winter. They had little food and skills, no shelter and were overwhelmed with fear at the first sight of Native Americans. The following quote by Bradford, illustrates that the colonists knew from the onset that settling in America was going to be a struggle for survival filled with conflicts, and how fearful they were in this new land filled with savages and wilderness.
And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that
country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce
storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown
coast…. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-
beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented
a wild and savage hue (“Early Americas Digital Archive” 2003).
William Bradford described the first attempt of colonization in America as a time of starvation, brutality, fear and hardship in Of Plymouth Plantation.
Another element, religion, is deeply rooted in early American literature as evidenced in A Modell of Christian Charity, a sermon by John Winthrop. Winthrop was a deeply religious man
that studied and trained himself into a Puritan and was convinced that God had elected him to salvation or “sainthood”. Winthrop sailed to America on the Arbella in the spring of 1630, where
he composed his sermon, A Modell of Christian Charity. Winthrop considered the Massachusetts colonists in covenant with God and each other, and he wrote:
For we must consider that we shall be the City upon a hill. They eyes of all
people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work
we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present from us, we
shall be made a story and a by word through the world. We shall open the
mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors of God’s
sake. We shall shame the faces of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s
sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause
their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of
the good land whither we are a going (“A Model of Christian Charity ” 2015).
Winthrop felt that God had put the Puritans in America to make the covenant and the colony was their purpose, this made them the “City upon the hill”. The city they established on the hill was based on Christian principles and this new unified colony would be the model for future colonies. The rest of the world would be observing the colony and they would lead by being an example. John Winthrop wrote that there was a unity between God and humanity, a sacred and almost governmental bond.
In regard to the bond of marriage between Him and us, wherein He hath
taken us to be His, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make
Him the more jealous of our love and obedience (“A Model of Christian Charity ” 2015).
The separation of church and state was another element in early American literature. Roger Williams was a clergyman from England. John Winthrop hailed as a “godly minister”
when Williams came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop offered Williams a job in the Boston church which Williams declined saying that the church was not sufficiently committed
to the worship of God. Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible for it required people to interpret God’s law and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon a human being’s relationship with God. Williams wrote that “forced worship stincks in God’s nostrils”
(Barry 2012). This dispute between Williams and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony led to Williams banishment from the colony. Williams brought land from the Narragansett Indians and wrote that “having, of a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place PROVIDENCE, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience. By “conscience” Williams meant religion (Barry 2012). Williams most famous writing on separation of church and state is found in, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Discussed, in A Conference between Truth and Peace was published in 1644. Williams wrote that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics (Barry 2012).
When they have opened the gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between
the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hath ever broke
down the wall it selfe, removed the candlestick and made his Garden a
Wildernesse (Barry 2012)
Puritan writers such as Bradford, Williams, Bradstreet and Winthrop regularly cited the Bible in their letters, poems, sermons, and books and their definition of good writing were those works that worshipped God, warned of spiritual dangers and of evil and reward. The early works of American literature are the Puritan chronicles of adventure, politics, conflict, struggle and hardships the explorers and Puritans endured as they established new colonies throughout New England.