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Early America was settled and inhabited by a religious group known as Puritans who left their native land of Britain for a fresh start in a new country. A man named John Winthrop, a prominent Puritan and governor delivered a sermon that expressed the ideals of a perfect Christian community in a new country. His goal of a selfless, utopian community brings up two very different questions. Were these Puritans idealist spiritual people whose sole purpose was to please God? Or were they simply materialist proto-capitalists that sought wealth with the backing of their religious beliefs to support their cause? Winthrop’s sermon and other writings of Puritans of this time show that they placed an extreme importance on material wealth that was excused by their strict religious beliefs.
It is very clear from the opening of Winthrop’s sermon that God determined those who were worthy of his love by determining who was rich and who was poor. Winthrop said that God, in his infinite wisdom, showed that “some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection” (Winthrop 147). This statement shows an important ideological belief of the Puritans: predetermination, the idea that God determines who is successful or powerful, and who is poor and of low social status. Winthrop states that because of their beliefs God can manifest Himself in their daily lives by moderating and restraining the people, “so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke” (Winthrop 148). He clearly states that the poor are despised and inferior to those who have wealth and the subtle inclusion of the word “yoke” makes them seem like a servant or slave to those who are successful.
Divine providence not only shapes how Puritans live their lives, through hard work and spirituality to prove they have God’s grace, but also how they view one another. Winthrop proves this by saying, “All men being thus (by divine providence) ranked into two sorts, rich and poor” (Winthrop 148). The justification of achieving the “superior” status of being rich is hidden beneath a multitude of Bible quotations and Utopian ideals that convince his followers that being wealthy and successful is God’s wish. By stating that the reason for wealth is to help one another when in need and not to expect a reward on this earth, he also goes on to say that he will still be rewarded but in heaven, “we know what advantage it will be to us in the day of account when many such witnesses shall stand forth for us to witness the improvement of our talent” (Winthrop 150). In other words, being wealthy gives the person the option to lend and be merciful, which, upon reaching heaven, those who received this generosity will see the lenders talent improve in the afterlife. While it may seem like Christian charity that drives them to lend and be generous, Winthrop clearly states that there is another reason, “thou art look at him not as an act of mercy, but by way of commerce” (Winthrop 151) and, “This love is always under reward…love and affection are reciprocal in a most equal and sweet kind of commerce” (Winthrop 155). Thus, lending is not a merciful act but a trade agreement.
Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan female poet and very educated, which was rare for the time period. In her poems, the paradox between Puritan beliefs of spirituality and the desire for material wealth is shown. Much like Winthrop’s sermon, she exhibits the same values skillfully hidden under a barrage of spiritual jargon. In her poem, To Her Father with Some Verses, Bradstreet uses legal terms that can be seen anywhere today in capitalist America. By talking about the debt to her father for the life she has lived she says, “The principal might yield a greater sum…My stock’s so small I know not how to pay, /My bond remains in force unto this day” (Bradstreet 195). Principal, stock, bond; these words relate her debt to her father yet subtly gives the reader a sense of how she views things according to her beliefs.
Bradstreet’s account of her house burning down provides the best example of the spirituality-materialist paradox. While she stands looking upon her burning house she states, “And to my God my heart did cry /To strengthen me in my distress /And not to leave me succorless” (Bradstreet 212), which implies that she is spiritually looking to God for assistance in this time of need. However, she then writes, “I blest His name that gave and took, /That laid my goods now in the dust.” (Bradstreet 212). She is not blessing Him in praise but instead cursing his name for destroying her goods. She is devastated that her material wealth was just devoured in fire.
Being a poet, Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively laid back lifestyle. While the Puritans believed in good, old fashioned, hard work, she was able to lie back and enjoy tea and crumpets whilst jotting down poems. She states this in the following lines:
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat and long did lie:
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie,
And them behold no more shall I.
This excerpt shows just how much she values her earthly possessions, when just lines before she says that it was God’s to take anyway. This contradiction makes Bradstreet seem like her statements are being made sarcastically. This sarcasm can be seen in the closing lines also as she again speaks of her earthly goods being destroyed, “Farewell, my pelf, farewell my store. /The world no longer let me love, /My hope and treasure lies above.” (Bradstreet 212). While this statement is subjective and leaves the reader to judge on his or her own opinion, the evidence throughout the poem shows how much Bradstreet values her materials and is angry at God for His action.
Winthrop and Bradstreet share commonalities in their prose: both are devout Puritans who believe in divine providence and both place extreme importance on material wealth while hiding their gains and pleasures behind their spirituality. While the paradox exists between spirituality in a corrupt material world and the desire for materialistic success in a new world, one can see that this paradox leans heavily in favor of the latter. Their belief system is apparent in both works and may even lead to their successes in their lives. The reader of these works can see similarities between the desires and ethics of the Puritans in modern capitalist society.
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