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Concerning National Righteousness

Early American literature reveals a constant personal desire for truths that would lift man closer to perfection and salvation. Much of the emphasis came from Puritans who settled in North America to escape religious persecution in Europe and their descendants. Many Europeans broke away from the old church traditions that had been forced on them by their governments. Many reformers were teaching new doctrines and gaining large followings. As descendants of these groups, American culture has always been concerned with its national and personal righteousness.

In William Bradford’s “of Plymouth Plantation” he refers to the “first breaking out of the light of the gospel” in England (326), during the Protestant Reformation.  Bradford was a Puritan who came over to Plymouth on the Mayflower. The hope of this group was to establish a community that would live their new religious convictions. The desire to live apart from the rest of the world established the idea that society could support the individual as he worked toward his salvation. At this time the community imposed the faith on its inhabitants, but if a citizen did not want to conform the land was open to other settlements. Roger Williams was one who disagreed.

Roger Williams felt that taking Indian lands without compensating them was wrong. He also felt that the government should not be the punisher of religious infractions. He left Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island acting on his moral objections. In “A Key into the Language of America” Roger Williams talks about the protection of God when he “had no Guide, No House, No Food, No Company,” (356) and the sweetening that God offered him. He, like many others, desired to convert the local Indian nations and so he began to learn their language. In his translations of Indian dialects he teaches others how to speak of God and to understand the things the Indians believed such as directional Gods, and woman’s God (357). Roger Williams wanted to publish the language key in order that others may also teach the gospel to them (350). Roger Williams, like other Puritans, felt that leading others to the Christian gospel would be doing God’s work which Puritans believed would enhance their own standing before God (Puritans). He established a colony that allowed other faiths to settle in the New World (Puritans).

Later, Mary Rowlandson, wife of a Puritan minister, was taken prisoner in an Indian raid. She wrote a narrative of her experience, an unusual privilege for women. She spoke of her personal conviction that God had intervened to save her own life on many occasions. Mary was captured and taken with her wounded child and forced to walk to the Indians camp. “God was with me” she told, “bearing up my spirit…that I might see more of his Power (446). She began to see how “careless I had been of God’s holy time, how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent and how evilly I had walked in God’s sight” (447).  She felt God would be justified in casting her off and “cutting the thread” of her life (447). She told of her conviction that the Indians had been preserved to be a scourge and reminder to the settlers of the need for God in their lives (450). Such was the personal view of tragedy in early America.

A prominent minister during the eighteenth century Great Awakening, Jonathon Edwards, found evidence of God in the natural world around him.  To him all of God’s works bore testimony of his reality (648). He talked about the need to have a personal conviction of God and “the endless variety in the particular manner and circumstances in which persons are wrought in the heart” (654).  He taught that God works without “confining himself to certain steps, and a particular method” of dealing with his children (652). This was a break from the tradition of ministers judging whether a persons faith experiences were sufficiently strong to admit them into the congregation. His philosophical and scientific mind did not reject God, but he did reject the idea of predestination, thus preparing the people to later accept that all men could be saved.

In the nineteenth century when many Americans were withdrawing from inflexible faith, Ralph Waldo Emerson also found God in nature. He wrote “in the woods we return to reason and faith” (1584).  He had a personal revelation that he was “a part or particle of God” (1584) as he experienced the beauty of nature around him. He, like Jonathon Edwards, saw God in all his observations of the earth as “the wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea… the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal” (1585). Nature was Emerson’s cathedral and the place of his personal quest for faith and salvation.

During the Civil War, in Lincoln’s second inaugural address he spoke of God’s judgments upon the nation for the evils of slavery. He was concerned not just for personal salvation but also national salvation. He supposed that slavery was a national offense which God now willed to remove, even if it meant that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” (2080). Clearly Americans felt strongly that personal and national salvation was worth fighting and dying for.

As Lincoln said, America was always concerned with the righteousness of our actions, whether collectively as a nation or privately as individuals. Today we want no one to tell us how that must be achieved, recognizing that the way is individually tailored to each of us. Americans want to be “firm in the right as God gives us to see the right” (Lincoln, 2080). Even today, that is our American ethnicity.


Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol B 1800-     1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 1582-1609.


Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol B 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 2079-2080.


Bradford, William.” Of Plymouth Plantation.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol A 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 326-346.


Williams, Roger. “A Key to the Language of America.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol A 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 349-365.


Rowlandson, Mary White. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol A 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.441-468.


Edwards, Jonathan. “Images of Divine Things.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol A 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.648-649.


Edwards, Jonathan. “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God”.” Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol A 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 651-655.


“Puritans.” Microsoft Encarta, CD-ROM. 2006


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