Chapter 2: Early American Literature 1700-1800

A Brief Introduction

Paul P. Reuben
  October 15, 2016

Outside Links: |
Early Americas Digital Archive | Journal: Literature in the Early American Republic | Society of Early Americanists | The World Union of Deists Homepage |

Page Links: | Functions of the Writers of this Period | Characteristics of the 18th Century | Deism and Traditional Religions | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap 2 - Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |

I. Common Beliefs

1. Faith in natural goodness - a human is born without taint or sin; the concept of tabula rasa or blank slate.

2. Perfectibility of a human being - it is possible to improve situations of birth, economy, society, and religion.

3. The sovereignty of reason - echoes of Rene Descartes' cogito ergo sum or I think, therefore, I am (as the first certitude in resolving universal doubt.)

4. Universal benevolence - the attitude of helping everyone.

5. Outdated social institutions cause unsociable behavior - religious, social, economic, and political institutions, which have not modernized, force individuals into unacceptable behavior.

II. Functions of the Writers of this Period

1. A searching inquiry in all aspects of the world around.

2. Interest in the classics as well as in the Bible.

3. Interest in nature - the "absentee landlord" phenomenon.

4. Interest in science and scientific experiments.

5. Optimism - experiments in utopian communities

6. Sense of a person's duty to succeed.

7. Constant search of the self - emphasis on individualism in: a. personal religion. b. study of the Bible for personal interpretation.

III. Characteristics of the 18th Century

Dawn of liberalism: freedom from restraint; age of revolutions in America and in France (1789); experimentation in science; economic concept of laissez-faire; the presence of the frontier; the development of rational religion known as deism; scientific curiosity; growth in nationalism; growth in materialism; the age of the gifted amateur; and belief in progressivism.

IV. Deism and Traditional Religions (like Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam)

"My mind is my church." - Thomas Paine

"Members of the United Deist Community hold the belief that God is discovered through Reason -- but the task of discovery is never over. We each pursue a lifelong intellectual odyssey; harvesting from the tree of knowledge all the wisdom that we can. Members are encouraged to participate in fellowship with other members, continuing the search for Truth together. Our open minds and open hearts are changing the world with love and deeds, as no other religion can." Excerpt from the United Deist Community web site.

"We believe that God designed and created the world, and governs it through natural laws that can be discovered through reasoning, observation, and experience. We feel that God does not reveal himself to us through inspired or revealed texts or by supernatural means, but through creation itself."  Excerpt from the Peace Dale Christian Deist Fellowship's web site.

Most Deists believe that God created the universe, "wound it up" and then disassociated himself from his creation. Some refer to Deists as believing in a God who acts as an absentee landlord or a blind watchmaker. A few Deists believe that God still intervenes in human affairs from time to time. They do not view God as an entity in human form.

Deists believe that

1. One cannot access God through any organized religion, set of belief, ritual, sacrament or other practice.
2. God has not selected a chosen people (e.g. Jews or Christians) to be the recipients of any special revelation or gifts.
3. Deists deny the existence of the Trinity as conceived by Christians.
4. They may view Jesus as a philosopher, teacher and healer, but not as the Son of God.
5. They believe that miracles do not happen.
6. The "world operates by natural and self-sustaining laws of the creator."
7. A practical morality can be derived from reason without the need to appeal to religious revelation and church dogma.
8. Deists pray, but only to express their appreciation to God for his works. They generally do not ask for special privileges, or try to assess the will of God through prayer.

Source: Deism: History, Beliefs and Practices


Study Questions

1. "The essential difference between the writers of Puritan New England and those of the American Enlightenment is that the former believed that man was irrational and basically corrupt and the latter believed man rational and basically good." Discuss.

2. In what five ways is Deism different from religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam?

3. Why is it significant that America's first black writers are Puritans? In what sense could a shared religious belief be important for racial relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century?

4. Why were execution sermons so popular in this period?

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 2: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: (provide page date or date of your login).

| Top |