City Upon a Hill: Colonial American Literature

Illustration of John Winthrop Landing in Massachusetts
Illustration of John Winthrop Landing in Massachusetts. Bettman / Contributor / Getty Images

John Winthrop used the phrase "City upon a Hill" to describe the new settlement, with "the eies of all people" upon them. And with those words, he laid a foundation for a new world. These new settlers certainly represented a new destiny for this land.

Religion and Colonial Writing

Early Colonial writers spoke of transforming the landscape and its people. In his report from the Mayflower, William Bradford found the land, "A hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men."

Coming to this paradise of horrors, the settlers wanted to create for themselves a heaven on earth, a community in which they could worship and live as they sought fit - without interference. The Bible was cited as the authority for law and everyday practices. Anyone who disagreed with Biblical doctrine, or presented different ideas, was banned from the Colonies (examples include Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson), or worse.

With these high ideals ever in their minds, much of the writings of this period consisted of letters, journals, narratives, and histories - highly influenced as they were by British writers. Of course, many of the colonists spend a great deal of time in the simple pursuit of survival, so it's no wonder that no great novels or other great literary works emerged from the hands of early Colonial writers. In addition to the time constraints, all imaginative writing was banned in the colonies until the Revolutionary War.

With drama and novels looked upon as evil diversions, most of the works of the period are religious in nature. William Bradford wrote a history of Plymouth and John Winthrop wrote a history of New England, while William Byrd wrote about a border dispute between North Carolina and Virginia.

Probably not surprising, sermons, along with philosophical and theological works, remained the most prolific form of writing. Cotton Mather published some 450 books and pamphlets, based on his sermons and religious beliefs; Jonathan Edwards is famous for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Poetry In the Colonial Period 

Of the poetry that emerged from the Colonial period, Anne Bradstreet is one of the most well-known authors. Edward Taylor also wrote religious poetry, but his work wasn't published until 1937.

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Lombardi, Esther. "City Upon a Hill: Colonial American Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Lombardi, Esther. (2020, August 27). City Upon a Hill: Colonial American Literature. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "City Upon a Hill: Colonial American Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2023).