The Importance of Obedience in the Puritan Ideology and Way of Life

Obedience was an important component in the writings of many early American authors; however the form that the master takes varies. In some cases, such as for the Puritans, God is the master that one must be forever obedient to. In other cases it is fellow man that one must subject themselves to. Sometimes, especially in regard to women, writers are obedient to both God and man. Regardless of whether one’s master was divine or worldly, early American writers continuously wrote about how they experienced and reacted to their expected obedience and any consequences of disobedience.

Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution from England and to practice their beliefs freely. For the Puritans, obedience to God was integrated into every aspect of their lives. Being absolutely obedient to God was a sign of one being of the elect, one of the few chosen by God to be saved from damnation. The Puritans believed in the Covenant of Grace; this was the idea that God has selected a few elites for salvation in exchange for obedience.

For the Puritans they strived to show utmost obedience to God, which would be a sign that they were among the elect and had received sanctification from God. Failure to show absolute obedience to God alluded to one not being a member of the elect and destined for the everlasting damnation that they deserved. Edward Taylor describes this obedience to God in his works, such as in his poem “Huswifery.” In his poem Taylor creates the illusion of God being a cloth maker and Christians being his spinning wheel; making the statement that God is the master and Christians are his tools to fulfill his will.

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For the Puritans obedience was not just about being obedient to God, but to each other. All Puritans were expected to be obedient to their community, follow its laws which were deemed the equivalent of God’s laws, and devote oneself to the overall good of the community. They also believed more specifically that the poor should be obedient to the rich; and a Puritan wife was expected to be obedient to her husband. In his work, A Modell of Christian Charity, Winthrop lists the reasons behind writing his work, one of which explains how those economically inferior should be subordinate to those with wealth. “In the regenerate, in exerciseing his graces in them, as in the grate ones, theire love, mercy, gentleness, temperance &c., in the poore and inferior sorte, theire faithe, patience, obedience &c.” (Page 34). Winthrop uses this section to discuss how God demands that the rich use their wealth to benefit the poor and the community, while the poor show their gratitude by being obedient to the wealthy. Winthrop feels that this form of relationship would be mutually beneficial to both rich and poor, making it so “the riche and mighty should not eate upp the poore nore the poore and dispised rise upp against and shake off theire yoake” (Page 34). Winthrop argues that the rich usually oppress while the poor usually rise up. To prevent that from happening in this fragile new world they were trying to build, he created this mutually beneficial relationship were the wealthy help the poor in exchange for obedience, which ultimately promotes peace and a productive sense of community.

As mentioned above, Winthrop discusses how Puritans were expected to be obedient to their community’s laws and to work for the greater good of the group. The consequences of breaking the laws of the community can be seen in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne broke both the laws of the community as well as God’s law by committing adultery, failing in her obedience to God and her fellow Puritans. When one fails in their obedience, the punishment was severe, in some cases death. Luckily Hester was spared her life, yet she was publically humiliated “fully revealed before the crowd” and exiled to live in the outskirts of the town, living basically as a leper, except not with sickness of the body but of the soul (Scarlet Letter, page 80).

While obedience in the community was significant, obedience in one’s own home was just as important. Winthrop created the idea of the “true wife”; “The women’s own choice makes such a man her husband; yet, being so chosen, he is her lord, and she is to be subject to him, yet in a way of liberty, not of bondage; and a true wife accounts her subjection her honor and freedom and would not think her condition safe and free but in her subjection to her husband’s authority” (Winthrop, “On Liberty’). Winthrop argues that a wife is obedient to God by being obedient to her husband. It is not just obedience that Winthrop suggests, but a wife should be happily obedient, making it her honor to serve her husband. The ideology of the “true wife” not only applied to women serving their husband, but to all Puritans showing obedience to God and the church. The idea of the “true wife” in effect can be seen in Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. In her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” Bradstreet expresses the love she shares for her husband, as any “true wife” should maintain; “I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold or all the riches that the Earth can hold”. Her poem shows Bradstreet’s devotion and obedience to her husband and his happiness.

Johnathon Edwards, a protestant pastor who had many common beliefs with the Puritans, preached on the consequences of failing in one’s obedience to God. In his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” he argued that the punishment would not be public humiliation and exile as it was for Hester Prynne, but everlasting damnation. Edwards preaches that God is angry at all sinners; so angry that “they are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell” and at any moment he can let go of a person, letting them slip into that hell for their disobedience.

As disheartening as it is, slavery is an important element in American history. Institutional slavery forced obedience out of a vast group of people; it was the ownership of other humans, making them legally no different than any other property. One cannot discuss obedience in American literature without looking at the works of former slaves. An interesting example of such a narrative is that of Solomon Northup, a free man forced into slavery for twelve years. Northup describes his time as a slave as ““Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions. Ten years I was compelled to address him with downcast eyes and uncovered head—in the attitude and language of a slave. I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes” (Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 183). For most slaves violence was the result of any form of disobedience. It seems that Northup was experiencing the hell that Edwards warned against right here on Earth, when Northup refused to obey an order from his captures he experienced what he described; “my sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell” (Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 45).

Being disobedient was just as much an integral component in American literature as being obedient was. The country was founded on being disobedient in the face of tyranny. The Declaration of Independence was written to inform England that America would no longer be obedient to the unjust rule of the English crown. As the first draft of the declaration shows, the writers felt that they were in a position of unjust subordination, “it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination, in which they have hitherto remained and to assume among the peers of the earth, the equal and independent station…” (Second Paragraph). America would no longer be obedient to a tyrant, they would be considered equals. The consequence for such disobedience? War.

The Puritan ideology about obedience to the community did not disappear as time progressed. Even into the mid-19th century the idea was still in place. In this case it was about being obedient to society and their understood norms, e.g. gender roles. Elizabeth Stanton was a woman who fought being forced to be obedient to society’s rules. At the Seneca Falls Conference in 1848 she helped write the “Declaration of Sentiments” calling for equality between men and women. It is clear that Stanton felt that in society a woman was a subject to a man, she argues; “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyrranny over her,” and “women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights” (Stanton, Declaration of Sentiments). Stanton then goes on to list the grievances that men have forced upon women. Stanton was fed up with women being forced to be obedient to men, and called for women to “insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States”.

Thoreau was another writer who refused to be obedient to what he deemed a tyrant. The tyrant for Thoreau is the American government, given power from the majority. He argues that people should not follow the laws of the government if the person feels they are unjust. “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?… If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience). For Thoreau, being disobedient was the only way to keep one from performing any evil actions that were required by governmental law.

Obedience, whether being obedient or refusing to and the consequences associated with such actions, was a fundamental element of early American literature. Being obedient, or refusing to be, is important to the origins of America. The Puritans came to America with the ideology of extreme obedience to God and each other. The country was established as independent when a group of men refused to no longer be obedient to a tyrant. Again forced obedience can be seen in the institution of slavery and the inequality between genders in the 1800s, followed again by the push by members of the oppressed against their oppressors. Whatever is the source requiring obedience: whether it be God, man, the government or society; there will be consequences for being disobedient, however sometimes it is worth it.

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The Importance of Obedience in the Puritan Ideology and Way of Life. (2022, Feb 22). Retrieved from

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