Excerpt from Understanding The Scarlet Letter by Claudia Durst Johnson
Background and History
Before we can proceed to analysis of the place of the Puritans in The Scarlet
Letter, some fundamental definitions need to be established. Who exactly
were the Puritans? When did their religion develop? What relationship do they
have with other religious sects? Why did they come to the New World? What course
did Puritanism follow in the New World? Why did Puritanism disappear? (29-30)
It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a
more active and wider range than for centuries before.
The Scarlet Letter, 158
To understand the origins of Puritanism and its position with regard to other
Christian religions, let us look at a simple diagram:
We see from this that the Puritans are classified in the larger sense as Christian,
in a narrower sense as Protestant, and in a still more specialized sense as
Calvinist. They regarded Catholics as their chief opponents, but also believed
that high church Anglicans, Methodists (who did not come to the fore until late
in the seventeenth century), Baptists, and Quakers were wrong in their religious
beliefs. Their opposition to these last sects was so vehement that they persecuted
them and refused to allow the establishment of their churches in Massachusetts
Bay until 1665, when at last a Baptist congregation was tolerated---a full thirty-five
years after the Puritans came to Boston. Presbyterians and Congregationalists
are likely the chief descendents of the old Puritanism, which had disipated
by the middle of the eighteenth century (30-31).
Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings.
The Scarlet Letter, 159
How did Puritanism develop? To answer this we need to look back many years
before Puritanism appeared, to the fifteenth century, when most nations had
official religions and tolerated no others. In the late Middle Ages,
the Roman Catholic Church dominated all of western and northern Europe and most
of the Christian world, seeing itself as the "one universal church." It was
a tight but increasingly corrupt and vulnerable world, centered in Rome under
the leadership of the pope, filled with conflict and seething with social, economic,
and newly discovered national unrest.
Then, in 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, nailed to the church door at the
University of Wittenberg a list of ninety-five questions, or challenges---the
famous ninety-five theses---which he intended only as subjects for debate (in
accordance with the Custom of the time). But so ripe were the times and so widespred
the discontent that within months all of Europe was inflamed; soon it was in
arms. Central to Luther's challenges (and to the entire Protestant Reformation)
was the idea that every man was own priest---a belief that, if followed to its
logical conclusion would render unnecessary priests, bishops, the papacy, and
the entire church hierarchy. (Priests, in fact, according to Luther should be
spiritual guides to help show the way, not formal leaders or intercessors. )
Key also for Luther was the idea that men should be, or are, justified before
God by an inner faith---"justification by faith"---not by good works or any
outward show of virtue.
At about the same time in Zurich, Switzerland, a reformer named Zwingli preached
much the same reforms for the same reasons until he was killed in one of the
earliest bloody battles fought between Protestants and Catholics. In Geneva
a third reformer, John Calvin, preached another form of Protestantism, which
swept through Germany, France, and the Lowlands, and across the Channel to England
In England the Reformation, fused with all these elements, took a very peculiar
turn. The English king, Henry VIII (who in fact privately retained his basic
Catholic beliefs to the very last), after winning the accolade "Defender of
the Faith" from the pope for his vigorous attack on Luther, formally broke with
the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 over the matter of divorce and thus formed
the Church of England (or Anglican Church) with himself as head (32).
The growth of the many Christian denominations known as Protestants derives
from this rebellion by Luther, through one route or another. These denominations
include various "Reformed" churches; Presbyterians; Methodists; Baptists; Lutherans;
Episcopalians; and others. The Puritans, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers were
all classified as "dissidents," rebels against the main Catholic, Lutheran,
or Anglican churches.
Out of this mix of elements came the Puritans---one of a number of groups preaching
reformation and opposing certain practices and beliefs of the Church of England.
With the English government---and the English church---feeling harassed on all
sides, and particularly sensing real danger from its chief rivals, France and
Spain, and with the Puritans feeling seriously limited and threatened in a hostile
environment, the situation became intense. English playwrights ridiculed, and
the English government forcibly attempted to smother, the newly formed and strangely
dressed sect. The Puritans, striving to be "pure" and pristine in their daily
lives, became true social oddities.
In 1581 the first Congregational (Puritan) Church was established at Southwark
in London, England. One branch of Puritans was called Separatists because they
wanted to pull away from the established Anglican Church to form a separate
church. Another branch of Puritans was comprised of non-Separatists who wanted
to reform the Protestant church, not form a new sect (32).
Members of these two branches of Puritans and other dissident religious groups
who rebelled against the official state religion were largely treated as outlaws
in England, persecutions being particularly severe during the reign of the Stuart
kings, James I and Charles I, from 1603 to 1642. To practice a religion other
than Anglicanism was to defy the king of England, who was the official head of
the church. The Puritans were not allowed to congregate freely as separate congregations;
their ministers were often prohibited from preaching and imprisoned for disobedience;
and members were sometimes subject to arrest if they were found even to be reading
scripture; like the Catholics, the Anglican clergy believed that priests should
be the official presenters and interpreters of scripture. (Another revolutionary
act of Martin Luther had been to translate the Bible into vernacular German so
that ordinary people could read it.) In 1608 some of the Separatist Puritans began
moving to Holland, where they were not subject to persecution (32-33).
The Puritan Move to the New World
In 1620 the English monarchy, as eager to be rid of the Puritans as the Puritans
were to be rid of the king, granted a group of Puritan Separatists a charter
to make a settlement in the English colonies in the area that is now New Jersey
and New York. There were economic incentives for the Puritan move to the New
World, including economic upheaval in Europe and the prospect of making a profit
in America, but their chief incentive was religious: they would be able to practice
their religion without impediment. In late fall some 103 settlers, most of them
Englishmen who had lived in the Netherlands for a time, sailed on the Mayflower
and arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, although they had been heading
for an area a good deal south of New England. Unlike an earlier, purely commercial
English venture in Virginia, the Plymouth Plantation group did survive, but
by the end of the first year, the harsh conditions had taken the lives of over
half of the people.
In 1628, provoked by King Charles I's increasing intolerance, a group of non-Separatist
Puritans formed a business corporation, the Massachusetts Bay Company, for settlement
of the New World. Their group arrived on Cape Ann, just north and east of what
is now Boston, where the Reverend William Blackston (mentioned in The Scarlet
Letter) had already settled in 1625 or 1626. Unlike the settlements financed
by the Spanish crown in the New World, which were governed from Spain, the English
colonies were largely run by the corporations that financed them. Most of these
companies were located in Europe, but the founders of the Massachusetts Bay
Company relocated the entire corporation from London to Massachusetts, giving
it greater independence from the English crown. By 1630, 1,000 English settlers,
largely Puritan and non-Separatist, had immigrated to the Boston area. By 1643
there were some 20,000 immigrants in the general area of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony, making Boston the largest and most prosperous town in America (33).
The Struggle Against England
After the kings of Great Britain had assumed the right of appointing
the colonial governors, the measures of the latter seldom met with the ready
and general approbation, which had been paid to those of their predecessors,
under the original charters. ...The annals of Massachusetts Bay will inform
us, that of six governors, in the space of about forty years from the surrender
of the old charter, under James II., two were imprisoned by popular insurrection.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"
In 1642 the monarchy had been deposed by a Puritan commoner named Oliver Cromwell
who ruled England until his death in 1658. During this time, the English colonies
in America governed themselves without serious interference from the mother
country. By 1660 a king, Charles II, was restored to the English throne, and
the new royal government became acutely aware that the American colonies, which
had been allowed to develop pretty much on their own, could be profitable to
the mother country. In 1662, to protect English trade, Parliament passed the
Navigation Acts, which prevented the colonies from trading freely with Europe.
These so- called "abominable" acts remained in force until 1696. In 1685 King
James II abolished self-government in the northern colonies, appointing royal
governors in place of the governors elected by the people. Through his royal
governors, the king had veto power over the colonial legislature. He also enforced
the Navigation Acts. When James was deposed and William and Mary came to the
throne in 1688, the Bostonians in Massachusetts Bay arrested the royal governor,
Edmund Andros, and sent him packing back to England. (See Hawthorne's short
story based on this incident, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux") (34).
For close to eighty years the Puritans held absolute power in New England.
They contributed positively to the eventual breaking away from English control,
the development of education, and the development of sea trade, urban business,
farming, and, eventually, manufacturing. Our present political system derives
from the legislative model they originally set up, which had fixed dates for
regular elections by the voting populace, and which disregarded inherited status.
Despite this, Puritan government was scarcely what could be called democratic:
only males who owned land could vote; only members of the established church
could vote. In addition, religious doctrine became civil law, and the rule of
the leaders was absolute. While the whole of New England was largely Puritan,
it is those who settled in and around Boston who are credited with such great
influence on American culture and of whom Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote (34-35).
The Demise of Puritanism
And what hast thou to do with these iron men, and their opinions? They have
kept thy better part in bondage too long already.
The Scarlet Letter, 188
Toward the close of the seventeenth century, Puritanism, as it had been defined
during the early days of settlement, began coming apart for a number of reasons.
In 1692 a new charter, forced on Massachusetts Bay by the crown, lessened the
political power of the clergy. Common citizens, previously accustomed merely
to follow, began to see the clergy as overeducated, elitist, and out of touch
with reality, as well as increasingly tyrannical. Moreover, the fierce cruelty
and intolerance of the Puritan leaders in America caused them to lose the support
of Puritans in England. At the same time, with New England merchants prospering
from trade, congregations began to be more concerned with worldly matters than
with the state of the soul and heaven and hell, thus lessening Puritanism's
spiritual sway. Those who moved west, away from the New England Puritan community,
enjoyed freedom from Puritan oppression, so converts were few and Puritanism
remained confined to New England (35).
Claudia Durst Johnson, Understanding the Scarlet Letter: a Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, Greenwood
Press, c. 1995