Puritanism in America: Puritans were…

1 Puritanism
1600 - 1700
An Overview of Significant Concepts
Puritans were…
English Protestants discontented with the Anglican Church/Church of England in the late 16th
century; felt it was too “popish.”
Pilgrims believed the church was beyond saving, were separatists, while Puritans wanted to “purify”
the church from within (name “Puritans” first started as a taunt by Anglicans).
Eventually becoming separatist, too, the Puritans came to America in 1630, formed Massachusetts
Bay Colony (10 years after Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony).
Scarlet Letter takes place around 1642 in that colony (Boston & Salem included).
Basic Beliefs & Values …
Strong union of church & state, with religious leaders controlling most colonial activity
All events are foreknown and foreordained by God
God chooses – at birth – who is saved and who is damned. And so the nagging question …
“Am I saved?”
Nothing you do in life can change this, but religious leaders believed the testimony of one’s life could give
clues as to who is elected
The Bible
Provided the indispensable guide to life, and the church should therefore reflect the express teaching of the
scriptures. The Bible tells people exactly how to behave.
All humans are sinful & depraved
“Original sin” … from the time of birth
People have free will, but will naturally choose evil if left unchecked.
Forgiveness through Jesus Christ alone
But He died for only the elected & predestined
Abundant grace/Personal salvation
Given only by God
Cannot be earned
Society is one unified whole, so sin & error of any kind must be opposed & driven out
Anne Hutchinson (1638)
 Criticized ministers for not preaching grace, that faith alone could get you into heaven
 Held religious meetings in her home
 Challenged political & religious leadership of Massachusetts Bay colony
 Persecuted & banished
Roger Williams (1638)
Preached complete separation of church & state
Opposed taxes to support religious groups
Supported paying Indians for land
Persecuted & expelled for “new & dangerous opinions”
Settled Rhode Island
Established complete freedom of religion (including Jews, Catholics, Quakers)
Male-dominated society; only men can vote/hold office; women are in service to their husbands.
Strong belief in the devil, witches, etc., and their ability to inhabit the bodies of people.
Puritan Childhood
Little concept of childhood/play
Children should be seen and not heard--little adults
Sunday church services lasting 9 or 10 hours
Children put to work around age 7
Girls go to live/work in others’ homes by age 14 or so
Most families have around 7 children; only 1 in 3 made it to age 10
Life expectancy in the 17th century (1600s) was about 32
Education highly prized as a form of self-improvement, and to be able to read the Bible.
Formed the first public school in New England, the Roxbury Latin School, in 1635
Mandatory public school for all children
Founded the first college, Harvard, in 1636 to train ministers
First to print children’s books, The New England Primer (1688); had an alphabet and catechism (religious
training). Was used for nearly 100 years throughout the region
As a result, about 70% of New England was literate in 1770
5 The New England Primer
Alphabet book with religious instruction geared toward obedience:
Letter A – “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”
Letter I – “The Idle fool is whipt at school”
6 Puritan Legacy, Positive & Negative
The need for moral justi fication for private, public, & gov ernmental acts
The quest for freedom - personal, political, economic, and social; democrac y in church
led to democrac y in government
The Puritan work ethic
Shaming as a form o f social control
13 Puritan Legacy, Positive & Negative
The cit y upon a hill – concept o f mani fest destiny, moral excellence & conscience
Communit y values – that we are all responsible for the well-being o f each other
The value o f education for individual & communit y success
The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter
Upon finishing The Scarlet Letter in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne read the manuscript to
his wife, Sophia.
“It broke her heart,” Hawthorne wrote, “and “sent her to bed with a grievous headache,
which I look upon as a triumphant success.”
Hawthorne originally intended The Scarlet Letter to be a short story but expanded it at
the suggestion o f his publisher.
The Scarlet Letter was such a popular and critical success that American writer Henry
James later wrote that its publication was “a literary e vent of the first importance. The
book was the finest piece o f imaginative writing yet put forth in the country.”
The Scarlet Letter displays Hawthorne’s lifelong preoccupation with the thematic ideas of secrecy and
guilt, sin and redemption, the conflict between intellectual and moral pride, and the lingering effects of
This li felong preoccupation with guilt and shame likely came from Hawthorne having
had distant ancestors invol ved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
• Hawthorne called The Scarlet Letter “a romance,” but he defined romance as a work of fiction that can
“claim a certain latitude with the ordinary course of man’s experience,” as long as it shows “the truth
of the human heart.”
• Rather than focusing on outer realism, Hawthorne’s work focused on the inner truths of human
The Scarlet Letter is peopled with characters who are meant to be the embodiments o f
moral traits, rather than realistic, li ving figures.
• The novel begins with a long preface, “The Custom House,” unnecessary to the story, but which gives a fictional back story
about Hawthorne discovering an old, tattered “Scarlet Letter.”
• He writes that there was some “deep meaning” in the “mystic symbol.”
Hawthorne opens The Scarlet Letter just outside the prison of what, in the
early 1640s, was the village of Boston.
Ask yourself what you know about a novel that begins in a prison?
You probably suspect you are reading the story o f a crime already committed, o f
characters whose lives are already darkened by guilt and disgrace….
And, in the case of The Scarlet Letter…
... you are quite right.
The Prison-Door
Look carefully at the details of the opening scene:
“The sad-colored garments” of the spectators; the prison-door itself, “Heavily timbered with and
studded with iron spikes.”
These details create a somber mood; they paint a cheerless picture.
And they hint, as well, at a society that places punishment far above forgiveness on its scale of
One note of color relieves the gloom.
A wild rose bush blossoms by the prison door.
The rose bush suggests a world beyond the narrow confines of the Puritan community.
A world where beaut y and vibrant color flourish and crime finds tolerance
and pit y.
The Scarlet Letter
The year is 1642.
The place is Boston, a small Puritan settlement. Be fore the town jail, a group of somber
people wait with stern expressions.
The Plot
They are expecting Hester Prynne, a woman convicted of adultery.
You will not know it yet. But even this early, Hawthorne has marked the thematic boundaries of his
law and nature
repression and freedom
“The Market Place” gives -- in one vivid image -- the whole story. The lines of conflict are drawn, the
issues defined, the characters placed in relation to one another.
The image Hawthorne gives us is that of a young woman guilty of adultery, and standing on a scaffold
in the midst of a hostile crowd.
This is Puritan Boston, where private wrongdoing
public knowledge.