Describe Historical Background to The Scarlet Letter?
The Scarlet Letter begins in June of 1642 in the Puritan town of Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans were a group of religious dissenters from England who arrived in 1630, under the leadership of John Winthrop(left) (1588-1649). The Puritans wished to purify, or reform, the Church of England. Their chief complaints were that services should be simpler and that religion should contain an intense spiritual relationship between the individual and God. In England, the clergy and the government mediated in the relationship between the individual and God. The Arabella Covenant, written by John Winthrop, established a religious and theocratic (rule by God) settlement in New England. In this agreement, the Puritans agreed to follow God's words and glorify His ways. In return, they believed, God would bless them and they would prosper.
(Be sure that you don't confuse the Puritans with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims, under the leadership of William Bradford, established the much smaller Plymouth Colony in 1620. Unlike the Puritans, the Pilgrims were religious separatists who wished to leave the Church of England. The Mayflower Compact, written by Bradford, established social, religious, and economic freedom. In general, the Pilgrims were more tolerant of religious differences than the Puritans. The Puritans, however, were better educated and wealthier than the Pilgrims.)
Puritan Religious Beliefs- Salvation
These early Puritans followed the writings of a French Protestant reformer named John Calvin(1509-1564), whose teachings saw the world as a grim conflict between God and Satan. Calvinists were a very introspective lot who constantly searched their souls for evidence that they were God's Elect. Through unconditional election, the Elect were chosen by God for salvation. According to the Puritans, a merciful God had sent His son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die for the sins of man, but only a few would be saved. This is called the doctrine of limited atonement. The rest, known as the "unregenerate," would be damned eternally.
Puritan Religious Beliefs- Total Depravity
The Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that all of humanity was depraved and sinful because of Adam and Eve's fall in the Garden of Eden. Because Adam and Eve were willful and disobedient to God, they brought upon humanity the curse of total depravity, sometimes called original sin. For this reason, The New England Primer(1683), which was used to teach reading in Puritan schools, began with "A: In Adam's Fall/ We sinned all." Most Puritans could be sure of eternal punishment in hell; the few that were "elect" would go to heaven. According to the doctrine of predestination, only God knows if a particular person is to be saved or damned.
In Puritan society, those who were male and members of the church could vote. In addition, ministers guided the elected officials of the colony; consequently, there was a close tie between Church and State. In The Scarlet Letter, those two branches of government are represented by Reverend John Wilson(Church) and Governor Bellingham(State). The rules governing the Puritans came from the Bible, a source of spiritual and ethical standards. These rules were definite, and the penalties or punishments were public and severe. Hester's turn on the scaffold and her scarlet letter were similar to those who were branded or forced to wear an M for murderer. The stocks were a form of public indictment- and, therefore, deterrent - of bad behavior. Those who disagreed with the laws of the colony were banished, persecuted, and, in some cases, executed.
These church and government leaders regulated many aspects of daily life that we consider private today. For example, look at some of the behaviors that were considered sins by Puritan leaders:
1. Visible decay of godliness: An example of this would be showing a lack of respect for a minister or the church.
2. Manifestations of pride: An example would be people showing off their new wealth.
3. Presence of "heretics:" The Puritans didn't allow the practice of different religions, or different branches of Protestantism. Thus, Quakers and Anabaptists were not permitted in Boston, nor were Catholics or Jews.
4. Violations of the Sabbath: Church attendance was mandatory; swearing and sleeping during sermons was not allowed.
5. Decay in family government: The husband was the rightful head of the household, so wives and children had a duty to obey him.
6. People full of contention: Excessive arguing and quarreling was considered sinful. Puritans were urged to settle arguments without lawyers.
7. Sins of sex and alcohol: The Puritans did not permit sex outside of marriage, and alcohol consumption was carefully regulated.
8. Cheating in business
9. No disposition to reform: All individuals need to be willing to change their behaviors when shown the error of their ways.
10. Lacking in social behavior: People were expected to be polite and respectful in public, especially to their social superiors.
What do you think about these Puritan prohibitions? Do you follow any of these prohibitions in your own life? Do people today follow any, some, or all of these? If more people followed these, would society be better or worse off?