The Consequences of Puritan Depravity and Distrust
as Historical Context for Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown"
by Michael E. McCabe
Puritan doctrine taught that all men are totally depraved and require constant self-examination to see that they are sinners and unworthy of God's Grace. Because man had broken the Covenant of Works when Adam had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, God offered a new covenant to Abraham's people which held that election to Heaven was merely a possibility. In the Puritan religion, believers dutifully recognized the negative aspects of their humanity rather than the gifts they possessed. This shadow of distrust would have a direct influence on early American New England and on many of its historians and writers, one of which was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The influence of Puritan religion, culture and education along with the setting of his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, is a common topic in Nathaniel Hawthorne's works. In particular, Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" allows the writer to examine and perhaps provide commentary on not only the Salem of his own time but also the Salem of his ancestors. Growing up Hawthorne could not escape the influence of Puritan society, not only from residing with his father's devout Puritan family as a child but also due to Hawthorne's study of his own family history. The first of his ancestors, William Hathorne, is described in Hawthorne's "The Custom House" as arriving with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 "with his Bible and his sword" (26). A further connection can also be seen in his more notable ancestor John Hathorne, who exemplified the level of zealousness in Puritanism with his role as persecutor in the Salem Witch Trials. The study of his own family from the establishment of the Bay Colony to the Second Great Awakening of his own time parallels the issues brought forth in "Young Goodman Brown." In looking into the history of Salem and especially early Puritan society...
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