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 Hawthorne is able to discuss the merits and consequences of such zeal, especially the zeal of the Half-Way Covenant of 1662, the Puritan Catechism of John Cotton, and the repercussions of The Salem Witch trials. Hawthorne sets “Young Goodman Brown” into a context of Puritan rigidity and self-doubt to allow his contemporary readers to see the consequences of such a system of belief.
Hawthorne’s tale places the newly wed Puritan Brown upon the road to what may or may not be a true conversion experience. The conversion experience – a sudden realization brought about by divine intervention, a vision, or perhaps a dream – easily translates into the dream allegory of Hawthorne’s work and allows the author to use Puritan doctrine and the history of Salem to argue the merits and consequences of such a belief. Major issues and themes of Puritanism must have been researched and delicately placed into Hawthorne’s discussion of not only past consequences of Puritan zeal but also on the contemporary religious issue of his own time, the Second Great Awakening.
Much like the nighttime witches Sabbath that awaits Goodman Brown, the tent revivals of the 1820’s and 1830’s could be seen by the questioning Hawthorne as another attempt by the church to sway its membership towards total obedience and faith. The importance placed on this event by Goodman Brown shows the importance placed on the conversion experience itself. It can be argued that the Half-Way Covenant – itself a means by which Puritanism attempted to hold onto its congregation – as an antagonist cast further doubt onto the later generations of Puritan society.
As the second generation of Puritans were born in America they lacked the zealousness of the first. Waning membership within the congregation made what would come to be known as the Half-Way Covenant an attempt by the church to solve this problem. The Covenant allowed the children of church members to be baptized and become part of the congregation, thus bolstering membership. But in order to be a full member and receive communion the conversion experience was still necessary. Much like the “journey” in which Brown placed so much significance, the fact that further doubt was now placed upon new members of the church would cause later problems in Puritan society and Salem itself.
In a further attempt to deal with lack of zeal within the church, church hierarchy controlled not only the congregation’s culture and laws, but also its education. In order to stress the consequences of such an education – one that would teach a child that man was not only suspect but also guilty of depravity — Hawthorne would have most likely relied on Puritan educational history as a setting for the newly married Brown’s self-examination. In the setting of the tale, Brown would fall under the Half-Way Covenant, and his education under Goody Cloyse in part fosters the need within Brown to enter the forest at night and seek the true conversion experience that would allow him full membership.
As Benjamin Franklin V states in “Goodman Brown and the Puritan Catechism,” Hawthorne used John Cotton’s Milk for Babes as the education source of Goodman Brown. It was the Puritan belief that man must be instructed to realize his own depravity, and therefore at childhood the education began. In order to understand Brown’s own background as it pertains to his duty as a Puritan, Franklin returns to Cotton’s original Catechism:
• Q: What hath GOD done for you?
• A: God hath made me, He keepeth me, and he can save me.
• Q: Who is God?
• A: God is a Spirit of himself, and for himself.
• Q: How many Gods be there?
• A: There is but one God in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
• Q: How did God make you?
• A: In my first Parents holy and righteous.
• Q: Are you then born holy and righteous?
• A: No, my first Father sinned, and I in him.
• Q: Are you then born a Sinner?
• A: I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.
• Q: What is your Birth-sin?
• A: Adams sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling in me.
• Q: What is your corrupt nature?
• A: My corrupt nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sin, and only unto sin,
• and that continually.
• Q: What is sin?
• A: Sin is the transgression of the Law [the Ten Commandments]. (70)
If the conversion experience is the ultimate sign of faith and election, this catechism of mistrust and doubt would only make the possibility of such an experience doubtful as well. Can a child that believes to be “corrupt” and “bent unto sin” truly believe that “God will save me” (70)? Hawthorne’s Brown is an example of how difficult it must have been to believe this.
As Robert C. Grayson explains in “Curdled Milk for Babes: The Role of the Catechism in Young Goodman Brown” children were chatechized in such a way that religious zeal could cloud reality. Grayson states that
John Cotton’s Catechism Milk for Babes, by its emphasis on total depravity, soured the milk of human kindness. Consequently persons instructed in the catechism from their youth could consider a person of good works and character to be a witch merely on the basis of spectral evidence in spite of the witch’s quite orthodox relation to the community’s approved doctrinal authority. (1)
While changes to the Catechism would have occurred from the 17th to Hawthorne’s own 19th century, the idea that his father’s family had wished a proper Puritan education for Hawthorne is an important issue. To accept as a child that you have in no way sinned but are completely sinful by nature is but one way in which “Young Goodman Brown” speaks out against Puritanism. As Young Goodman Brown witnesses the exchange between the “devil” – in the guise of Brown’s own father – and Goody Cloyse he can not accept that such a good Puritan is in fact in league with the devil. His remark that “That old woman taught me my catechism” creates a further shadow of doubt upon the young Puritan and is noted by Hawthorne that “there was a world of meaning in this simple comment” (2132).
Tension within the congregations concerning the conversion experience would grow in the late 17th century, and the culmination of this tension would be the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Once again a deep knowledge of the historical background of Salem would allow Hawthorne to reconsider the question posed to the Salem congregation in the late 1600’s – what counts as a true conversion experience and what could be seen as evidence. If the experience could be a dream or a vision, what would facilitate it?
Just as the Protestants of his own time sought to regain enthusiasm through the unorthodox tent revivals of the Second Great Awakening, Hawthorne creates the possible dream journey of Brown deep into the forest to the Witches Sabbath. Spectral evidence – such as the devil changing into the shape of Brown’s deceased father – to the nighttime bonfires and finally to the dramatic invitation of the devil for Brown to enter into communion all are offered as part of a possible conversion experience. Hawthorne shows that the consequence for the mistrust and self-doubt that is inherent in Puritan education and doctrine does not create faith and peace. It creates only further confusion. Just like the men who condemned and executed the alleged witches of Salem, the confused and searching Goodman Brown is unable to see whether his experience is real or a dream.
Hawthorne’s claim is that this confusion is the only possible result of Puritan doctrine. To mistrust yourself, your neighbor, your teacher, and your very mind can not create faith. After his experience in the woods the aged and bitter Goodman Brown may be an example of the hardened persecutors of Salem. Left with no evidence and a severe mistrust of oneself and others, any evidence may be used. Hearsay, as when Brown “could have sworn . . . that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin,” or spectral evidence such as when the devils serpentine staff “perhaps . . . assumed life.” But such testimony is not even valid due to the fact that Brown “could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and looking down again beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff” (2132). And while Brown would live the rest of his days miserable, at least his condemnation of these people was kept to himself, unlike the congregation of Salem during the Trials. Cotton Mather himself preached a sermon in 1689 that furthered this mistrust and acceptance of non-evidence.
His sermon told of how the supposed witches “do make craftily of the Air, the Figures and Colors of things that can never be truly crafted by them” (97). Mather also deals with the lack of evidence of witchcraft by simply stating that people who do not believe in witches are of “small wit” and the excuse “that they never saw any Witches, therefore there are none” is dismissible (97). The statement that Hawthorne creates for “Young Goodman Brown” is that in a distrustful and depraved society personal evidence such as a dream or vision grows into allegations and belief. The distrustful society that Puritans created themselves for a prosperous congregation would only return to harm them.
By showing the failures of Puritan society in dealing with the problem of church membership and specifically the conversion experience, Hawthorne spoke to his own time about the possible consequences of the Second Great Awakening. Such specific historical evidence is used to question the validity of Puritan doctrine. For example, the “devil” in Young Goodman Brown is seen by many critics not only as an apparition of Goodman Brown’s due to his lack of a conversion experience and the psychological effects of catechism but also may be seen as the Evangelist at a revival meeting. Both taught of the evil that lurked in man’s soul and the self-examination that was required to see it. Frank Shuffelton’s work “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement” states that:
To accept one’s almost solipsistic isolation from humanity . . . . Goodman Brown turns his back on Salem village in order to venture into dark nature and his darker self . . . reject(ing) the society which has nurtured him from the self-willed terrors of the imagination. This perception is for Hawthorne the central truth of the story, and it is simultaneously the old error toward which Puritanism tended and the mistake of the contemporary revivalists. (319)
As a Puritan Young Goodman Brown sought a true conversion experience. Whether or not the meeting in the woods existed as reality or a dream does not matter. The point is that Puritanism required their followers to doubt themselves and their community so much that a reality in which one could achieve Grace did not exist. It taught that one could not trust anyone. In the Witch Trials men turned on their accused wives just as Goodman Brown himself has lost both his spiritual faith and his wife Faith because of something that may not have happened at all.
Hawthorne’s knowledge of the historical background of Puritanism combined with the personal experience of his early life and the history of his own family merge into the statement that “Young Goodman Brown” makes. A system in which individuals can not trust themselves, their neighbors, their instructors or even their ministers can not create an atmosphere where faith exists. Hawthorne may be going even further than this, to show that Goodman Brown’s experience, the alleged Witches of Salem, and the tent revivals of his own time are the direct result of Puritan doctrine. By placing so much importance on the conversion experience and evidence for election to heaven while granting neither the self-trust nor the self-worth to its congregation, Puritanism can only be seen as an unending cycle of misery in which man is the most depraved and most unworthy – exactly what the good Puritan should see himself as. ? ?
Franklin, Benjamin V. “Goodman Brown and the Puritan Catechism.” ESQ 40 (First Quarter 1994): 67-88.
Grayson, Robert C. “Curdled Milk for Babes: The Role of the Catechism in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 16 (Spring 1990): 1-5.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” 1835. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Lexington: Heath, 1944. 2129-38.
Levin, David. What happened in Salem? 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc, 1967.
Mather, Cotton. “A Discourse on Witchcraft.” Levin 96-105.
Murfin, Ross C. “Introduction: The Biographical and Historical Background.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter.” Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 3-18.
Shuffelton, Frank. “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement.” The American Transcendental Quarterly 44 (Fall 1979): 311-321.
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