Religion in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Religion in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is not the same thing as faith. Religion--the external institution--is treated with criticism while faith--one's own relationship with divinity--is celebrated.

Religion and Faith

What is the difference between religion and faith? Religion is a set of beliefs to which one subscribes. It is an external thing. Faith, on the other hand, is internal--it is one's own relationship with God or a divine being. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, faith is celebrated while religion is treated with skepticism and some condemnation.

Hawthorne succeeds in placing faith above religion by praising Anne Hutchinson, a historical figure. He called her 'sainted' and suggested roses could bloom from her footprints. Hutchinson was among the first Puritans to settle in Massachusetts. As the colony grew, she felt that the ministers and government officials were beginning to emphasize adherence to a religious institution over following one's own faith. This was contrary to the teachings of Puritanism, and she was not afraid to say so. Hutchinson believed one should be able to read and interpret the scriptures without a minister dictating one's thoughts. She also believed in personal revelation and the ability to commune with God on one's own and not just in a church. Hawthorne's favorable mention of her suggests he agreed with her sentiments.

Hypocrisy and Corruption

Hawthorne further criticizes the external institution of religion in the way he portrays Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is the town's minister. Everyone loves him and thinks he is just the holiest and best person alive--nigh unto angelic. In truth, however, he is utterly a pollution and a lie.

Throughout the novel, we realize by degrees that Arthur Dimmesdale is the one with whom Hester Prynne committed adultery. Hester is publicly shamed and condemned, but Dimmesdale hides his guilt inside, afraid of incurring public wrath and humiliation. His inner corruption is held up as a metaphor for the church as an entity--all piousness on the outside, but inwardly corrupt. Depicting Dimmesdale in this way furthers Hawthorne's criticism of religion as an organization.

Fear and Repression

Details from the lives of Salem's citizens provide Hawthorne with another opportunity to critique the religious institution. Perhaps one of the most poignant instances of this is when Hawthorne describes the play of a few of the town's children. They are disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit. The religious institution of Puritanism is so restrictive that even children are oppressed by it in their play. They are restricted to such an extent that playing at going to church seems like good fun to them.

It is further disturbing to see among the play of children scourging Quakers,..taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians, or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft. In addition to the repression these children felt, they were also acting out their culture's fear in their play. Scourging Quakers and scalping Indians must have been widely accepted and at least talked about, if not practiced, in order to make the kids feel as though this was a good and normal thing to act out. Through the prevalence of these ideas and practices, the children are taught to fear and fight against things that are different, rather than to embrace or explore them.

Good and Bad

The Puritanical religious institution of colonial America would have one believe in a clear black and white dichotomy of what is good and bad. Hawthorne repeatedly challenges that notion in his novel, celebrating instead the individual pursuit of faith. One of the first instances of this is when Hester Prynne first emerges from the prison to stand in public with her scarlet letter 'A'. She stands there in order to be shamed among her fellow citizens. She is holding a baby she conceived via an extramarital affair, and she wears the 'A' as a public badge of her crime. Yet, Hawthorne tells us, she looks something like the image of Divine Maternity. To suggest that an imperfect woman--an obvious sinner--could remind one of the sainted Mary, mother of Jesus, is curious indeed and a significant blurring of the stark line between good and bad.

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