Puritan doctrine taught that all men are totally depraved. And the young Puritan Goodman Brown accepted this principle, after his in-the-woods experience, as applying not only to the Salem village rank-and-file but even to his faultless wife Faith. Is this notion of sin correct? This essay seeks to compare this moral depravity doctrine of the Puritans as seen in “Young Goodman Brown” to the Catholic Church’s teaching on sin, a recognized standard.
The influence of Puritan religion, culture and education is a common topic in Nathaniel Hawthorne's works. 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 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 in a sinful situation, where he himself has agreed with an evil type to participate in a coven, a witch’s ceremony, a devil-worship liturgy. The supposed conversion experience he has at this liturgy 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 the belief in man’s total depravity. Such a belief is too harsh to be in accordance with Scripture, I think the Catholic Church would say. Consider how the CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) includes God’s Mercy with its treatment of sin(pt3,s1,ch1,art8):
1848 As St. Paul affirms, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."118 But to do its work grace must uncover sin so as to convert our hearts and bestow on us "righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."119 Like a physician who
probes the wound before treating it, God, by his Word and by his Spirit, casts a living light on sin. . . .
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...