New England Humanism Part 1: Nathaniel Hawthorne

The current miserable state of America can in many ways be traced to the worldview developed by New England humanists in the mid-19th century. While we have seen that some of these humanists, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, were vaguely aware of the problems caused by industrialization and other social changes, they were not able to provide any positive solutions to these problems. On the contrary, their positive teachings in fact made the situation much worse.

“Humanism” is any worldview that replaces the God of the Bible with a god or philosophical system of man’s own invention, and therefore it comes in many different varieties. While New England humanism drew inspiration from diverse forms of ancient paganism, it is its own unique worldview. The New England humanists were at the same time overly civilized and mock-savage, despising their own ancestors for being too overconfident in their ability to reshape the world, while retaining that very overconfidence. During the 19th century, New England dominated the intellectual life of the Northern states, and New England humanism has been one of the primary influences on the contemporary white liberal worldview.

New England humanism can best be seen in the works of prominent literary figures such as Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These works are widely read today in high school and college classrooms, often without their revolutionary import being recognized. By analyzing these works we can come to understand the religious and philosophical attitudes that have brought about so much destruction, from the insane and bloodthirsty abolitionism of the 19th century, to the millenarian war-mongering of WWI and WWII, to the current dissolution of the West.

The New England colonies were founded by Puritans and the religion of these founders was originally dominant in the region. However, by the mid-18th century Unitarianism began to gain influence in the formerly Puritan Congregational churches. By the early 19th century Unitarians came to dominate theological education at Harvard, and by the mid-19th century many New Englanders were quite far removed from the original Puritan theology. Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) is frequently said to be of great importance in understanding the legacy of Puritanism, which is curious when one realizes that the novel reveals that Hawthorne either has no understanding of Puritan theology or deliberately chooses to distort it. The novel does, however, show Hawthorne’s bitterness towards his distant Puritan ancestors, claiming that they had poisoned New England culture down to his own day.

“Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gaiety.”
(The Scarlet Letter, Everyman’s Library, London, 1967, page 280)

It is no wonder that Hawthrone views Puritanism as so dark and gloomy, for he conspicuously ignores the key principle of Puritan theology: the free grace of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. To a carnal mind that has no knowledge of Jesus, it is to be expected that a life of self-denial and separation from the world would seem unpleasant. Ignoring the Puritan doctrines of grace is particularly egregious given that The Scarlet Letter dwells on the themes of sin and atonement. Hawthorne views atonement as a human work, not a divine grace, and this attitude is also anachronistically found in the novel’s characters. The Scarlet Letter focuses on a New England pastor named Arthur Dimmesdale who commits adultery with a woman named Hester Prynne, which results in Hester becoming pregnant. Hester’s husband is absent from the colony, so her pregnancy reveals that she is an adulteress, while the identity of her lover is kept a secret. For years Hester is forced to live as an outcast with a scarlet A affixed to her chest, while Dimmesdale, with his sin unknown, is highly honored by the entire community while being inwardly tortured by his feelings of guilt. Immediately before Dimmesdale dies at the end of the book he and Hester share the following dialogue.

“‘Hester,’ said the clergyman, ‘farewell!’
‘Shall we not meet again?’ whispered she, bending her face down close to his. ‘Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest!’
‘Hush, Hester — hush!’ said he, with tremulous solemnity. ‘The law we broke! — the sin here so awfully revealed I — let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear it may be, that, when we forgot our God — when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul — it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows, and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His name! His will be done! Fare-well!'”
(ibid., pages 309-310)

Note that Hester suggests that she and Dimmesdale have “ransomed” each other from their sin through their personal suffering. This is a direct contradiction of the Gospel, which teaches that Christ is our ransom: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Dimmesdale, the Puritan pastor, replies by saying that it was vain to hope that God would ever forgive the sin of adultery, another plain contradiction of Scripture, as Jesus tells the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). Dimmesdale goes on to thank God for all of the suffering he has endured due to his guilty conscience, thinking that without his own personal suffering he would without doubt be “lost forever.” Dimmesdale’s failure to confess his sins and seek forgiveness in the atonement of Jesus is the only thing that could keep him from salvation. If Hawthorne and others of Puritan descent feel oppressed by the “gloom” of their puritan forebears, it is not because they have absorbed too much of their ancestors’ teaching on sin, rather it is because they have ignored their ancestors’ teaching on the joy of free forgiveness.

Yet while in The Scarlett Letter Hawthorne complains about the lingering influence of Puritanism, elsewhere he speaks more positively about this legacy. His novel The Blithedale Romance (1852) is about a Utopian socialist commune in Massachusetts, modeled on the real-life Brook Farm where Hawthorne himself lived for a time. Hawthorne explicitly links their Utopian project to the desire of their Puritan ancestors to build a shining city upon a hill.

“Our Sundays at Blithedale were not ordinarily kept with such rigid observance as might have befitted the descendants of the Pilgrims, whose high enterprise, as we sometimes flattered ourselves, we had taken up, and were carrying it onward and aloft, to a point which they never dreamed of attaining.”
(The Blithedale Romance, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., New York, 1926, page 120)

If post-Christian New Englanders had the Puritan guilt without Gospel forgivness, it seems that they also had the Puritan will towards dominion without the Word of God as a blueprint for this dominion.

This ambiguous, ill-informed and perhaps even neurotic relationship that 19th-century New Englanders had with their own ancestors is quite significant, as it appears to be the earliest precursor to the feelings of “white guilt” that so cripple our people today. This uneasy relationship that 19th century New Englanders had with their ancestors could not have been caused by the simple fact that they did not share the same religious beliefs. Early European converts to Christianity certainly condemned the paganism of their ancestors, and the early Protestant reformers certainly condemned the Roman Catholicism of previous generations, but in neither case were these groups haunted by the past in the same way that post-Christian New Englanders were.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *