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Excerpts from pages 5-9 of Chapter One, "The Doctrinal Foundation of Colonial Life"

Excerpts from pages 5-9 of Chapter One, "The Doctrinal Foundation of Colonial Life" from Claudia Durst Johnson's 2002 book entitled Daily Life in Colonial New England (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

Professor Johnson's Daily Life in Colonial New England offers useful insight into the beliefs of the Puritans. This foundation proves essential in understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne's torn feelings about both his family heritage and his worldly career in letters. Grasping the Puritan mindset sheds light upon the hypocrisy of such fictional characters as Hawthorne's tortured pastor in the The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale of Boston, and his corrupt icon in The House of the Seven Gables, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon of Salem. Not only does Johnson clarify the Doctrine of Original Sin as the Calvinistic explanation of human evil, but, just as with her lecture "Work and Money in Hawthorne's Fiction," she elaborates upon Puritan thinking in terms of covenants or contracts, thus helping to account for both the sect's famous character strength of industry and its notorious tragic flaw of intolerance.

The following passages are taken from pages 5-9 of Chapter One, "The Doctrinal Foundation of Colonial Life":


. . . What was God's contract or covenant with Adam, the representative of humans? In the beginning of the world, God's part of the bargain was to allow humans to live protected in the Garden of Eden, a place untouched by change and adversity. Adam's part of the bargain was to praise God and obey him, specifically by avoiding the fruits of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. As long as Adam obeyed God, God was obligated to keep Adam in paradise.


. . . imagine the all-consuming wrath of power incarnate when Adam and Eve break their part of the bargain, thinking they can double-cross God. Adam and Eve's sin was worse than deception. In Calvinist theology, they committed the worst sin of all, pride, out of a desire to be like God, as Satan had falsely promised.


With humanity's breaking of the covenant of works, God's attitude toward humanity underwent a cataclysmic transformation, for God now became enraged beyond human imagination. His wrath was all-consuming, smoldering, furious, inescapable. Wrath became the Almighty's fundamental quality. He would no longer tolerate humans in his presence.

And as a result of divine wrath, the entire physical world, human nature, human destiny, and God's relationship with humankind changed utterly. In the first place, nature - the physical world - changed. Before, in the Garden of Eden, nature was a perfect mirror of the divine. Humans had only to look at nature to see the face of God reflected in it. But after the Fall, it was [sic as] if a massive fist had come down to smash the mirror to smithereens. Thereafter, nature gave back to human beings only a fragmented, distorted, and partial image of God.

Nature changed in other frightening ways. Instead of existing in harmony with humankind, nature was now cruel, discordant, destructive. Before, in Eden's "Peaceable Kingdom," the lion and lamb lay peacefully down with one another. After the fall, the lion sprang for the lamb's (and humans') throat. Disease and natural disasters plagued the human race. Nature, which had once been a human paradise and playground, now became hostile ground. As bad as was the change in nature, however, the worst change was yet to come. This was the alteration in human nature itself. Every faculty of the human being "fell," that is, was ineffably weakened and corrupted. In the first place, the human mind fell: people were never again able to understand, to grasp the full knowledge of, God or things divine. More than that, their will, their ability to make choices, was paralyzed. Worst of all, their hearts became defiled and corrupted. They became capable of, even desired, to commit every possible horrible sin. They wanted to commit every horrible sin. In the Puritans' view, this condition, known as natural depravity, was true of every person for all time, including even the tiny unborn infant and the most pious, charitable saint. According to Puritan doctrine, a person was evil not because he committed a sinful act, but because he had in his heart the capacity to commit a sinful act. Since the Fall, everyone without exception had in his heart the capacity to sin. Because of human disobedience and depravity, God prepared a dreadful destiny for them as punishment. Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise into a world of time and change and mortality. They and all other people who came after them would now suffer, grow old, and die. They would always be at war with nature and removed from and hated in the sight of God. After they died, they and all other men and women, whom they represented, would inevitably go to hell.

In the Puritan view, humans faced a guilty, shameful past; lived a hard life of toil, sickness, and danger; and faced a horrible future of eternal damnation. And because of their sins and worthless hearts, they deserved whatever befell them.

The Almighty, for his part, decided that because of human disobedience, he would never again enter into a covenant of works (which would place him under obligations and limitations) and he would never again enter into any kind of covenant at all with humankind.


In the Puritans' interpretation of Scripture, however, something happened that gave some human beings something of a respite in this bleaker than bleak existence in which they were constantly punished by a wrathful God. Jesus Christ, the son of God, appeared in human form. Since God would never again enter into a contract with humankind, Jesus himself, in his great compassion for the human race, made his own contract with God on behalf of all people. And since God would never again bind himself with a covenant of works that required of him contractual actions, the new covenant would be a covenant of grace, which placed no obligations on him. By virtue of this new covenant, God was free to do whatever he wanted to do - to give benefits as he wished, never to be contractually bound to provide benefits.


In all this process, human beings were largely helpless, being possessed of weak wills, weak understanding, and corrupt hearts. They were under the control of a wrathful God whom they had cheated and who had determined their fates before the beginning of time. In such a deterministic world, however, the covenant of grace provided an opportunity and obligation for human beings to improve their situations. This stage in the personal journey was called justification, an experience that justified a person, somewhat, in the eyes of God. The journey of justification was, in essence, a trip to hell in this life.

. . . In the Puritans' story of the trip to hell, every person, not just the hero, was under obligation to take a trip to hell in this life. Furthermore, it was an internal journey - a "dark night of the soul," as St John of the Cross had written. One version of hell, the Puritans believed, existed in the interior of the human heart, and it was to this nightmarish land that one had to go to be justified. The Puritan version was formulaic. There was a set way to undertake the journey, and there were particular things one needed to learn on the journey. The results of the journey for different individuals were also the same.

Justification was asked of every Puritan, elect and nonelect alike. Both profited by such a journey. For the elect, justification was necessary to secure their election or salvation. But the nonelect could also benefit from such a journey. Although it would not change the fact of their eternal damnation, it made life easier for them in the here and now. God's eternal wrath was somewhat softened toward elect and nonelect who went through a valid justification, and, as a result, the lives of both the elect and the nonelect were less horrible in this temporal world than they would have been otherwise. There might, as a result, be fewer deaths in the family, less illness and pain, fewer community catastrophes, and, above all, less spiritual pain. Obviously it was in the best interest of everyone to try to undergo the experience.

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