John Winthrop’s text,
A Modell of Christian Charity
, defines the structure of an ideal community. Written aboard the
in anticipation of landing in New England, Winthrop addresses the common elements of all societies in the light of the Puritan perspective. This piece serves as an excellent backdrop for the period because Winthrop itemizes, in effect, the elements of his utopian community, and he states the rationale for his position. In his very first paragraph, which is one sentence in total, he establishes the necessity of a caste system which, he explains, is ordained by God. Students will benefit from analyzing this text and identifying its arguments and will be able to refer to the text as they are introduced to new perspectives. The themes Winthrop includes in his rationale for division by class are diversity, orderly regulation, dependence versus independence, and one source of all authority. From a literary perspective, Winthrop’s text is an exploration in biblical analogies and similes. His rhetoric is persuasive because it implies consequences of varying behavior.
Winthrop sees the diversity in humanity as an intentional aim of God to create variety in man as it exists in nature as well as to create order in society “for the preservation and good of the whole” (Winthrop 1). He goes on to list a number of human flaws and of God’s corresponding graces, indicating that status indicates likely, particular weaknesses. He stresses that the importance of order is to maintain a bond, arguing that dependence is preferable to independence. Later in the work he discusses the human impulse to self interest by reasoning that interest in others is interest in oneself. He cleverly weaves his blanket of society through examples: “each discernes, by the worke of the Spirit, his oune Image and resemblance in another, and therefore cannot but louve him as he louves himself” (Winthrop 6). Individuals are linked inextricably through God. Dependence is necessary for self-fulfillment.
Winthrop’s society is one in which individuals are, admittedly, not socially, economically, or politically equal but have an equal spiritual opportunity. Each was equal in terms of being flawed in some way and needing God’s grace. It is in a dual mode in which individuals operated as spiritual beings in earthly conditions. “There are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy” (Winthrop 2). Mercy is the means by which justice should be administered-but by whom? Is it the “riche and mighty,” the “poore and inferior,” the “mean and in submission,” or the “high in eminent power and dignitie” (Winthrop 1)? John Winthrop would certainly be governing in Boston, and it would be his, and others’, interpretations of biblical law that would define justice. Clearly, Winthrop and his ilk believed that under God’s and nature’s laws not all individuals were created as equals. Moreover, Christians were to distinguish themselves from non-Christians and bind themselves together in God’s love. His vision is a sincere one, which he genuinely believes is in the best interests of all. Winthrop clearly understood that the individual must believe in his society. He must agree to being ruled. This may seem paradoxical when the Puritans’ belief in God as an absolute and controlling authority was so complete. However, in order to live such a disciplined and rigid life, the heart must give its consent. In order to appeal to the individual, Winthrop demonstrated the positive rewards of following God’s word, while Jonathan Edwards, as we will see, motivates through fear. So, what does Winthrop’s “cittie upon a hill” look like? How did it function? Why is the bonding of individuals so essential to his vision? What provisions did he make for the satisfaction of the individual? Was his idea (ideal) a good one? Was it realistic or not? Does it bother you? Why did it change? Students will explore the text and identify the characteristics associated with class distinction. They will also identify what values, principles, and/or conditions exist in current society, and in which society (current or Puritan) they, as individuals, would have preferred.
Like Winthrop, Edwards is sincere. Both men are genuine in their conviction that individuals should indeed act on their consciences and not simply out of fear of the law. But it is fear which Edwards uses to motivate a real change in the individual hearts of his congregation. He is not desirous of compliance for the mere sake of it; he wants individuals to invest, buy into the idea that God is a supreme being to whom all are subject. Perhaps the role of the individual is best and most concisely defined in Edwards’ famous sermon,
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
. Spiritually there is no distinction between men. Edwards asserts that the individual exists only as a despicable object of God’s loathing, regardless of worldly distinctions. The individual can do nothing for himself, save to hope for God’s mercy. Still Edwards makes a call to the congregation for its individuals to accept their salvation. They are powerless and can only wait on the undeserving mercy of God. His sermon begins with a generalized didactic approach. He teaches the concept of salvation. His focus then shifts as he addresses individuals. He imagines aloud just what each sinner might be thinking. He works on the conscience of the individual to cause the sinner to feel convicted. Additionally, he creates startling imagery for those who fail. This approach of Edwards is possibly the most profound because it is designed not to simply force a behavior but to change a belief, which is the seat of behavior. Edwards recognizes that fear alone is not a proper motivational tool and that people must believe that they are acting in their own best interest.
The Scarlet Letter
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart . . .”
- Jonathan Edwards
One of the major themes of this text is the irony in the social status and personal courage of the two main characters and their relationship with the law. As students will see in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s,
The Scarlet Letter
, no one character is above reproach or has greater justification for his or her behavior. Yet, it is Hester Prynne’s partner in sin who plays an admittedly reluctant role in her public shaming. The novel is a retrospective piece of fiction, and Hawthorne has the benefit of knowing the effects of Puritanism. Hawthorne’s approach is an arguably cynical one in which the coercive nature of Puritan law creates an alternate existence, which is kept hidden, mainly in the forest. Under the bright lights of Winthrop’s utopian model the dark, authentic nature of the human condition thrives. These human conditions are dark only because Puritan philosophy will not tolerate them. Hawthorne has chosen four characters from different levels in society to demonstrate how ineffective laws are in containing the human spirit while analyzing the effects of self and shared interests. Hester is the primary victim of her Puritan society. She is a woman, a second-class citizen, and a minority. Complicit in the crime of adultery is Reverend Dimmesdale, who is held in high esteem. Roger Chillingworth is a professional man whose medical expertise is sought after and respected. Finally, Pearl, Hester’s daughter and the fruit of her crime, is the innocent and the hope for the future.
The novel begins with the public and legally sanctioned shaming of Hester. Hawthorne immediately demonstrates through Hester’s demeanor that her heart is not in keeping with the law’s punishment. The law is interested in maintaining conformity, and its proponents parade Hester in the public square as a reminder to others who may be tempted to stray. Hester’s behavior has threatened the social bond of the community. The leaders are eager for her to reveal her lover because his existence among them perpetuates that threat. The only way for Hester to remove the “
from her dress is to compromise her personal convictions and be disloyal to her lover. Yet, Hester is a paradox of sorts. Although she has committed an act that in the minds of some should be punishable by death she demonstrates the noblest qualities. Hester maintains her personal dignity, becomes self-sufficient, raises her child in keeping with community standards, defends herself, and keeps her silence. Hester is defined by her crime, but her character is admirable. However, the structure of society and its lines of demarcation must be preserved, and despite Hester’s personal courage, or because of it, she is ostracized and nearly stripped of her custodial rights.
Reverend Dimmesdale is the state’s, and God’s, representative, yet his character is weak, cowardly, and hypocritical. Dimmesdale benefits from Hester’s suffering as a result of her loyalty to him. He is revered and admired in the community. His reputation and his outward life are exemplary, but he leads a contrasting life inwardly. Dimmesdale feels convicted by his crime and by Hester’s bearing the burden of it. The result of Dimmesdale’s maintaining a position which he believes he should not is a cognitive dissonance that rages within and slowly but ultimately kills him. Thus the lie no longer exists. Dimmesdale’s demise is hastened by the influence of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who secretly suspects Dimmesdale’s complicity in Hester’s crime. As Hester’s husband, Chillingworth concludes that it is in his best interest to discover and punish the man who slept with his wife. And it is to this end that he dedicates his life. As a result of Chillingworth’s pursuing this sole purpose, he falls into decline and begins to physically resemble the devil. Chillingworth is cold and calculating, as his name suggests. His character represents self-interest without compassion or restraint.
Pearl’s character in some ways acts as an id. She is fearless and instinctive. She rejects the scorn of the community and throws rocks at children who despise her. When the governor sees her he is compelled to speak to her, to find out whom she is. He describes Pearl as elfish and comments on her scarlet cheeks. His inexplicable delight at her presence is Hawthorne’s way of illustrating the undeniable human compulsion that exists in all humanity. He is moved, pleased, charmed one might say by her uninhibited manner. Perhaps this is why he decides that Pearl should be raised by someone other than Hester. He has seen and felt the influence of this natural, unaffected girl, and it is the unrestrained spirit that breeds freedom of thought and action. Pearl is the manifestation of simple truth, a rare, honest absolute in a world of distorted perspectives.
As the drama unfolds the characters act in their own self-interests It would benefit Hester to reveal that Dimmesdale is the father of her child. She might then be forgiven, relieved of her scarlet letter, and accepted back into the community. But the community holds no interest for Hester. What does she stand to gain by association? She does not share their values. She has not bought in to the Jonathan Edwards’ idea that she is a “loathsome creature.” Hester understands the natural conditions of honor and shame, but she does not subscribe to the authorities’ legal interpretation of God’s word. By the end of the novel, she suggests to Dimmesdale that they leave the community and make a better life across the seas. She has a different experience, and there is no room for difference in the law. Eventually, Hester’s reputation is mostly forgotten. Only a few spiteful people are willing to remind others just who and what Hester is. The majority, however, see the “A” as a changing symbol. They recognize Hester’s goodness and begin to define her, still by the “A”, but with a respectable meaning.