Background on Puritan Theology
The Puritans, who came to Massachusetts Bay after the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, came to set up a theocracy, a "city on the hill" that would show the rest of Europe, especially England with its religion that they regarded as corrupted, just what a religious community could be. They were quite fervent, and the ministers were the community leaders. Their doctrines stressed original sin--that all people are sinners (for Adam sinned), but that God, in his infinite mercy, has chosen to save a few. Since He knows everything, he knows who will be saved (and in Heaven) and who will be damned to Hell; however, a person does not know for sure if he or she is saved. Therefore, the Puritans were constantly examining their lives, especially their thoughts and inclinations, to see if they indicated whether they might be saved. They knew that people who "seemed" to live good lives might in fact be sinners and damned (although they recognized that all were sinners.) This inward analysis didn't seem to do much for their lives, sometimes; they did not believe that you could be saved by how you lived, but that how you lived might indicate whether you were saved or not. A couple of generations later, people in Massachusetts had lost much of their attachment to the religion they had been born into, for they had never had to stand up for their faith against prosecution and life was pretty prosperous.
This is the time when Young Goodman Brown lived, for his family had been Puritans for several generations. However, his father and grandfather had also been connected with some Puritan activities which appeared to later Americans to be rather cruel, involved in killing and persecuting the native Indians and people of other religions, such as the Quakers. In addition, about the time of Young Goodman Brown, Salem was caught up in strong persecutions of people (primarily women) suspected to be witches. Eventually 19 were hanged as witches. The holy people of Salem found themselves doing what were some pretty unholy things, all in the name of religion and trying to eliminate different religious ideas. One of the judges at Salem, who condemned people as witches but later recanted, was the grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of the story, who grew up in an ancestral home in Salem. He seems to have felt guilt for the sins of his ancestors, which was the source of his greatest book, The Scarlet Letter. Yet he also recognized that morality was a serious issue for the Puritans, and he admired them for their heroic faith, a faith which was harder to maintain in the materialistic 19th century. His ambivalence does much to make his fiction complex, as he wrestles with the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.
Original Sin. Because Adam sinned, every human is born sinful. This concept of Original Sin has no exceptions; in Michael Wigglesworth's poem "The Day of Doom," even babies who died at birth were condemned to hell (if that fate had been predestined for them). Redemption requires the preliminary overwhelming consciousness of one's own sinful nature.
Unconditional Election. God "saves" those he wishes, the doctrine of predestination. Because God is all-knowing, He already knows the final destination of every soul. Although all "deserve" to go to hell because of original sin, God in his mercy has chosen to save a few. However, a person cannot be totally certain of his or her Election, and thus must constantly examine his or her life and motives to see if they show signs of God's grace.
Limited Atonement. Jesus died for the chosen Elect only, those predestined for heaven, not for everyone.
Irresistible Grace. God's grace, or merciful love, is freely given (to the Elect) but it cannot be earned or resisted. A person cannot "work" his or her way into heaven. However, if truly saved, he or she will want to live as a saint.
Perseverance of the "Saints." The Elect have full power to interpret the will of God, and to live uprightly.Ann Woodlief