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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne's Circle

Faith & Religion: Introduction

Hawthorne's Faith and Religion: Introduction

Material prepared by:
John W. Stuart, Ph.D., Department of English 
Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester, MA
David Donavel, Department of English
Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA

 

Plate II, Adam and Eve, Derby Family Bible, Universal Bible, 1759 ed.
Plate II, Adam and Eve, Derby Family Bible, Universal Bible, 1759 ed. (courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site)
 

While Nathaniel Hawthorne was not a member of any formal religious organization, religious thinking and religious imagery play a major role in his fiction. He was especially interested in the capacity of humans for evil. This capacity is perhaps what Herman Melville meant when he spoke of Hawthorne's "blackness." Hawthorne's Salem was rich with religious thinkers and steeped in the Puritan tradition. Hawthorne knew John Milton's Paradise Lost well and is reported to have had heated discussions with his older sister about Milton's portrayal of Satan in that poem. 
 

 

 

 

 

A Framework of Faith

 
Charter Street Burying Point, established 1637; oldest cemetery in Salem
Charter Street Burying Point, established 1637; oldest cemetery in Salem(photography by Bruce Hibbard)
 

Born into a former bastion of Puritanism and descended from prominent leaders of that faith, Hawthorne structured so much of his fiction upon issues related to New England Calvinist theology that he and his environment appear inseparable. While not a regular churchgoer himself, Hawthorne wrestled passionately with the religious fundamentalism of seventeenth century Massachusetts as well as its more secular manifestations in the nineteenth century. Hawthorne's Salem was drenched in history and religion. He met Sophia Peabody, the woman who would become his wife, in a house directly adjacent to the Charter Street Burying ground, the final resting place of some of his ancestors, including the notorious John Hathorne, one of the judges at the witch trials of 1692. The very fireback used in the sitting room of what is now known as The House of the Seven Gables, once the home of Susan Ingersoll, one of Hawthorne's relatives, depicts a scene from the Genesis tale of the fall of Adam and Eve. It would have been impossible for any sensitive and intelligent person growing up in Salem in the first half of the nineteenth century to have escaped either a sense of the past or the influence of Salem's religious milieu.