The people of the present day United States are very fortunate to be able to practice any religion they choose. It is a right given to every citizen and is protected under the Constitution. However, it has not always been that way. During the mid-to- late 1600?s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you could be imprisoned or even hanged for your religious beliefs. Through the short story ?Young Goodman Brown? Nathaniel Hawthorne attempts to exemplify this religious intolerance, violence, and corruptibility displayed by even the most devout Puritans during this time period.
When the Puritans arrived in what is now known as New England, they wanted to create a deeply religious community solely focused on Puritan beliefs. They instituted laws every Puritan had to follow or risk being banished from the settlement. They even acted out violently towards followers of other religions, mainly the Quakers. Hawthorne refers to these events when Young Goodman Brown is walking through the woods with the old man traveler who he also believes is the devil. The old man tells Goodman Brown, ?I helped your Grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem.? (326)
Hawthorne also touches on the Puritans? treatment of the Indians when the old man says to Brown, ??and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village.?(326) After Brown is informed of his Father and Grandfather?s relationship with the old man, he is puzzled, but he also says ?I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England.?(326) The fact that a person could be driven from their home simply because of a suspected association demonstrates the extreme intolerance of the Puritan settlers. The Puritans who were supposed to be a ?people of prayer, and good works to boot?(326) did some very inhumane things during the 17th century, and Hawthorne uses these references in his story to show how dark and violent the founding of New England really was.
Through the story Hawthorne also uses characters to expose the corruptibility of Puritan society. The majority of the people Goodman Brown encounters during his night in the woods are portrayed as very respectable members of the Puritan community, a representation that belies their true character. For example, Brown encounters Goody Cloyse, the woman who Brown says ?taught him his catechism in youth.?(326) He is shocked to learn that she is a witch. He also witnesses Deacon Gookin, a very important man in the church of Salem, riding with a minister, and it is revealed that they both worship the devil. Once Goodman Brown realizes these people are not really who they claim to be he loses his faith. This suggests that Brown?s faith has been based on the faith of other people that he sees as being more faithful than he, and once they are exposed he is unsure of what to believe. Hawthorne refers again to the corruptibility of Puritan leaders when the old man says, ??a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interests.? (327)Throughout ?Young Goodman Brown? Hawthorne shows the reader that people can easily be influenced and led to do evil things even in the most religious societies.
The United States has come a long way from the religious persecutions that occurred early in the countries? history. The freedom to practice any religion is now a cornerstone of American society. Unfortunately the events that took place in the northeastern Puritan colonies during the 17th century would affect people for generations to come. Throughout the short story ?Young Goodman Brown? Nathaniel Hawthorne refers to the intolerance, corruptibility, and violent acts displayed by Puritans
from all walks of life.