Main Topics in American Literature
Edwards’s and Hawthorne’s Divergent Handlings of the Inescapability of Sin Jonathan Edwards’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s respective pieces, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and “Young Goodman Brown,” present perspectives and arguments about human morality. The two writings value the recognition of sin within oneself.
For Edwards, the inescapability of sin is reason for humans to despise themselves and live in fear. In Young Goodman Brown, there is the conception that awareness of sin presents the opportunity for people to live happily and hopefully as a community. Although the two perspectives share a similar starting point, they end up presenting two entirely different handlings of the reality of sin. Through Edwards’s reasoning and imagery and Hawthorne’s exposition of his protagonist, the writings show two linked but contrasting understandings of human morality. Edwards states early on in his sermon that men “can’t foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next” and when they do fall, it will be “without warning” (Edwards 1741, 1). The only reason any given individual has not yet descended to hell is that “God’s appointed time [has] not come” (Edwards 1741, 1).
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This overarching understanding is advanced and illustrated throughout Edwards’s sermon to discuss and reason the following conceptions: men are disgusting and ridden with sin; God’s omnipotence and predetermined will ensure that no one can stop a descent to hell, let alone escape one’s sin; men should stop being prudent and instead fear God’s inevitable wrath; if one acknowledges his condition and fears God, then he may hope that he is one of the few picked by God’s grace. These points coalesce to illustrate Edwards’s understanding of how the inescapability of sin should affect men—it should provide reason for self-loathing and the living in fear of the wrath of hell. In order to explain the condition of the sinner, Edwards compels his listeners on several accounts to view themselves as vermin. He states that in the face of God’s wrath, sinners have as much power to save themselves as “a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock” (Edwards 1741, 7). Here, the sinner is not only presented as powerless but also compared to a spider—a disgusting, loathsome insect. In another analogy, Edwards claims that humans “are but feeble despicable worms of the dust” (Edwards 1741, 9). Descriptions similar to these are used repetitively and abundantly in the sermon. It is therefore essential to Edwards’s perspective that humans self-loathe due to their repulsive sin. This self-hatred should also parallel a constant fear of God.
Two essential statements of Edwards’s piece is that sinners who have not been picked by God’s grace “deserve to be cast into hell” and “are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell” (Edwards 1741, 3). From these ideas, Edwards further reasons that anyone who understands their sinned condition should fear God. Directly addressing this matter, Edwards says, “O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ‘tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell” (Edwards 1741, 9). Quoting Luke 12:4-5, Edwards states, “Fear him which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, fear him” (Edwards 1741, 9). These evocative excerpts make it clear that inciting and justifying fear was a primary goal of Edwards. Both self-loathing and fear are two effects of Edwards’s handling of the inescapability of sin. The ideas presented in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” similarly accept the inescapability of sin, however, its effects are written to be importantly different. “Young Goodman Brown” tells a story of a man leaving his wife and community, voyaging into a symbolically dark forest, and returning a changed man. In the beginning, Brown tells his wife, Faith, that he has plans to meet someone.
Faith gives Brown the option of staying instead: “[Faith] asks him to stay with her, saying that she feels scared when she is by herself and free to think troubling thoughts” (Hawthorne 1835, 1). But he doesn’t listen to her, and leaves. The man he meets at the forest is explicitly representative of the devil, and together they venture to experience acts and visions that Brown views as a paragon of sin. He sees his entire community and possibly even his wife engaging with the sin. Throughout his walk in the forest, Brown repeatedly accepts and denies sin. He states believing that his family and he are good men, “we are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness” (Hawthorne 1835, 2). Another time, he preaches, “with heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (Hawthorne 1835, 5). Eventually, he does verbally and symbolically accept the darkness: “Come, devil; for to thee is this world given. And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his [the Devil’s] staff and set forth again [into the forest]” (Hawthorne 1835, 6).
When he wakes up, unsure if the entire experience was the dream, he reenters his community with an entirely new disposition. Young Goodman Brown comes back “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” (Hawthorne 1835, 9). After seeing his entire community engage with the devil, even knowing that the entire experience could have been a simple dream, he separates himself from them: seeing his minister, he “shrank from the venerable saint, as if to avoid an anathema;” viewing Goody Cloyse catechising a girl, “Goodman Brown snatched away the child;” waking at midnight he [shrinks] from the bosom of Faith;” sitting in church, he dreads “lest the roof should thunder down upon the grey blasphemer and his hearers” (Hawthorne 1835, 8-9). The latter quote shows that Brown is so disgusted by the sin of his community that he expects God to smite the entire congregation. He sees himself as pure and sinless, however, it is clear that the sin he denies is a part of him, as he actively engaged with it in the forest. Furthermore, there is not one point in the entire story that his community rejects Goodman Brown. They seem to accept him even after he returns from the forest: his minister “[bestows] a blessing . . . on Goodman Brown,” Faith continues to offer her “bosom”, and there appears to always be a place in the congregation for him (Hawthorne 1835, 8-9).
The story concludes that Goodman Browns “dying hour was gloom,” clearly because of his separating himself from his community—something that would have never been the case if he acknowledged the sin within himself (Hawthorne 1835, 9). Young Goodman Brown does not accept that he cannot escape from the sin within him. Edwards would most likely call him a prudent man, who is misleading himself to believe that he has any agency over God’s grace. Furthermore, Edwards’s conception is that when one does become aware of the inescapability of sin, then they should also acknowledge their worthlessness and fear God’s inevitable wrath. Only after that could one “escape to the mountain” and hope for one’s salvation (Edwards 1741, 15). In this perspective, Young Goodman Brown should have accepted sin, and proceed to live with fear. This approach, however, does not necessarily prevent a gloomy death. Although hope has an optimistic association, a constant reminding of the horrendous wrath of hell would probably discourage the individual from a positive outlook, as the experience of darkness did for Goodman Brown.
Hawthorne’s story presents a different path that leads from the awareness of the inescapability of sin. If Young Goodman Brown simply accepted the sin within himself, then he would have no reason to separate himself from his loving community. He could immerse himself in the congregation with his peers and create a new understanding of the prayers he seems to believe cannot be uttered by sinners. Moreso, Hawthorne seems to place Brown’s hopelessness not on the fact that he did not fear God’s wrath, but instead because of his depressive seclusion from his family and peers: And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom (Hawthorne 1835, 9). Even after years of separation, his wife, children, grandchildren, neighbors, and other peers came to his funeral. However, they did not carve a “hopeful verse” on his tombstone, because “his dying hour was gloom.” His dying hour was gloom because of his own outlook, and no other reason. For this, he was devoid of hope. Hawthorne’s story presents that if Goodman Brown accepted the sin, then he could’ve reentered his community—a source of happiness, comfort, and hope. Edwards’s and Hawthorne’s different perspectives on the handling of the instability of sin argue the same act of acknowledgment, however, diverge on its reasoning and outcomes.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” presents the argument that humans are despicable and already doomed to the wrath of God. It is because of this that one must accept the sin within, live in fear, and only then hope that they were picked by God’s grace. “Young Goodman Brown” also values the acknowledgment of sin but because it gives the opportunity for integration with one’s community—a connection that encourages hope. The perspectives pave paths for two conceptions of moral cultivation. Together they show how humans can reason two substantially different moral teachings from the same axiom.
- Edwards, Jonathan. 1741. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in _Full text of Sinners with glossary and reading help_. http://edwards.yale.edu/files/Sinners%20-%20Full%20Text.doc. Accessed March 2, 2019.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1835. “Young Goodman Brown.” In course handout, American Literature, Jeffrey Fisher, February 2019.