My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
I quickly realized that, besides being immensely entertaining, such works provided profound insights into the human condition. And, even more importantly, they provided me with words to help make sense of my world. As David M. Wright so eloquently states: “We see man at the height of his glory and the depth of his folly—with every heartrending thought, action, emotion, and belief in between. In other words, literature holds a mirror up to human nature, revealing its inner depths and complexities, its array of virtues and vices; and moreover, it holds a mirror up to a cultural age, illuminating its shape and ethos.”
During the past few weeks I have read once again Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter to find words to express some of the complex dynamics surrounding sin, deception, community expectations, revenge, and a fallen leader. What follows are some of Hawthorne’s choice words from his timeless tale that I find particularly poignant.
The pastor’s struggle with sin, and the burden he carried as a result, was one reason why his preaching connected with his audience.
“But this very burden it was, that gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind; so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive, but sometime terrible! The people knew not the power that moved them thus.”
Here is a description of what we today often call being “put on a pedestal.”
“They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouth-piece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. The virgins of the church grew pale around him, victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment that they imagined it to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice at the altar. The aged members of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale’s frame so feeble, while they themselves were so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he would go heavenward before them, and enjoined it upon their children, that their old bones should be buried close to their young pastor’s holy grave.”
The pastor had generally confessed to being a sinner, and for that he was praised. But he never confessed to the specific sin that was the issue.
“He had told his hearers that he was altogether vile, viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity; and that the only wonder was, that they did not see his wretched body shrivelled up before their eyes, by the burning wrath of the Almighty!...They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more….The minister well knew – subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was! – the light in which his vague confession would be viewed.”
The pastor longed to be honest, but he knew the ramifications and repeatedly backed down as a result.
“It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him!...He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he was….‘I, your pastor, whom you reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie.’ More than once, Mr. Dimmesdale had gone into the pulpit, with a purpose never to come down its step, until he should have spoken words like the above.”
Recognizing that the general confession of “being a sinner” was seen as an act of piety only led to further self-loathing, and self-harm. The quote refers to a scourge, but the rest of the paragraph refers to extreme fasting and all-night vigils. Elsewhere the novel speaks of how the pastor’s health was fading fast.
“He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the verist falsehood. And yet, by the constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self! His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock a key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders.”
Even after visible evidence and a confession, certain followers refused to believe the guilt of their favorite parson.
“Without disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale’s story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a man’s friends – especially a clergyman’s – will sometimes uphold his character; when proofs clear as the mid-day sunshine on the scarlett letter establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust.”
The struggling pastor befriended a person whose real intent was to expose and destroy him.
“Few secrets can escape an investigator, who has opportunity and license to undertake such a quest, and skill to follow it up. A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician.”
Central to the story is how one character was consumed with revenge and sought to destroy the pastor. But consider Hawthorne’s description of what happened once he had his revenge.
“All his strength and energy – all his vital and intellectual force – seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic revenge; and when, by its completest triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it, – when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly.”
One of Hawthorn’s “moral of the story” is the following pithy statement on the need for honesty – at least as much honesty as is possible in one’s circumstances – so that people know who you really are. It is a quote that should be on everyone’s desk.
“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait thereby the worst may be inferred!”
 Of course, the work provides insights into the plight of women and children when abandoned, the destructive nature of social exclusion, the graceless and destructive nature of certain types of Christian communities, the poison of revenge, and so on. But my focus in this blog is on the fallen leader.
 The prose and insights are lost in the movie, so read the book.
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