Morality and Religion

Morality and Religion

presented by
Emily Pahk, Elizabeth Pickens, and Stephen Favetti

Transcendentalism was a 19th-century American intellectual movement that was used as a means to protest the general state of culture and society. Organized religion and political parties were seen as the culprits in corrupting the purity of the individual and, Henry David Thoreau was only one memorable revolutionary Transcendentalist that strove to diminish the strong hold society had on people’s moral and religious judgments. In Leigh Kathryn Jenco’s article, “Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy,” Jenco presents her audience with an in-depth analysis of how Thoreau was an early radicalist whose,

“criticisms of representative democracy are articulated in more formal terms of political and moral obligation, it becomes clear that the theory and practice of democracy fundamentally conflict with Thoreau’s conviction in moral autonomy and conscientious action. His critical examination of the way in which a democratic state threatens the commitments that facilitate and give meaning to the practice of morality intends to reorient the focus of politics, away from institutions and toward the people such institutions were ostensibly in place to serve. His critique stands as a warning that becoming complacent about democracy will inhibit the search for better (perhaps more liberal) ways to organize political life.” (Jenco 355)

Another transcendentalist author whose works focused on morality and religion was Nathaniel Hawthorne. His novel, The Scarlet Letter, is set in a Puritan village in the New England colonies. His novel explores the ironies and personal effects of sin and guilt within the principles of Puritanism. The Britannica encyclopedia defines Puritanism by, “the intensity of the religious experience that it fostered. Puritans believe that it was necessary to be in a covenant with God to redeem one from one’s sinful condition.” Puritans also believed in the Calvinistic notion of predestination, where even before an individual is born, God has chosen whether or not they will be saved and brought into heaven. Puritans believed that only through establishing a covenant with God, and this soon developed a sense of “elect spirits chosen by God to live godly lives both as individuals and as a community.”

In Hawthorne’s novel, he exposes the internal struggles of sin and guilt with his characters Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. In Mills’ article, “Hawthorne and Puritanism,” he says three powerful things about Hawthorne’s work, and they are:

1.    “Sin was a reality and an absolute in Hawthorne’s thought. It stands at the very core of his thinking” (93).

2.    “[Hawthorne] emphasized the brotherhood of sinners and made few distinctions among sins. He was not even greatly concerned with the sin itself, but rather with its effect upon the sinner” (94).

3.    “Hawthorne doubted the efficacy of most social reform and turned inward to the heart and soul” (101).

Through his characterizations of Hester and Dimmesdale, we as readers see how Hawthorne explores this notion of personal sin, its effects on the individual’s soul, and the ironies within Puritanism.

Finally, Emily Dickinson, another transcendentalist writer, wrote about breaking from the bonds of community, and become the individual. This ideology is seen through her view of religion, as she denounces organized religion, and, instead, offers that the best way to interact with one’s God is to do so on your own terms. Professor Rieke and Morris from the University of Iowa go deeper into this matter as they state, “In Dickinson’s early response to the question of conversion, she rejects the accepted practices of nineteenth-century Congregationalism but takes on a relationship with the deity that is rich with complexities and contradictions which interrelate and penetrate one another.”

Dickinson in her life time was raised as Puritian, much like Hester in the Scarlett Letter, however, Dickinson decided to break her bonds with her religion. This is evident in many of her poems, where she denounces religious practices, and explains that her relationship is based on her will, rather than societal influence.

In conclusion, each of these authors used transcendentalism when validating their arguments on morality and religion, but each made their argument in different ways. Thoreau was very blunt in his teachings, while Dickinson and Hawthrone used more indirect ways of promoting their beliefs. However, in the end, their messages were all the same; one must limit societies influence on the individuals moral and religious decisions.

Further Readings:

–For more on the principles of Puritanism click on this link:

–For more on Hawthorne and Puritanism click on this link:

Hawthorne and Puritanism

–For more on Transcendentalism follow this link:

–For more on Emily Dickinson and specifically her religious influences click on this link

Works Cited:

1. Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy

Leigh Kathryn Jenco

The Review of Politics , Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer, 2003), pp. 355-381

Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

Article Stable URL:

2. “Hawthorne and Puritanism”

Barriss Mills

The New England Quarterly

Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1948), pp.78-102

Published by: The New england Quarterly, Inc.

Stable URL:


3. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <>.

Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy

Leigh Kathryn Jenco

The Review of Politics , Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer, 2003), pp. 355-381

Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

Article Stable URL:

4. “Rieke, S. A. (1993). “Grasped by god”: Emily Dickinsons relationship with the deity. The University of Iowa). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 253 p. Web

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