How did the Puritans view sin, guilt, crime, and adultery?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the core ideas of Puritanism was the belief in Original Sin, that all humans are born condemned to spend eternity in hell. The exceptions were the few elect--those souls that God had chosen at birth to save from hell. This is predestination, the idea that people's fates are decided before birth; there is nothing people can do to change their fate. 

The Puritans constructed their society to be a "city upon a hill," or a model of Christian behavior, so they believed they had to punish infractions, whether religious or otherwise, quite harshly. The Puritans believed that any act against God was a heinous crime, and they punished crimes quite severely and publicly. Not attending church on Sunday, for example, could be punished by whipping. Other transgressors were placed in the stocks, where they were subject to public ridicule. The pillory, a post about 15 feet high, was used as punishment for crimes such as arson, beating one's wife, and forgery or cheating. The idea was to shame people into behaving by exposing their sins in public.

Sexual crimes were punished with particular severity; for example, sodomy was often punished by execution. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne must wear an "A" on her clothing as a badge of shame for having committed adultery. She is also largely shunned from the rest of society. In reality, some Puritans who committed adultery, seen as a grave sin and a violation of the Ten Commandments, were whipped. Some women who committed adultery were executed, as adultery was declared a capital crime in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Men who committed adultery were often whipped but were not treated as harshly as women who committed this crime. This society, in which people stressed moral perfection, resulted in feelings of guilt as many people worried if they were worthy of God's grace. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Puritans believed that their church had entered into a covenant with God.  In this covenant, they pledged to act correctly in return for God's special favor (on Earth).

Because of this, they saw sin, crime, and adultery as violations of their covenant with God (and the covenants they made with each other to act in accordance with God's will).  These things had to be punished by the leaders of the church community so that God would not punish the society as a whole.

The Puritans did not, however, see sin as something that would cause people to be damned.  People were damned or saved based on predestination and nothing they could do would change their fate.