Set in the mid-seventeeth century (1642-49), The Scarlet Letter's characters live in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, originally established by John Winthrop, whose death is alluded to in the central part of the novel. In one of his sermons aboard the Arbella on the way to New England, Winthrop said,
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.
Thus, for the Puitan community in which Hester Prynne and the others dwell, there is a covenant between God and humanity. This spiritual covenant provides a model for worldly social organization as well, for Puritans believed that people should enter freely into agreements concerning their government.
With the social contract tied inextricably to the religious contract of the Puritans, the "elect" such as Governor Bellingham are given greater influence on government, and, therefore, political and social views are rather undemocratic with little room for compromise. So, when Hester's adulterous act becomes public knowledge, the moral foundation of this community becomes threatened, and she is dealt with severly and ostracized socially. It is also because of this stringent government, both religious and social, that those who sin in the Puritan community keep their transgressions secret. As an example of this secretiveness, Hester notices that many a young maiden blushes and turns from her when passing on the path to town.
Thus, Puritan beliefs demand that members of the community keep close watch upon the inner and outer occurrences of their lives. And, it is this very condition which so tortures the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who knows that he has been appointed the role of providing an exemplary character to the others in his Puritan community as their minister. Moreover, he is tortured with this knowledge as while he believes he can yet effectively do God's work, he is tortured with guilt over the covenant between God and his Puritanism.