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The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Compare the styles and impacts of Parson Hooper and Jonathan Edwards in The Minister's Black Veil.

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The "message" of Hawthorne's story "The Minister's Black Veil," in which Parson Hooper is the chief protagonist, is perhaps similar to that of Jonathan Edwards's famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." However, the method in which this theme is delivered, and the deeper implications of each author's treatment, could not be more different.

Edwards thunders at his congregation that they are in extreme danger because of their sinfulness: God will punish them, and this is a punishment they cannot evade unless they change their ways. It is basically a kind of theological determinism, and his whole style is a pre-Enlightenment form of Christian rhetoric. A century later, Hawthorne, though himself probably a religious believer, sees the issue of "sin" quite differently. For me, it has never been absolutely clear if Hawthorne's view is that all men are in fact sinners, or rather, that "sin" is a false concept men use hypocritically to accuse and condemn one another. Parson Hooper's purpose in wearing the black veil has been interpreted in various ways, but I would say the minister is attempting to show that he is at least as much a sinner himself as everyone else is, and that even as a paragon of the community, he needs to hide his face out of his own guilt. It's quite different from the accusatory, blood-and-thunder approach of Edwards, though in both cases, the subject is the guilt of man.

One needs to be wary of identifying Hawthorne's own view with that of his characters such as Hooper. The point of the story may be that Hooper himself is a victim of a misguided judgmental form of Christianity that Hawthorne himself and other writers of the nineteenth century had gone beyond. The likely overall message of Hawthorne's fiction, not just of "The Minister's Black Veil," is that it is wrong for any human being to pronounce judgement on others.

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Reverend Hooper is a fictional character created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1832 short story "The Minister's Black Veil." He is described as a pastor who "strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word." Hooper does not interact warmly with his congregation, though; in fact, "with the multitude, good Mr. Hooper was irreparably a bugbear."

Jonathan Edwards was, by contrast, a highly-respected theologian and superstar guest minister who made the rounds of New England meetinghouses during the Great Awakening. His most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was not mild. In it, Edwards warned,

"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."

Puritanism was a difficult religion in which to feel secure about one's salvation, and both the fictional Reverend Hooper and history's Jonathan Edwards meant to bring people to God using whatever influence they thought would be effective.

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