From Witchery to Sanctity

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168 pages, notes, index, cloth

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From Witchery to Sanctity

The Religious Vicissitudes of the Hawthornes

Bird, Otto and Bird, Katharine

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne, the renowned author of The Scarlet Letter, shunned organized religion, his stories were heavily weighted with sin and guilt. The fascinating history of generations of Hawthornes and their journey from Puritanism to Catholicism offers a penetrating glimpse into an extraordinary family. As one critic remarked, it is a story enveloped "with a veil woven of intermingled gloom and brightness."

The Birds bring this story of the powerful forces that shaped the Hawhornes to life. We see the vivid portrait of William Hawthorne, who arrived from England in 1630, and his son John, who became the most notorious Hawthorne in his efforts to battle the devil by stamping out witchcraft in the infamous Salem witchcraft trials. As a judge, overseeing public morality, John also had Quakers assaulted, arrested, and sent to trial. When one couple could not pay a fine, Hawthorne had their two children sold into slavery.

Such inhumanity became the subject of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction two centuries later. In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, he avers to his seventeenth-century ancestors as bitter persecutors.

But if Nathaniel could win no solace from religion, his daughter, Rose, found peace becoming a Catholic nun and founded a women’s religious order, The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, which to this day is dedicated to working with the sick and dying. Rose said that the strongest influence on his life was her father and the sympathy he consistently showed for those in poverty and disease.

The Birds have made an important contribution to understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne and the complex ideas that shaped him as one of the nineteenth-centuries greatest writers – and the conscience of his age.

Otto Bird is a distinguished philosopher and author, who started the Great Books program at Notre Dame, and worked closely for years with Mortimer J. Adler on the the Great Books Program and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and is the author of numerous books.