“The May-Pole of Merry Mount” and Christian Churches’ Discriminatory Habits - by Laura Dame
Updated: Mar 1
Student: Laura Dame
Instructor: Ellen Perry
Course: English 231-OM1
Date: 24 September 2019
Although the movement for LGBTQ equality and acceptance has made significant progress in recent years, certain groups of the opposition remain strong in their LGBTQ discrimination and exclusion stance. For LGBTQ Christians, who are being ostracized from church communities, this continued disparity is especially true. Amid this struggle for inclusion, finding hope and a place to feel understood is difficult. Literature, however, is one place that continues to offer solace to those mistreated and excluded. A lot of wonderful new LGBTQ literature has been created in recent years and many older pieces of literature also offer applicable stories to discriminated-against groups like the LGBTQ community. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” for example, offers striking parallels to the current relationship between the LGBTQ community and many Christian churches despite being written in the 19th century. Hawthorne’s story remains relevant because it details a story of discrimination against a particular group, and it urges readers to extend acceptance and love despite differences.
Undoubtedly, Nathaniel Hawthorne did not write “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” with the LGBTQ community in mind despite his many uses of words like “gay” and “rainbow,” which have now become strongly associated with the community. However, the similarities between the events of the story and current events with LGBTQ Christians are eerily similar and edging on premonitory. For example, in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” when the Puritans arrive at the May-Pole, Endicott begins loudly proclaiming that the creatures of Merry Mount are corrupt and “with his keen sword…[assaulted] the May-Pole” until “it groaned with a dismal sound” and “with all its green boughs, and ribbons, and flowers, symbolic of departed pleasures, down fell the banner-staff of Merry Mount” (366). This name-calling and violent destruction of property is akin to the way many LGBTQ members are treated by their Evangelical families and friends after coming out. Susan Cottrell shares several accounts of this personal rejection in her TedTalk titled “Why I Chose My Daughter Over the Evangelical Church.” She describes how one mother “threw her [daughter] down the stairs and threw dishes at her” when her daughter came out as non-heterosexual (6:05-6:11). Similarly, a young man came out to his parents and their reaction was to “put all of his belongings on the lawn and set them on fire” (9:32-9:36). Just as the Puritans in Hawthorne’s story hate the Merry Mount creatures, the Christians Cottrell refers to find people with sexual differences unacceptable and tend to react with physical violence. These parallels are what make “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” relevant to LGBTQ Christian readers today despite its fictional, 19th-century setting.
Beyond physical destruction, Hawthorne’s story is also applicable to LGBTQ Christian exclusion because of the emotional pain the citizens of Merry Mount endure.
As Endicott and the other Puritans are damning and taunting the group of merrymakers and destroying the May-Pole, Hawthorne offers a series of descriptions that depict the sadness and gloom that settle on Lord and Lady May and their joyous friends. As the Puritans, described as “black shadows,” arrive at the May-Pole, disrupting the festivities so “the ring of gay masquers was disordered and broken; the stag lowered his antlers in dismay; the wolf grew weaker than a lamb” (365). These contrasting images highlight both how the merrymakers were different from the Puritans and how the Puritans were invading and destroying the harmless cheer of the Merry Mount citizens. Similarly, Christian churches tend to view LGTBQ people as too different and shame them until they, like the Merry Mount revelers, feel discouraged and unacceptable as humans. Kevin C. Snow touches on this phenomenon in his research article “Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning or Queer Students at Evangelical Christian Colleges as Described in Personal Blogs” when he shares that a large number of LGBTQ students at Christian colleges reported “a sense of isolation on campus, perhaps connected to a personal mental illness response (n = 8), such as depression or suicidality” (67). Christians’ and Christian Institutions’ rejection of LGBTQ members has a deeply harmful emotional and mental effect just as the Puritans’ attack on the creatures of Merry Mount was saddening and fear-inducing. “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” is a much-needed reminder of the consequences that extreme actions can have, even when those actions are taken with good intentions in mind.
Just as the merrymakers were behaving in ways that the Puritans believed were wrong, the LGBTQ community is considered sinful to many Christians. Due to the negative effects of acting on these differences of opinion, however, examining the potential results of alternative actions is important. Perhaps the citizens of Merry Mount could have been left alone, to live mirthfully and happily as they wished; perhaps the LGBTQ community could be left alone, to live their lives as they wish and believe whatever religious beliefs they feel led to. In his article “A Queer Fidelity: Reinventing Christian Marriage,” Scott Haldeman touches on this argument for acceptance of different beliefs and desires when he writes “if you like this box, by all means set up house in it — but that is different than forcing me, and others, into it — and certainly different than changing the law of the land to allow only one small box to exist and to relegate all of the rest of us to the 'Island of Misfit Toys’” (142). Essentially, Haldeman suggests that if one believes something then they should feel free to believe that, but they should not try to force others to believe it as well. With this mentality, the joyful partiers of Merry Mount did not need dealing with by the Puritans, and the LGBTQ Community does not need rejection from the Christian community. Hawthorne’s story suggests that, rather than focusing on the beliefs of one another, people could focus on their actions. After all, the value and realness of kindness and integrity are not dependent upon one’s sexual identity or gender orientation.
In “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” the Puritans believe that their duty is to rid the country of this group of people they perceived as sinners.
Their tactic is to destroy joy and violently invade the happy settlement with threats of hell and whipping, and shouts like “Shoot him through the head!” rather than to act lovingly and invite the merrymakers into their world of faith (366). The Puritans want to remove sin, to crush it—not transform the sin or their perception of it. Many Christians are in a similar position to the Puritans in Hawthorne’s story. They reject what they perceive to be sinful LGBTQ people rather than truly examining their own beliefs or offering love and welcoming acceptance. This strict exclusion policy is interesting when one considers the ultimate rules for living that these religions profess: to treat others as one would want to be treated themselves and that love is above all things. The Puritans likely would not have wished stripes for themselves like they intended to give the citizens of Merry Mount (Hawthorne 366) and most Christians would not want to feel shamed out of their supportive faith communities as some of them are doing to LGBTQ Christians. Susan Cottrell closes her TEDTalk by urging, “You can choose to love them. ‘There is no fear in love, but real love dispels fear.’ And real love…accepts people as they are with room for who they may become” (15:31-15:46). The message she shares with these final lines is vital to Christians’ understanding of including the LGBTQ Community. If a religion that believes all of humanity is a fallen sinner, can accept millions of sinners into its arms then—regardless of whether homosexuality is a sin or not—no harm can come from loving and accepting the LGBTQ community in the same way that all the other sinners are loved. The mournful ending to “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” could have been drastically different had the Puritans opened their minds and hearts. Hawthorne’s story draws modern readers’ attention to the idea that LGBTQ Christians deserve a different reality as well.
The Puritans are victorious over the joyous creatures of the May-Pole, creating strife in their lives by whipping them, cropping their ears, and various others acts to make them conform to Puritan standards. Endicott cuts the Lord of May’s long hair and tramples the blossoms and other colorful ornaments of the party only to “[lift] the wreath of roses from the ruin of the May-Pole” in prideful victory (368). Many LGBTQ Christians feel tormented and downtrodden as the merrymakers did in Hawthorne’s story. Andrew Yip’s article “Gay Male Christians’ Perceptions of the Christian Community in Relation to their Sexuality” offers evidence of this feeling amongst LGBTQ Christians when he shares that “the lack of religious affirmation and acceptance generates great tension and adjustment difficulty among gay Christians” (42). The detrimental and, at times, deadly effect that the Christian exclusion of the LGBTQ Community has is avoidable. “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” is an example of how exclusion is not the result of love but of fear and the desire to standardize and force conformity. These motivations did not bode well for the citizens of Merry Mount, and they are not spreading support or love in the LGBTQ Community. Centuries after it was written, Hawthorne’s story serves as a call for Christians to reexamine their motivations and question what kind of impact they wish to have on the world.
Unlike the citizens of Merry Mount, LGBTQ Christians are not lacking allies.
The Lord and Lady of May and their friends were without defense and had no advocates. In his article, Yip offers an encouraging insight into the discussion of Christian exclusion of LGBTQ people that indicates a different outcome for non-heterosexual and non-binary Christians. He shares that “at the official level, the Church authority is criticized for being homophobic and resistant to change. But at the individual congregation level, it is perceived to be sympathetic in general” (45). This finding offers hope that many Christians are not violently opposed to LGBTQ people, but that the religious entities themselves are greatly fostering the exclusion. Although the relationship between LGBTQ Christians and binary, heterosexual Christians is certainly flawed, some churches and some Christians are accepting of the LGTBQ Community. This light in the darkness offers hope that LGBTQ Christians will not always suffer scorn the way the joyful creatures of Merry Mount did.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” is an example of literature that continues to find applicability as it ages. The treatment that the joyful creatures of Merry Mount receive at the hands of the Puritans is relevant to the LGBTQ Christian community in numerous ways. Many LGBTQ Christians can see their own experiences echoed in the cruelty that the Puritans inflict on the citizens of Merry Mount and feel understood and related to through identifying with the literature. Beyond this personal-level application, “The May Pole of Merry Mount” highlights the problems with exclusionary habits, forced conformity, and fear-filled motivations. Through this emphasis, the story asks non-accepting Christians to reevaluate what they believe and what message they most wish to spread—one of rejection or one of love. Though he had no idea at the time of writing, Hawthorne’s story is a place for excluded LGBTQ Christians to see their story told and a call for non-ally Christians to choose love over disdain.
Cottrell, Susan. “Why I Chose My LGBTQ Daughter Over the Evangelical Church.” TEDxMileHigh, 2018.
Haldeman, Scott. “A Queer Fidelity: Reinventing Christian Marriage.” Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality, vol. 13, no. 2, Jan. 2007, pp. 137-152. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1177/1355835806074430. Accessed 11 September 2019.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, Norton, 2017, pp. 360-368.
Snow, Kevin C. “Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning or Queer Students at Evangelical Christian Colleges as described in Personal Blogs.” Journal of College Counseling, vol. 21, no. 1, April 2018, pp. 58-72. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/jocc.12087. Accessed 11 September 2019.
Yip, Andrew K. T. “Gay Male Christians' Perceptions of the Christian Community in Relation to their Sexuality.” Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.lrc-proxy.abtech.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=5599103&site=ehost-live. Accessed 11 September 2019.