Catholics, or Papists as they were derogatorily known, had arrived on American shores before the Puritans had ever formed, and had had some small success in converting Native Americans to their religion. This instilled horror in the hearts of the Puritan settlers, who had fled England to remove themselves from what they saw as the idolatrous heathenry of Catholic influence. They were determined to prevent this pernicious disease from spreading into the as-yet-uncontaminated area of Massachusetts Bay, and in 1647 passed a law preventing any Catholic from entering the colony upon pain of death. Though this occurred five years on from the narrative present, it is unlikely that they would have received a much warmer welcome during Hester’s time.
Hawthorne goes on to specify that Hester’s resemblance to “the image of Divine Maternity” would have been discernible only to Catholic eyes. The position of the Virgin Mary was one of many points on which Catholics and the Protestant Puritans diverged. Though early Protestants felt that, as the mother of Christ, she should be revered, the groups that formed later — including the Puritans — felt that Catholics had elevated her to the status of a god herself, and that worship of her verged on heresy.