The Scarlet Letter

how was hester shown great mercy

Certainly, friend. It must make you glad, after your wanderings in the wilderness,” said the townsman, “to finally find yourself somewhere that wickedness is rooted out and punished, as it is here in our godly New England. That woman, sir, was the wife of a learned man. He was English by birth but had lived for a long time in Amsterdam. Some years ago, he decided to cross the ocean and join us in Massachusetts. He sent his wife ahead of him and stayed behind to tend to some business. Well, sir, in the two short years—maybe less—that the woman lived here in Boston, having heard nothing from this wise gentleman, Master Prynne . . . his young wife, you see, was left to mislead herself.”

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Basically the passage is alluding to the fact that Hester cheated on her husband (Chillingworth). This is a mortal sin, especially for a woman. He is saying that Hester was shown great mercy by only having to be stigmatized and made to wear the scarlet letter of adultery. She could have been thrown out of the village or even executed.