The Puritans as a historical religious movement are remembered inaccurately both by their detractors and also by admirers. That is one of the key takeaways of David D. Hall's The Puritans: a Transatlantic History. As Peter Lake has demonstrated, historiography of this key Protestant reform movement of the 16th and 17th centuries often says more about who is writing the history than who the Puritans were in their own right. Nineteenth-century Anglican writers saw the Puritans as zealots who could not see the genius of the Elizabethan settlement, nor the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, nor the Church of England's middle way between Catholicism and continental, especially Calvinist, Protestantism. Cultural liberals in the 20th century in America, notably H.L. Mencken, mobilized the Puritans to represent the extreme of religious people who did not want other people to have fun. More recently, American evangelicals have seen themselves in the Puritans, depicting themselves embracing a gathered church and determined to restore a godly civil society. Hall's book makes clear there are foundations in the historical record for each of these partial construals, but provides so much more insight.
David Hall's purpose in writing a transatlantic history is to bring the various locales of Puritan activity together in a single comparative narrative. This is salutary insofar as most scholars specialize in one set of Puritans—English, New Englanders, or Scots—and the latter are sometimes treated as sui generis. Hall instead advances a successful argument that we see each more completely by seeing them as connected with one another in history, purpose, and time (though distinct in space and some important political features). Hall's narrative depicts the Puritans foremost as a particular form of Protestantism associated with the "Reformed international." Puritans learned from Calvin's Geneva the values of an inclusive church, deriving their authority exclusively from the Bible, centering their worship on biblical preaching and the celebration of the sacraments rightly ordered but not mediated by priests standing between the people and the mysteries of God. They also embraced the idea of a Christian prince ruling in civil society, supporting the church, but not ruling over it; this latter idea was also termed a “two kingdoms” view of church and state. These features guided the positive initiatives of the movement, led to its conflicts with various sovereigns’ other ideas of the church, and finally sowed the seeds for continuing and fascinating disagreements within the Puritan movement that have resonances in contemporary Christian life and societies. Readers will be convinced that these Anglo-Scottish reformers worked through just about every form of the church in a relatively short era, though they never landed long enough on one ecclesiology to survive as a dominant institution. Such was the limitation of using the Bible as the rule of faith when the Bible spoke multivocally.
The book provides Hall opportunities to synthesize some of his past books’ subject matter. From The Faithful Shepherd (Harvard University Press, 1972) he returns to the subject of "Practical Divinity" and the ways ministers led people through a knowledge of their state of salvation and the means of grace in a Calvinist system where only God knew who was elected to salvation, but people hoped for assurance. As in Worlds ofWonder, Days of Judgment (Harvard University Press, 1989) readers learn how Christians with a providential worldview sorted signs for what God was doing, who was favored and condemned, and how it all might end. Throughout, Hall, as a historian of “the book,” demonstrates how Puritans as a people of the Bible made possible by the printing press then used pamphlets and books to mount arguments, introduce new theologies, and shout down their opponents.
Finally, Hall expands the focus of his book, A Reforming People (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), on how the New England Puritans sought both to create a purified church and to have godly rule in civil affairs at a distance from the arbitrariness of sovereigns and aristocrats. What becomes clear here is how greater difficulties happen for all these Reformed believers when their hopes and the designs of sovereigns clashed, as they did when Elizabeth I became both sovereign and head of the church (and desired a compliant church), or as the theologically adept James VI went from a good relationship with the Scottish Kirk to being James I of the entirety of Britain and Ireland and decided the English church with its fixed liturgy, bishops, and clerical surplices was more to his liking. This struggle between the godly and kings finally eventuated in the crisis of Charles I ruling without Parliament, abetted by Archbishop Laud acting as Charles's partner in the church and privy Council. The English Civil War followed.
And yet, when the Puritans attained their greatest power in the 1640s fighting amongst themselves over what was good for the church—a moderate Protestantism with room for nonconformity, Presbyterianism, independency, Congregationalism, or the separatist tendencies of churches formed only of "true Christians"—divided the movement. Though the Restoration, followed by the Glorious Revolution (1688), put an end to much of the back-and-forth in Protestantism and Catholicism it also spelled an end to alternatives to the episocopal Church of England and the presbyterian Church of Scotland; Puritans became “Dissenters” once and for all. In New England, the Puritans became, in time, the Congregationalist Standing Order. In all places, toleration of religious difference grew, not because the Puritans won, but because religious conscience proved too volatile to continue to try to control. If the Puritans can be said to have succeeded in any way in the long run, they did so by promoting the rights of private conscience and religion.
David Hall claims to have started out to write a short comparative history because no one had brought the geographical streams together before. Though brevity alluded him, he accomplishes much more than his original aim. The notes alone run to hundreds of pages, constituting a state of the scholarship on Puritans in their own right. More fundamentally, the grace with which the narrative is wrought will be widely appreciated by both specialists and the Puritan-curious alike. Hall possesses a special talent for the parenthetical explanation that can time after time explain what a term, or conflict, or belief is all about with an economy of words. Above all his ability to convey the many objectives the Puritans tried to achieve and how the power of ideas rooted in Reformed Christian life regulated by a biblical norm led in so many exciting and unstable directions make this an agreeable and important volume.
James Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University.
Date Of Review:
June 24, 2021
David D. Hall is professor emeritus of American religious history at Harvard Divinity School. His books include Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England, and The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century.
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