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The Puritans: A transatlantic history, by David D. Hall

19 June 2020

Alec Ryrie reads a tale of unresolved tensions both sides of the Pond

FOR the past 30 years, David Hall has been Harvard’s most distinguished scholar of the New England Puritans, steadily and gently correcting America’s stubborn myths about them: they were neither freedom-loving democrats nor totalitarian witch-hunters, but Reformed Protestants whose distinctive convictions and concerns do not fit neatly into modern categories. Now retired, he has turned his attention to where those convictions and concerns came from.

The Puritans is indeed, as its title declares, a “transatlantic history”: that is, mostly, a history of British Puritanism written from an American perspective, a perspective that brings both benefits and costs.

The principal benefit is that it is indeed a history of British Puritanism: England and Scotland receive almost equal billing. From his standpoint across the ocean, Hall can see how different those two stories are, but also how intertwined they became, and how both became part of New England’s inheritance.

English Puritanism was a movement animated by frustration at Elizabeth I’s unfinished Reformation and then mobilised by Charles I’s attempts to undo even that. It eventually splintered into separatism and Nonconformity, and many Puritans abandoned even the hope for a unified national Church. In contrast, Scottish “Puritans” (it was not a word that they used about themselves) always felt that a truly Reformed, comprehensive Church of Scotland was almost within their grasp. The Covenanters fought and died not for their own religious freedom, but for the right to impose their religious vision on the nation.

Two different visions, then; but, as Hall observes, what really sets both the English and Scottish Reformations apart from their Continental counterparts is that neither one ever achieved “closure or completion”. America inherited competing hopes, but a shared mood of restless dissatisfaction with the status quo.

This is the story that he tells in roughly chronological chapters from Elizabeth’s accession to Charles II’s Restoration, with his attention always on the theological vision of these Calvinist Protestants, and especially on their “practical divinity”, their impressively coherent programme for how their faith should be practised in the life of the believer.

He argues persuasively that a central theme of Puritanism is its moralism, whose impact on our own world is still being felt. This was a movement always roiled by moral anxiety, and the legacy of that moralism is not (or not only) hypocrisy, authoritarianism, and Prohibition. Puritan moralism taught the modern world such truisms as that corruption and slavery are wrong, and that reform is a good thing. He worries, surely rightly, that as our shared moral consensus frays, those truths are starting to be contested.

Everett Collection Inc./AlamyEmbarkation of the Pilgrims (1843) by Robert W. Weir, in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. The figures portrayed on the Speedwell on 22 July 1620 include William Brewster, John Carver, the pastor Mr Robinson, Myles and Rose Standish, and Mr and Mrs Edward Winslow

From this side of the water, matters do look a little different. I am less convinced than Hall that the Puritans were a clearly distinct party. He accepts their self-image as an embattled remnant and their contemptuous view of the mass of the English Church, without recognising how much they had leavened the lump. The early-17th-century Church of England had already substantially absorbed Puritan “practical divinity”, a fact that the movement’s glass-half-empty perfectionists were never able to see.

Likewise, his story excludes the radicals: the anti-predestinarians, antinomians, mystics, and sectarians who split off from Calvinist orthodoxy. But Calvinism consistently and steadily produced dissenters of this kind: it is in its nature always to be dissolving into radicalism. In a movement defined by its restless dissatisfaction, this is a feature, not a bug.

Historians of Puritanism love to argue about such things: as this book will teach you, the Puritans were at least as good as medieval scholastics at dancing on pinheads. What is beyond question is that this book is thoughtful, thorough, accessible, and immensely learned — even if it also shows signs of being written from memory, and needs the attention of a good copy-editor. If you were looking for an authoritative, sympathetic, and absorbing theological history to while away this strange year, you have found it.


Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.


The Puritans: A transatlantic history
David D. Hall
Princeton University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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