Who’s the Purest of them All?

The religious politics that reshaped 17th-century England and Scotland and propelled many towards transatlantic migration.

John Eliot (ca. 1604–1690) Preaching to the Indians, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

David D. Hall has devoted his career to restoring the reputation of the religious sensibilities of the first English migrants to New England. His first book, The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (1972) recounted the lives of the ministers who joined the 1630s migration, explicitly defending them against charges that they imposed a disagreeable faith on the populace. His best-known work, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement (1989), posited that the religion of New England had popular appeal beyond ministerial strictures. Hall’s puritan New England was a land of deep faith and shared commitment to a religious vision of an improved society. The controversies that rocked the settlements in the first decade – such as that which resulted in the excommunication and banishment of the brilliant elite woman Anne Hutchinson – indicate the passion elicited by questions over the proper way to worship. Hall seeks to rehabilitate the puritans from dismissal by scholars but also, more profoundly, from popular suspicion of their religion. He fights all forms of ‘anti-puritanism’.

With The Puritans: A Transatlantic History, Hall broadens his view to encompass reform-minded English and Scottish faithful. He explores the religious politics that reshaped 17th-century England and Scotland and propelled many towards transatlantic migration.

These communities shared the basic precepts underlying both Protestantism more generally (free grace and the primacy of the scriptures) and reformed Protestantism more particularly. Hall lists common ‘arguments or assumptions’ central to the latter: a critique of idolatry, the view that divine revelation was fixed, admiration for the visible (or earthly) church, commitment to discipline and activism, and a belief in divine providence and apocalypticism. Hall also lays out the four dilemmas facing the puritan movement: how to reconcile obedience to divine law and an earthly prince; how to determine what constituted idolatry and whether it went beyond the visible aspects of worship; how to ensure obedience to the sometimes ambiguous word of scriptures; and how to reconcile the tension between an encompassing church and one that was as pure as man could make it. The men who occupy centre stage in Hall’s book grappled with these dilemmas in the very different environments of Lowland Scotland, England and New England.

Hall is not writing an Atlantic history; he acknowledges in one sentence that people with the sensibility that interests him also migrated to other English settlements or lived in Ireland, but he gives them no attention. Instead he focuses on locations where people in authority grappled with questions of belief and practice. He details fights (both verbal and physical) over how the structures of power will promote a godly society (or refuse to). The Scottish kirk’s battles with James VI and I and later with his son Charles qualify, as do the Elizabethan-era tussles over the nature of the Church of England and the later fights during the Civil Wars and Interregnum over what would replace that church.

This book engages deeply with religious politics and theology, serving as a fitting companion to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s more broadly conceived The Reformation: A History (2003). More accessibly written than Stephen Foster’s magisterial tome, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700 (1991), Hall’s account includes Scotland’s engagement with Reformed theology alongside what is more usually intended by the term ‘puritan’: English and New English advocates for a godly society and a reformed church.

Hall explains that the various groups and individuals he encompasses within the term ‘puritan’ adhered to various named church orders – Presbyterian, Congregational/Independent – or none, and that what they shared instead were common views and goals. They represented local variants of Reformed Christianity, each facing its own trials within different contexts. The Scottish kirk, best able to impose its views, faced challenges from above: first the resident Stuart ruler and later largely absentee kings who nonetheless could wreak havoc on their church order. The English puritan movement (which in his more capacious definition includes both those who separated from the Church of England and those who strove to alter it from within) struggled to persuade the powerful to adopt its understanding of the correct way. It gained from the triumph of Parliament during the Civil Wars, only to lose the chance to impose a settlement through its own internal divisions and the vagaries of Interregnum politics. Those who left England for the shores of Massachusetts Bay had more success, able to dispatch any who opposed the emerging way through banishment and other forms of harassment. The persistence of the term in American writing about New England is arguably part of the problem, lending itself to a caricature of a stern and unyielding Reformed religion. No such person as a self-identified puritan existed, a point Hall is in fact at pains to make.

Indeed, ‘puritan’ was a term of derision, an expression of the ‘anti-puritanism’ that Hall especially abhors. In a fascinating but brief exposition, he considers the subsequent mistreatment of puritans, suggesting their poor reputation reflected later cultural politics. Even his own graduate mentor comes in for some minor criticism, as he ends with a mild critique of Perry Miller for falling into the trap of viewing puritans as harbingers of middle-class conformity. Hall has set himself a daunting task, of both explaining and rehabilitating puritans. Details of religious debate, however clearly explained, cannot bring modern readers to understand this sensibility.

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History
David D. Hall
Princeton 520pp £30

Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.