Vast Early America

David D. Hall on Lessons From His Puritans Book

The most popular misconception about the Puritans is that they were a dour, crabbed, cranky, mean spirited people. They actually weren’t.

Historian David D. Hall is a an expert on the Puritans, and the author of The Puritans: A Transatlantic History. The book is published through Princeton University Press, an academic publisher that has also released high-quality scholarship such as that found in Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth.

How did David D. Hall decide upon a career teaching history and religion?

David D. Hall: Growing up in a family with strong ties to early New England (through my paternal grandmother), and a family, too, that preserved objects/souvenirs of the Civil War (1861-65) or as far back as the French and Indian wars, I took to historical fiction of all kinds and periods as a child. I won a medal in 7th grade for knowing so much American history, and in college learned a great deal—most of it new to me—about our past. Ditto in graduate school.

The more I read the more fascinating the politics of religion became.

A year in France on a scholarship sharpened my sense of how singular our culture/country is (was). I aspired to write about “culture, especially ideas and images.

I didn’t mean to locate myself in the 17th century! By chance, I wrote my dissertation (published in 1972) on the New England ministry in the 17th century.

Later, after my oldest son fell seriously ill and I had to reconsider my objectives—and after reading French and English historians describing “popular religion” / Popular culture” in the 16th and 17th centuries—I challenged myself to write a book of this kind about early New England. As it were, to write about “the people” and “superstitions” instead of high religious doctrine or elites.

The book was a big success. It won won two prizes and is still used, so I felt empowered to continue—and haven’t stopped since.

What is the backstory and purpose of The Puritans: A Transatlantic History?

David D. Hall: I had retired (2008) and although still doing some teaching, was looking for a project that I could handle in a brief period of time. I had written an encyclopedia essay on the Puritans in about 10 days, and said to myself a short book would take about a year or so.

Princeton University Press gave me a contract. I started in and decided to include Scotland (about which I knew NOTHING). And, of course, England. I also dug into the MOUNTAIN of unread scholarship on early modern Britain.

By this time my own practice as a Christian had become more focused. So, I decided—at a moment where this was not being done so much—to emphasize institutions (the church . . . creeds, etc.), ideas, and worship. I set aside “lived” or “popular religion” entirely.

A roundtable on David D. Hall’s Puritans book with the American Society of Church History, including participants Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Margo Todd, Mark Valeri, Paul C. H. Lim, and David D. Hall.

The more I read the more fascinating the politics of religion became—and I felt I could throw fresh light on the causes of the civil war in England 1642-47) often referred to as the ”Puritan revolution.”

New England took second or third place—England first, Scotland second. So, I was also realizing I could illuminate some of the singularities of New England.

Did you have any anxiety about thoroughly covering the topic on such an overarching scale?

David D. Hall: Confronting the sheer quantity and quality of scholarship about early modern England, I did wonder if I would ever read enough. And, I wasn’t used to relying on the work of other historians—I had always gone straight to “the sources,” i.e. documents of the period.

So, I had to reconcile myself to combining these two. And, having shifted to writing on the computer, I had to edit and re edit and re-edit my sentences to keep them taut and the narrative steadily moving along (writing narrative history was new to me).

I think I did a very good job.

What was the most painful part of your book you had to cut in order to meet your word count limit?

David D. Hall: I cut a large chunk of a chapter on theology and how people did or did not achieve assurance of salvation. I realized that I could put all this in a few paragraphs to make a point and should not drag things out.

I made lots of other cuts, too.

But I should also add that I fought hard to control the process of adding more bits.

My notes (which are very extensive) would have allowed me to write a great deal more.

Who were the Puritans?

David D. Hall: I give a straightforward and I think most accurate answer to this: In the context of the Protestant Reformation as it developed in the 16th century, the Puritans are the English version of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. They had the same understanding of doctrine, ministry, church, church-state, moral discipline, etc.

That’s the rock on my book is built upon.

Then come contradictions (or internal tensions). As a movement dedicated to eliminating all traces of Catholicism in a country (England) where some of these were preserved in worship, etc., the movement became adversarial to a series of monarchs.

And, as always happens, developed radical, moderate, and very moderate wings.

So, pinpointing who (a person) was or wasn’t can become a fruitless exercise.

We can identify, boundaries, yes—but they’re soft boundaries. It’s much easier in New England.

How did Charles I influence the rise of Puritanism?

David D. Hall: Charles I didn’t affect the “rise,” but because he supported a wing of the state church that wanted to drop all relations with the Reformed tradition, he sharpened—or intensified—an already existing religious politics. He made his regime vulnerable to the accusation of “popery” (meaning it was tyrannical, not really biblical, etc.).

And with Scotland, he made huge mistakes by trying to force his version on the Scots. So, the reaction that set in, both in Scotland and England, was directed at his understanding of both religion and the monarchy. And when he decided on civil war, wars have unexpected consequences.

The most popular misconception about the Puritans is that they were a dour, crabbed, cranky, mean spirited people. They actually weren’t.

Nathaniel Hawthorne dresses the crowd in A Scarlet Letter in black or dark browns. But look at portraits from this period, and the women and children are dressed in reds, yellows, etc. etc.

The second most popular misconception about the Puritans is that they were vindicative and cruel to others such as witches and Native Americans. But that’s not so by comparison with other European cultures. There was a very low incidence of witch hunting in New England. Only Scotland is unusual in that respect.

The third most popular misconception about the Puritans is that they had a harsh theology. Well, 19th century religious liberals thought “predestination” was horrible, but in context and as preached, it’s not.

Why did the Puritans dislike the “Puritan” nickname?

David D. Hall: First, the doing of Catholics; second, because it associated the movement with a 4th century Christian sect that lost out.

In what ways does (or doesn’t) Puritanism still exist today?

David D. Hall: In the sense of a coherent movement, Puritanism doesn’t exist. Why? We no longer accept (in US or Britain) a role for the civil state in matters of religion that the Puritans took for granted.

In general, we no longer endorse the Biblical-bound moral rules the Puritan movement endorsed (although without always enforcing them). Additionally, we no longer (in many Protestant circles) have a strong sense of being sinners alienated from God, and depending not on our own merits or freedom, but on divine forgiveness.

The premises of the Puritans lost their relevance when religion became entirely voluntary in the 18th century, and when our religious culture turned toward self-reliance as the rule—especially for men.

What lessons do the Puritans hold for contemporary religions losing members to the “Nones”?

David D. Hall: Well, the liberal wing of American Protestantism wants to be all things to all people, and to offer therapeutic remedies for our various anxieties, etc. That ignores what the Puritans knew, namely that quick fixes don’t work.

Also, the Puritans understood that for a culture to renew itself, it needs strong rituals—which we no longer have.

What do you wish people would ask you about the Puritans?

David D. Hall: Well, versions of your question about lessons the Puritans hold for us today.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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