David D. Hall, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2019), 520 pp.
David Hall’s magnificent and profound history of the Puritans from their beginnings immediately after the radicalization of the reformation in the 1520s until the final break with the Anglican Church in the 1660s is nothing less than a masterpiece. It is especially rich in description and analyses of the neatly intertwined transatlantic histories of Puritanism in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and British North America, thereby evading any significant mention of American exceptionalism. Instead, Hall, Bartlett Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School and perhaps among the most distinguished experts on Early American Puritan History, focusses specifically on the English and Scottish roots of the historical development of Puritanism at large.
He stresses the important differences between the developments in England and Scotland. While under the Tudor rule and over the course of the reigns of the early Stuart monarchs the Church of England, who all acted quite incoherently on religious issues, over decades had to struggle to find a coherent answer to the religious and organizational quests posed by the reformation, the Scottish Kirk—after overcoming the struggles with Mary Stuart—at an early stage became a stronghold of Calvinist Presbyterianism. It was, thus, England, where Puritanism developed, at first as a radical movement trying to purify the Catholic relics from Anglican ecclesiastical organization, predominantly an elaborated clerical hierarchy with bishops, priests, and deacons, clerical regalia, and sacred images. The Puritans did not want to seek to separate themselves from the established church; they wanted to finalize the reformation impulses, to sanctify the church under the rule of the biblical word alone. Hall stresses the impact of the Marian exiles on the further development of Puritanism proper. These theologians, having escaped the attempts of Mary Tudor to reestablish Roman Catholicism in England, came into closer contact with radical Calvinism in continental Europe. Returning to the British Isles after the death of the Catholic queen they reformulated their own theology according to Calvinist principles of predestination and God’s absolute sovereignty. Henceforth, they did not only fight Roman Catholicism and the more or less superficial relics of what they perceived as Popish superstition in the Anglican Church, but they became—from the 1560s onward—ardent enemies of anything coming close to Protestant heresy, such as Arminianism, their catchword in the struggle with the Laudian moderates, their archfoes within the English church.
In England, the problem of the rising Puritan tide, especially among the lower clergy and the urban middle classes, was furthered by the dogmatic and ecclesiastical flip-flopping of the monarchs in general and the rigid attempts of Queen Elisabeth I. to gain absolute control of the religious life of her loyal subjects in particular. The Puritans, however, tried to evade violence as long as possible. In Scotland, nonetheless, the struggle led by the apocalyptic Millenarian John Knox at a very early stage turned violent. Here might lie one of the very few weaknesses of Hall’s impressive study, as he seems to belittle the essentially partisan struggles between the different powerful clans that were based on power politics and religious interests. Hall does, for instance, not include the role of the powerful Highland clans favoring Roman Catholicism, to explain this outbreak of civil strife and religious violence in Scotland under the reign of Mary Stuart. Yet, the English model of a firm royal approach toward religious unity within the via media did fail as well. Especially, when Jesuit Fathers, invited by Charles I.—who had married French royal princess Marie Henriette—arrived in England and immediately started to make converts among the rank and file of the English court, the Puritans began to panic. What the monarch and his Archbishop Laud meant to be an experiment in Early Modern ecumenism, the Puritans, according to their modes of perception, interpreted as a plain victory of Satan and the Antichrist in Rome. Under these circumstances, some of them decided to leave England, while other radicals left Scotland, after an estrangement from the Presbyterian hierarchy, many of them traveling through Ireland to the shores of North America. Without this background, the radicalism, the millenarianism, the theocratic societal and political organization of the New England colonies, where, at least in the early decades, only the saints, the true believers, had a political mandate, are in no way comprehensible. Furthermore, Hall concludes that it was explicitly not religious diversity that preserved the New England colonies from the civil war that shattered first Scotland and afterwards England, but rather a strict and intolerant separation of faiths, including violent acts of religious prosecution against Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, and even Anglicans. Also, Hall points at some rather contingent factors allowing the survival of the Holy Experiment of the radical Puritans in New England, very prominent among them the inability of Charles I. to control the Scottish rebellion of 1639 and 1640.
Hall’s book is rich in detail, nuanced in argument, and very well written. Its only significant weakness is its focus on the juxtaposition of religion and political action in combination with some aspects from cultural history, such as the history of everyday manners. Hall briefly deals with the Puritan understanding of sexuality, without falling into the shortcomings of an outdated anti-Puritanism of the 1950s. Yet, he neglects the social history of Britain and British North America, and he totally refrains himself from any standpoint regarding the history of gender roles among the Puritans. However, any future understanding of the complex religious-political circumstances under which early Puritanism evolved while struggling to stay inside Anglicanism as the true heir of the protestant reformation will have to start with Hall’s subtle account.
Michael Hochgeschwender (LMU München)