The Puritans: A Transatlantic History, by David D. Hall
This book is really an essential book for someone to read if someone wants to understand the Puritans on their own terms and grasp the complexity of the experience of the Puritans in the English-speaking world during the 16th and 17th centuries and their relevance for today. To be sure, I do not know how many people have a deep interest in the question of the Puritans and their existence, but all the same this is a question that relates strongly to the religious history of England, Scotland, and the United States so at least a few religiously minded students of history will find this book to be of great interest, especially if they desire a fair-minded and detailed look at how it was that the relationship of the Puritans and the government shaped the different response of Puritans in those three countries. Those different responses are not without consequences, as the somewhat paranoid American response to government when it comes to religious freedoms, a paranoia I happen to share (and not without reason), relates strongly to the religious experience involved in those national cultures and their history. And those consequences have lasted a long time in the English-speaking world.
This book is a sizable one at a bit more than 350 pages and it is divided into nine chapters. The book begins with an introduction that sets the author’s intent and ends with an epilogue that discusses the different fate of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and the United States after the middle of the 17th century. First the author talks about how things shifted from being Protestant to being Reformed in the English-speaking world (1) as well as how a movement emerged for a deepening of the reformation (2). After that the author explores the reformation in Scotland (3) as well as the practical aspect of Puritan religious thought (4) and the desire that Puritans had to lead a reformation of manners that was sadly but generally unsuccessful (5). After that the author discusses the royal policies and local alternatives that shaped the Puritan experience (6) as well as the look for a new Zion in the colonies (7). Finally, the author discusses the period between 1640 and 1660 as being decisive in the division between Puritan responses in different places (8) as well as the change and continuity that followed (9), after which there is the usual acknowledgements, notes, and index.
Ultimately, this book tells a story of how it is that the Puritans had a very different experience in England, Scotland, and New England, and how it was that groups of people with very similar (but not identical) beliefs who all wanted to purify the church in their areas came to ultimately have very different experiences and ultimately very different fates within their areas. The author explores very thoughtfully how this came to be in the face of the American colonial experience and in the ambivalent relationship between Puritanism, which sought to reform a state church, and separatism, which saw the state church as being beyond salvation and requiring an exit from those who were devout, that ended up proving decisive in creating the ultimate disagreement between Puritans in different countries. In Scotland, of course, there had been a great success for Presbyterians in cleansing the Kirk, but eventually those who would be considered Puritans had to leave for the Scottish Free Church. In England, Puritans briefly were successful in the English Civil War but were permanently removed from political power after the restoration. And in the United States, Puritans and separatists lived side by side in neighboring colonies and eventually set up a regime that provided for religious freedom at least to the present day.