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The Puritans:
A Transatlantic History

by david d. hall
princeton, 520 pages, $35

When Greta Thunberg, the teenage Green activist, crossed the Atlantic last summer to address the United Nations, one could hear echoes of the pilgrim voyagers of the seventeenth century. Thunberg’s speech to the General Assembly, including the tears shed both by the speaker and by the devoted faithful who heard her, was comparable to the fervor at prayer meetings when the guilty souls unburdened themselves of their sins or, as they are nowadays sometimes called, carbon footprints. And hovering over the assemblies, both of the Greens and of the Protestant Redeemed, is the thrilling certainty that the very fabric of the world itself is imminently to be dismantled, thanks to human depravity and wickedness.

For the religious enthusiasts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Book of Revelation was the definitive text, confirming that they were to be redeemed while the majority of humankind went to hell in a handcart. This sense was quickened, not dulled, by the fact that the actual text of the Apocalypse was, at best, semi-comprehensible, its strange menagerie of angels, dragons, and celestial giants potent with portent but not reducible to common-sense explanation. Likewise, the “science” invoked by the Prophetess Greta and her millions of enthusiastic adherents is held to be absolutely true, despite the fact that it remains opaque and ever-shifting.

But the Green acolytes had more certainty than the Puritans that they were chosen and saved. The Green Movement would not be so appealing if not for the fact that the sons and daughters of perdition—the gas-­guzzling supporters of President Trump and the French yellow ­jackets—are consigning themselves and others to the flames and floods.

The political left, especially in Britain, whose Labour party is descended so visibly from the ranks of Scotch Dominies, Welsh Chapel-ranters, and English Methodists, likewise repeats and imitates the puritanical characteristics of its nonconformist origins. What was the rise to power of ­Jeremy Corbyn and his ranting fellow Marxists, if not a repetition of the antics of the heroes of the Reformation in Scotland and in England? In the pages of David D. Hall’s The Puritans we meet such figures as John ­Davidson (who died in 1604), a man very angry that the Scottish clergy allowed his neighbors to sink back into the sinful ways they pursued before John Knox preached in their midst. Davidson urged his fellow clergy to emulate the prophet ­Ezekiel, to warn the House of Israel of its ­wickedness. The tone is identical to that of those Labour party members in the twenty-first century who deplored the backsliding from true doctrine in the era of Tony Blair, who had allied himself to the Great Satan of America.

But neither is the Puritan tradition dead on the right. As the daughter of a Methodist shopkeeper of the most upright morals, Margaret Thatcher was in fact an actual Puritan, a believer in hard work, cleanliness, and sexual purity—not as the means of grace, but as tokens of the fact that the believer had already, through predestination, received the fruits of the spirit. The evangelical movement, in all its power and wealth, is still strong on both sides of the ­Atlantic and was a key part of Thatcher’s electoral success. It ­likewise ­underlay the success of George W. Bush, and his alliance with Tony Blair.

President Trump neither looks nor sounds like your stereotypical Puritan, but he too enjoys the support of the evangelical movement. The secular puritans, of course, East Coast liberals, Greens, and others, all deplore him. Not least because of his sexual sins.

These are broad-brush generalizations, but if any of them are allowed to stand, then we can acknowledge that the world is still divided between Cavaliers and Roundheads. This becomes clearer the less literal you are being. Puritanism in its negative sense is now less common among the Protestant faithful than among Progressives, who carry on the Puritan tradition unconsciously. Unshackled by belief—and Christian belief, as ­Chesterton’s Father Brown pointed out, is reasonable (“You attacked reason. . . . It’s bad theology”)—modern “puritans” merely indulge in the emotional characteristics of their seventeenth-century forebears: self-righteousness, moralism, and a delight in pointing out the sins of those with whom they happen to disagree. They have the vices of the Puritans, but not their virtues.

Given the resurgence of secular forms of Puritanism, we very much need to understand the actual Puritanism of the British seventeenth-century Puritans and of the founding fathers of America. No geology is more helpful than an examination of the rock from which we are hewn. And no one is better placed than Professor David D. Hall to enable us to do this. Lying at the heart of his book, and at the heart of the very idea of Puritanism, is the concept of individual liberty, or personal autonomy, which is why some of the most articulate of the seventeenth-century Puritans turned up as founding fathers of America. This idea has been enthusiastically embraced, and radically altered, by modern progressives. It finds its fullest expression in the jurisprudence of Anthony ­Kennedy.

Hall traces the origin of what we call Puritanism to the reign of ­Elizabeth I:

Famously, the queen said no to the men who wanted to marry her. The no that resonates in this book is hers to a further reformation. From the moment Elizabeth ascended to the throne until her death some forty-five years later in early 1603, she rejected every plea, petition, and motion on its behalf whether broached in the Convocation, urged by some of her bishops, or endorsed by the Privy Council and the House of Commons.

Her own battles with the Puritans within the ranks of the Church of England took, on the whole, verbal form only. But when it came to dealing with those fanatical enough not to accept her church settlement, she was quite as ruthless as her sister Mary: for example, burning five Dutch Anabaptists for their refusal to keep an Anglican Easter on their visit to London.

The ambivalence of Elizabeth toward the Reformation itself was followed, in the opening decades of the seventeenth century, by the distinct hostility, felt by ­Anglo-Catholics such as Charles I and Archbishop Laud, to some of the key doctrines of the Reformation. Although Laud was “no Dutch style ­Arminian,” he and his fellow Anglicans, such as Lancelot Andrewes, deplored the Reformation’s doctrine of double predestination. Their attachment to the state was connected with their concern that all men be incorporated into the church, not just those few who seemed to be elect.

Secular-minded moderns who read of Charles I and Laud might consider that they sound much jollier than the sourpuss Puritans. Did they not, to the Puritans’ disgust, endorse James I’s Book of Sports, which allowed games, archery, and dancing, including Morris dancing, to take place on the Sabbath? And was not their moving of the austere Communion Table to the east of the churches, and the reintroduction of ceremonies and vestments into the Anglican order of worship, ­something for which aesthetes might feel grateful?

But for Laud’s Puritan contemporaries, much more was at stake than aesthetics. For the Caroline churchmen, whether Puritan or high church, all these ceremonies were full of meaning. For the Puritans, the church of Laud and Charles I was that of the lukewarm ­Laodiceans scorned in the Apocalypse. But this did not mean that Laud was wishy-washy in a modern sense, as the Puritans discovered. Witness the corporal punishment meted out to royal chaplain Henry Burton, physician John Bastwick, and lawyer ­William Prynne—all condemned in the Star Chamber and punished by having their ears sliced off. Prynne also had the letters SL, for Seditious Libeller, branded on his cheeks. Think of it the next time you hear a beautifully rendered Anglican evensong.

There are three broad phases of the Puritan story in Professor Hall’s book. First, there is the wave of Puritans within the Tudor church, above all the Elizabethan church, who, through Parliament and in the pulpit, pleaded for a completion of the Reformation. Second comes the Civil War. In 1643, when the war had been going for a year, the committee required by Parliament to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England decreed that the church should become Presbyterian. The key document here is the Westminster Confession.

The third part of Hall’s story is what happened after the Cromwellian Protectorate came to an end and the monarchy, with the Church of England, was restored in 1660. Thereafter, the Puritans were expelled from the established church and became nonconformists. In Great Britain this led to the Dissenting tradition, which includes the rise of Methodism and the evangelical revivals of the nineteenth century. In America, the story is different but of no less moment.

We tend to use the word “Puritan” to indicate censoriousness, especially concerning sex. Just look at the grim sadists in Nathaniel ­Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century novel, who make Hester Prynne bear the Scarlet Letter as a punishment for bearing a child out of wedlock. To the essence of Puritanism, however, this caricature was incidental. Hall’s is a history of the Puritans who were the most influential of the founding fathers of the thirteen colonies that became the United States. Here, we are less conscious of prudery than of ardor for political and intellectual freedom.

But Puritans were not necessarily enthusiasts, and wherever they established a polity, whether in Knox’s Scotland, Calvin’s Geneva, or Massachusetts, there was a suspicion of enthusiasm. As Hall writes, “Liberty of conscience was contingent, not absolute.” Liberty could not be turned “against the ‘external peace and ­order’ of the church.”

Puritanism neither was nor is at war with the established order. It is not anarchist. In fact, those who drafted the Westminster Confession were intent that the populace should observe the law. They took up arms against the King, and against the Laudian version of the Church of England, because they believed that the good life could not be lived by those who professed false doctrine. When the Anglican establishment made this life unattainable in England, many of them took the only logical step, and sailed across the ­Atlantic to New England.

The peculiar ways in which concepts of liberty were developed in early American history—pre-Locke, let alone pre-Paine—are implicit in this book. God called the saints who were labeled Puritan to a predestined grace. This grace gave to the believer a profound sense of his or her self-worth, and of the dignity and obligations of the citizen. Scratch the surface of modern American life and you will often find a Puritan explanation for things.

Yet, seeing the parallels between the actual, historical Puritans and their modern heirs is to be made aware of a great diminution. Is there any leader in the evangelical movement today with either the learning or the fire in the belly of Knox and Calvin? Does any public figure in the United States today match up to the integrity and impressiveness of John Winthrop? As for the more ironic heirs of Puritanism, the addicts of wokeness, the de-platformers, the Green fanatics, and sub-Marxists, the only elements of Puritanism that they rejoice to inherit are its peevishness, its delight in finding fault with others, and its addiction to the witch hunt. Of true Puritanism’s nobility of soul, its domestic rectitude, its learned reverence for and knowledge of Holy Scripture, they are ­pathetically incapable. Hall’s tribute to the great Puritans of history reminds us of what feeble imitations we have grown in our own backyard, yet ­another reminder of how secularism always impoverishes brain as well as soul.

A. N. Wilson is author, most recently, of Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy.

Photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf via Creative Commons