Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology
David D. Hall
Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004.
$19, 95, 370 pages, ISBN 0-6911-1409-9

Gerardo Del Guercio
Independent Researcher


Readers of Puritan history will be elated at the arrival of David D. Hall’s Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology. Hall divides his text into seven sections each with a critical introduction and a bibliography of secondary source material. My review will give a brief synopsis of every section and end with a discussion of the selected writers. David D. Hall reminds the reader that we must place ourselves within the circumstances of colonial writers, since “[f]ar from being modern, though in certain respects reacting against feudalism and Scholasticism, the people whose world we enter through these texts must be approached on their own terms if we are to understand them” [xv]. The purpose of Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology is to compare conflicting mindsets that have come to define the American colonial period.

Part one of David D. Hall’s anthology examines the Puritans initial experience in the New World. The Pilgrims settled in Plymouth to denunciate the Church of England for idolatry. The Massachusetts Bay Company began to settle land north of Plymouth to establish Salem, Boston, Charlestown, Roxbury and Dorchester. Colonialists generated a farming economy that would transport “surpluses of cattle, butter, and grain” [4] to the West Indies. The aim that the Puritans had in mind was to start a community that would live in strict accordance to Biblical teaching in the absence of an oppressive monarchy. America became the land where pioneers

were able in ‘the free aire of the new worlde’ to implement their program of reform in matters small and large—eliminating, for instance, ‘pagan names’ for months and days of the week, enforcing strict observance of the Sabbath, and prohibiting festivals such as May Day and ‘health-drinkings.’ [5]

Freedom from English rule allowed Puritans to express their views without hazarding civil punishment. Such autonomy offered colonists a territory wherein they could live harmoniously in the fashion that they deemed right.

The large geographical distance that separated the Puritans from the English was an advantageous one that allowed the colonists to heighten their understanding of religion. John Cotton identifies Puritanism as the “worship [of] God in spirit, & in trueth” [5] and the freedom “from the bondage of such humane inventions as [human] souls have groaned under.” Cotton’s argument states that an increasingly industrializing world was quickly severing humanity from God. Higher law principles advocated that Christians must follow God’s word as ordained by the Old and New Testaments. Benevolence was patterned around passages like the Romans 12.5 decree that individuals must keep “watch over one another’s ethical behavior, living in peace, providing assistance when needed, addressing fellow congregants as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” [6]. The idea of having community members survey each other’s acts was destined to prepare humans for death and entrance into Heaven.

Although Puritanism appeared ideal, it was nonetheless vexed with ideological conflicts. Debates surrounding baptism became evident after 1650 when colonists observed that baptized emigrant children would sway from Puritan theology. The main question was whether emigrant children should be entitled to baptism, or if open church membership involved a violation of “the purity that had meant so much to the emigrants” [7]. The obvious answer was that baptism be available to everyone since all were God’s children and therefore members of his kingdom. Most Puritans favored free baptism for the reason that their mission was to instruct wayward Christians to live by God’s word.

David D. Hall’s anthology continues with a discussion on colonial theological rhetoric. Puritan ministers drew their approaches on techniques they had acquired at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard College. New England theology focused primarily on "practical divinity," a “form of preaching that was fashioned in late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England by theologians and pastors” [68]. The following concerns are what guided "practical divinity": that redemption be applied experimentally through personal experience and that redemption be sequential with every experience and atonement leading the sinner closer to salvation. These stages were based on the assumption that a Christian offender is redeemable by “anxiety intermixed with joys of seeing the living suffering Christ and sensing his love for sinners, of temptation and pilgrimage.” God’s instruction would consequently benefit those whose souls were salvaged because they had amended the wrongs of their earthly actions. Puritan church sermons, catechisms and other religious rites are best encapsulated in the subsequent excerpt from John 3.3: “[e]xcept a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” [107]. Confessions emerged as effective spiritual expeditions of self-examination whereby humans could cleanse themselves of idolatrous desires.

Being an independent population implied that Puritans establish a structured civil government. Leaders were elected by representation by population, making towns “the basic political unit, with the freemen in each town electing ‘deputies’ (representatives) to a General Court or Assembly. Once a year, the freemen also elected the governor, deputy governor, and magistrates (or assistance)” [159]. The Pilgrims insisted that church and civil government remained separate. The most significant dilemma facing liberal government was that it left gaps that permitted the Church of England to intrude on American internal affairs, and that the English monarchy had too much power over religion. The new form of rule centered itself on a community-based way of thinking that believed in “the assumption that government owed its authority to ‘the people’ and their informed ‘consent’” [161]. A representative government founded on the guiding principle "for the people by the people" confirmed the idea that ending British rule in the New World would terminate any future foreign supervision of America.

God’s law became increasingly prevalent over lower law in that national uprisings became characterized sins in need of repenting. David D. Hall states that riots were equivalent to “a disease that infected the moral and social health of a community. Its symptoms included any outbreak of dissention or waning of family ‘government’” [162]. I argue that political turmoil was regarded as aberrant because it implied that the country had not been abiding by God’s word that everyone remain unselfish and communitarian. Recovery would become possible only once Americans complied with biblical law and self-serving citizens redeemed higher law ethics. Politics and theology are therefore effective solely when moral acts are used to make a nation peaceful and coherent.

Ideological dissent played a crucial role in the American colonial period. Dispute arose surrounding how “to remodel the church and refashion society” [203] with radicals condemning “the church of England [as] unlawful.” Moderate reformers and radicals worked to negate the instituted worship through the press at denunciating “the ordained clergy, the system of tithes used to support them, and the authority of the civil state to regulate matters of consciousness.” Groups who turned away from the Calvinists' doctrine in support of the Holy Spirited centered "spiritism" included Familists, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Seekers, Baptists and Quakers. Clashing perspectives proved that the American colonial era was complex and multi-opinioned.

Adapting to Native Americans was yet another impediment the Puritans were forced to overcome. Colonialists demonized Indians by viewing them through a Eurocentric lens. David D. Hall notes: “[t]hat the Native Americans, called Indians by the Puritan colonists, were sons and daughters of Adam and therefore shared a common humanity with the colonists was certain, as their ‘degenerated’ condition at the time of encounter” [241]. The Puritans extended their reformist policy to include First Nations people. Hall cites the Pequot War of 1637 as one instance of reformation. The Pequot entered Boston in 1634 to compromise with Massachusetts over the coast of Connecticut. Both sides were in disagreement over this dispute when “a party of Dutch murdered Totobem, the chief of sachem of the Pequots, and the colonists blamed (unjustly) the killing of an English trader on the Pequots” [243]. The colonists eventually defeated the Natives in June of 1637. Such uprisings were intended to vilify and abolish Native American culture. I argue that eliminating Native culture would enforce the power that Western European customs were starting to have in America.

David D. Hall’s compilation of Puritan history and literature is particularly strong because it includes many important texts in their entirety. Few anthologies insert William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative in their complete form. Hall provides an even balance of writing by men and writing by women, while uncovering many of the lesser-known thinkers such as Sarah Goodhue and Samuel Danforth who have been traditionally excluded from literary and historical collections. David D. Hall’s Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology effectively examines the ordeals and triumphs of America’s first European settlers. The collection incorporates tracts from influential colonial authors such as Increase Mather, John Winthorp, Anne Bradstreet along with several others who have come to characterize the American literary tradition. Hall’s introductory essays along with a rich selection of colonial writers give readers of Puritan history a penetrating portrait of Early America.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.