David Hall is Bartlett Professor of New England Church History Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School. This interview is based on his new book, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write The Puritans?
DH: The Puritans: A Transatlantic History grew out of my ambition to understand the British side of the story more fully; or, to say this otherwise, to replace the paradigms that accompany all versions of “American” Puritanism with paradigms appropriate to an older, richer, and much more significant phase of religious and political history.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Puritans?
DH: I answer (to my satisfaction) the question of “Who were the Puritans?” by rooting the British movements firmly in the context of the Reformed international, and I link the immense difficulties of the 1640s, when a promising alliance between Covenanter Scotland and the Long Parliament broke down, to a straightforward theological question, the nature of the church.
JF: Why do we need to read The Puritans?
DH: For anyone who knows next to nothing about Reformation Scotland and the remarkable insurgency of 1637-38 (my ignorance was complete before I decided to invest myself in Scottish history), fresh light is thrown on every aspect of the Puritan movement, and especially its political travails and triumphs. On the English side, my substantial survey of the “practical divinity” and its problems–up to and including the emergence of “Antinomianism” in the years 1620-1650–is a persuasive alternative to the (tired) history of English “Calvinism,” an alternative more fully attuned to devotion and the rhythms of spiritual life. My survey of a “reformation of manners” brings social history into the story, as well.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DH: As a child I began to read historical fiction, some of it dating from the end of the C19 (books belonging to my parents or grandparents), books that cast a spell over me that has never quite vanished. I also fell in love with American literature after being introduced to it in a serious manner in college and, briefly, pondered doing a Ph.D. in English, the compromise being American Studies. It was accidental that my earliest books were on the seventeenth century, as I really wanted to be writing about the nineteenth; but the turn toward “popular” religion/culture in early modern studies captured my imagination and the rest is (history).
JF: What is you next project?
DH: The Puritans was a very challenging book to write, so I’m turning to something simpler, probably an edition of two seventeenth-century manuscripts.
JF: Thanks, David!