The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall

Darryl G. Hart

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History, by David D. Hall. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019, v + 517 pages, $35.00.

Historians of the Reformation in the English-speaking world struggle to juggle Puritanism and Presbyterianism in the development of British and American Protestantism. An easy resolution is to place the Puritans in England and New England, and Presbyterians in Scotland (and Ireland) and the Middle Colonies of North America (and eventually in nineteenth-century Canada). Perry Miller, for instance, the Harvard University scholar who almost single-handedly put the recovery of Puritanism as a field of study on his back, saw Puritanism as an effort to purify the Anglican church of elements that lacked a scriptural warrant. For some Puritans, removing bishops and replacing them with another form of church government was part of the call for purity.[1] But as these Reformed Protestants evolved, they went in different directions on church government, which explains why New England Puritans became Congregationalists. On the other side of the topic, historians of American Presbyterians usually regard their subject and Puritanism to be distinct—not siblings but cousins. For example, Randall Balmer and John R. Fitzmeier observe that England Presbyterianism and Puritanism were “intertwined” but also “overshadowed by the Presbyterian successes in Ireland and Scotland.”[2] Likewise, Lefferts Loetscher’s survey of American Presbyterianism mentions New England Puritanism briefly and identifies the Puritans who went to Massachusetts Bay as those who remained with the Church of England.[3] By implication, Presbyterianism was an expression of Protestantism within the Church of Scotland.

What makes this national differentiation especially challenging is James VI of Scotland who in 1603 became James I of England as well. His dual monarchy meant that no matter what the difference between the two expressions of Protestantism, Puritans and Presbyterians would have to work their attempts at reform through the same monarch. The King of England and the King of Scotland may have been the same man, but the national churches in each kingdom had a distinct history. To the north, Presbyterians competed and eventually triumphed over bishops in Scotland while Puritans—put simplistically—either left for North America over frustration with the king’s archbishop or started a war with the crown (i.e. Charles I), only later to become dissenters after the Restoration.

Recent histories of Protestantism in the British Isles and England’s colonies in North America have clarified the relationship between Puritanism and Presbyterianism greatly. They also show how chaotic the entire historical process was that eventually produced the Anglican church, Presbyterianism in Scotland, and denominations such as Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the United States. These communions emerged as anything but well-defined institutions with roots in the Reformation. They were all part of what Michael Winship has called “hot” Protestantism,[4] believers who desired a complete reform of the church and its members according to the Word of God. All such “hot” Protestants, or Puritans, could be found on the spectrum of church government. Some favored bishops, others assemblies and synods, and still others congregations.

David H. Hall’s book extends the work of transatlantic perspectives on Puritanism that Winship accomplished by adding Scotland to the mix of England and New England. He does so in a way that is truly breathtaking for any scholar but all the more impressive for a retired scholar, already accomplished, and having nothing to prove. Instead of writing a book that builds on a life of scholarship and adds a few novel patches to an existing quilt of scholarly interpretation, The Puritans is a sustained and comprehensive account of the effort to reform further the English-speaking churches. It does for England, Scotland, and part of the colonial churches what Philip Benedict did for Reformed Protestantism in Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed.[5] In that earlier book, Benedict covered the history of Reformed Protestantism between 1520 and 1650, from Poland to Ireland and everything in between. Hall, in effect, takes the English piece of Benedict’s book and devotes a book as big as Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed to the subject. One indication of how vast Hall’s scholarship is, is its scholarly apparatus. The endnotes section of The Puritans is over 150 pages long and should be the basis for the reading list of any doctoral student undertaking study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anglo-American Protestantism.

Hall’s story follows the rise of Protestants (Puritans) who desired a further reform of the state churches of England and Scotland, often inspired by Calvin’s Geneva. It is not a straightforward narrative. After three chapters on the reception of Protestantism in Scotland and Ireland and the politics of reformation before 1600, Hall devotes two chapters to practical theology (“practical divinity”) and Puritan efforts to reform manners in England and Scotland. In the remaining part of the book, perhaps the most complicated for any historian, Hall returns to the politics of Puritanism—meaning, how efforts to institute holiness among the clergy and laity were bound up with the structures of a national church overseen by a monarch. As such, the book follows developments in England, Scotland, and New England. He also explains the causes and motivations that led Presbyterians in Scotland and Puritans in England (through civil magistrates) to go to war with Charles I. The picture that emerges is anything but tidy or inspiring. A longing to see the churches of England and Scotland reformed according to the Word resulted in war and even regicide (an act that in ancient Israel, David would not even consider in his contest with King Saul).

Throughout these developments emerges a set of proponents of Presbyterian government. Initially motivated by frustrations with bishops, English and Scottish Protestants argued for a form of church government that Calvin, French Protestants, and others on the continent were using—a system of rule by church assemblies (synods, councils, assemblies). A few examples show the sort of perspective that Hall’s study of the wider phenomenon of Puritanism yields for the particular features of Presbyterianism. For instance, Hall explains in passing why opposition to the Book of Common Prayer and episcopacy took shape in the 1570s and 1580s in England and Scotland. One factor was militant anti-Protestantism in places such as France that indicated to a younger generation of pastors that for Reformed Protestantism to survive it would have to take institutional form outside the existing structures of bishops appointed by monarchs. What also helped encourage presbyterian polity was the experience of French Protestants who not only looked to Calvin’s Geneva for instruction but also needed to run church life through structures different from episcopacy—which meant councils, synods, and assemblies.

Another way that Hall illuminates Presbyterianism as merely one part of a larger story is in his account of the initial success that John Knox and Andrew Melville had in the Church of Scotland to the point of producing two books of discipline. These road maps to Presbyterian government were no match for James VI who was able by the late 1590s to place bishops back in the Church of Scotland and as King of England (as James I) send Melville into exile. That desire for reform of church government combined with resistance from the British crown explains, as Hall shows, why the Westminster Assembly did not include Presbyterianism in its affirmations about the church. Just as challenging to Presbyterianism, as the Scottish commissioners at Westminster discovered, were the Independents and their political leader, Oliver Cromwell, who from the side opposite bishops, insisted on congregational structures as the best form of rule in the church. The Independents, unlike Presbyterians, also opposed uniformity in the national church.

Although these episodes in Presbyterian history are minor episodes in Hall’s history of Puritanism, that larger narrative is essential for understanding the legacy of rule by presbyters in the church. For anyone tempted to think of Presbyterianism’s origins as the inspiring equivalent of the American Founding or the Glorious Revolution (1688), Hall’s book will quickly disarm any reader of such optimism. At the same time, his judicious and extensive account of British Protestantism between 1550 and 1650 will help readers understand the power and appeal of Presbyterian efforts to recognize not bishops, nor king, but Christ the head of his church.


[1] Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650: A Genetic Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 19–20.

[2] Randall Balmer and John R. Fitzmeier, The Presbyterians (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 18.

[3] Lefferts A. Loetscher, A Brief History of the Presbyterians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978).

[4] Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[5] Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2020.

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Ordained Servant: October 2020

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