David Hall Finds 17th-Century Puritan Texts 'Inexhaustible'

David D. Hall, the John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History, has taught at HDS since 1989. HDS staff writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Hall recently to talk with him about his recent book, Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology (Princeton University Press, 2004), and how the documents included dispel commonly held perceptions of the seventeenth-century people whom we now call Puritans.

Q: Puritans in the New World is an anthology. Why did you, an expert in the field, feel that this particular anthology was needed? Are there any others like it?

A: Anthologies are a way of representing a state of knowledge and where our field is at. I had as a benchmark a famous anthology in my field, The Puritans (1938), that really did affect how people understood the Puritans. It came with a long introduction by a then-young historian here at Harvard, Perry Miller, who eventually became one of the greatest figures in the field.

But, Miller's book doesn't coincide any longer with how I and people around me understand the field. The two imperatives I felt were to have a set of documents that were my personal take on the field, but that also responded to what has happened over the last forty years in the field.

Q: Can you give some examples of how more recent trends in the field of American religious history influenced the documents you include?

A: One obvious example is that there's nothing in earlier anthologies about the interaction between the Puritans and Native Americans. In fact, I had never worked on this topic before, but I began to say to myself, "Look, this anthology can't fly, it won't engage either with me or the field if it doesn't do something about that interaction."

And as soon as I began to look at the possibilities for texts to include—which are just astonishing—I couldn't put them down! In fact, I've now proposed a separate project (which, as yet, doesn't have a publisher) to edit more of those kinds of texts, just because they are so interesting and not yet easily available.

So that's a fairly dramatic example of how a shift in sensibility can affect what an anthology does. But a less dramatic, and in many ways a much more central, piece of the volume was laypeople's piety. Again, this was not even in the 1938 Miller anthology directly as a category. But in the 1970s, a whole bunch of texts were discovered and published that are laypeople's, and I've drawn on these in my own published work.

A former student of mine, when I taught at Boston University, Charles Hambrick-Stowe, wrote a prizewinning book on devotional life among the Puritans. Before him, no one ever thought they had a devotional life; it was as if they had conversions and that was it. But he proved that they had these lengthy devotional lives organized around meditation. So I put in a big swatch of Anne Bradstreet's meditations and her poetry, which is in the tradition of meditative or devotional poetry, because it's about disciplining yourself to worship in a certain way. For me, the piety chapters are the heart of the book. To give you some sense of its range, it includes a narrative of a 16-year-old girl who was being "possessed" by the devil. From my point of view, witch-hunting is not about witches, it's about the kind of turmoil that religion itself can cause. This narrative is really a story of this girl's thwarted religious quest.

Such stories show how piety is a double-edged sword. You can go one way, toward happiness or closure or a sense of strength or support, or you can go another way, toward a sense of feeling hopeless, at which point you say, "Well maybe the devil is going to give me some support." And that's exactly what this girl says. She was despairing and turned to the devil.

Another of the major directions the field has taken since, say, the 1960s concerns the ways in which the colonists tried to understand their own place in Christian history. Everybody knows the expression "city upon a hill" that John Winthrop used in 1630, and there's a whole series of sermons and texts after that in which ministers who are reading the prophetic books of scripture and interpreting the signs that are given in Revelation or Daniel or other places are asking, "Where are we in relation to those?" I was able to put some of those texts in the anthology, too. Those are very complicated texts because they can be read in different ways. 

I should say one of the purposes of the anthology was not to dictate how anything should be read, but to create juxtapositions that would allow the texts to be read in various ways. In fact, I say in the introduction that the texts have to be read in juxtaposition because they're voices that bounce off of each other. The same scripture passage can be quoted or the same events can be cited, but you get different takes or different ways people tell the story. That's part of the excitement, I hope, for readers, that when reading through, they'll see these differences.

Q: What are some different ways Puritans interpreted their experience?

A: Keep in mind, these were English people who were encountering this quite strange and difficult place—difficult in economic, social, and environmental terms. The encounter with Native Americans shows what they brought with them in terms of expectations and what happened to those expectations.

The collection includes a letter by Thomas Weld, a minister who writes back to his former English parish early on, saying, in effect, "Thank God. Here we're free of all the braggarts and the people who beat up on the Puritans. We're living in this sort of exalted state of purity. Why aren't you here to celebrate this with us?" But then, of course, you have others who see a more difficult situation and struggle: "Is it pure? Or is it not pure?"

That, too, is a rich theme throughout the book. The title is Puritans in the New World. I had actually wanted to call the book A Wilderness People. There are many meanings to the word "wilderness," and the word "wilderness" occurs in many of the texts. But my editor at Princeton said no one would know what that meant without reading the book, so we reverted it to a more prosaic title.

The main purpose was my own personal view of the field. I'm very much interested in the lived religion of laypeople, so, though there are ministers, there are quite a few laypeople, and quite a few women, in the book. This makes particular sense for this topic, because Puritanism was a laypeople's movement.

When I finished Worlds of Wonder (1989) and I was doing the index, I counted up and found I had cited 140 laypeople by name in the text, without even trying. I wasn't saying, "Okay, on this page I'm going to include a layperson." Their presence just grew out of the body of materials I had at my disposal. If I tried, I suppose I could have doubled the count.

There's nowhere near that number in this book because the anthology could only be a certain size. However, the book does suggest that this was not an imposed movement, it's not something that's from the top down. There's that hierarchical aspect to it, but it's also very much a movement that laypeople embodied and exemplified.

In my view, the best single text in the book is Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative. It is the longest text in the book, and it's there in its entirety. She was taken captive in the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, which was destroyed by Native Americans in February 1676. She survived, came back, and wrote this day-by-day story that can be read in many different ways.

Annotating it was a particular pleasure and a lot of hard work. I should say that I have a slight ancestral connection to this particular document. My great-great-grandfather had been the minister in Lancaster in the nineteenth century and wrote a history of the town. So I snuck in a reference to his history in the footnotes as a little act of ancestral homage.

Q: You also stated clearly in your introduction that part of your objective in the book is to show that so-called Puritanism was a diverse movement, and that there is contested ground within it. Could you talk about what some of the most important points of contention were for the Puritans?

A: Another pleasure was to include the voice of Anne Hutchinson, who interestingly enough is not in the 1938 anthology. And here again, I was retracing some of my own footsteps because in 1968 I published a collection of documents, some of them for the first time, about Hutchinson and the struggles of the 1630s that are called the Antinomian controversy.

One document I include is of Anne Hutchinson being examined by the Massachusetts general court because she had disparaged most of the ministers for preaching "works," a dirty word in those days, instead of "grace." I print in its entirety one version of the examination. On the second day, she tells us her spiritual history—how she came to be completely skeptical about ever knowing religious truth, and then the voice of God spoke to her and she became certain. This spiritual history is the part of the text that is often ignored. When she tells the court this, there's this sense that the court is dumbfounded that she would actually say this. They ask her, "How do you know it's the voice of God?" And she replies, "Oh, by revelation."

Of course, this is, strictly speaking, heresy, because revelation has ceased according to the orthodox view. Since the 1970s, she has become a person of great fascination in the recovery of radical women's history. I would have put her in there anyway, but there she is in all her splendor.

I also included the Baptists. No one else has ever put the Baptists in an anthology. And it wasn't because I'm a Baptist, but because the Baptists were terrifically advanced in terms of freedom of conscience—just as, if not more, advanced than, Roger Williams. The point which I make in my own comments on these texts is that these people are not anti-Puritan, they're actually Puritans. And they're taking exactly the same premises that everybody else did and just carrying them out to their logical or illogical extreme, depending on your point of view.

The Baptists were orthodox on most points, and Roger Williams was orthodox on most points, and even Anne Hutchinson was orthodox on some points. So I mean to suggest that this is not a static, fixed movement, but a movement that's full of life. You take it in your hand, you turn it around, and it looks different. And that's exactly how it looked to people in the seventeenth century from one day to the next. Puritanism was dynamic in terms of its own internal development, dynamic because of the strangeness of the new land, and dynamic because of large-scale political events, be they in Europe or in this country.

This is the hardest thing to try and capture in an anthology. I use chronology to do that, as well as sections on people like Williams and Hutchinson. The anthology has as many different voices in it as possible while also preserving a sense of center or core to the movement.

Q: Was that a hard line to walk?

A: This movement was not without boundaries. Today, our whole ethos tends to be "no boundaries, no boundaries, no boundaries." We go back to the past and we want to dismantle the boundaries that were in place. You might not like those boundaries, but there they were. One is always walking a narrow path between too much distortion of the boundaries or too much distortion of the fluidity. The anthology, I hope, allows for a constructive debate about that very question.

There's a wonderful book published a couple years ago on the Antinomian controversy in terms of "social construction," which asks: Was anybody as radical or daring as the negative literature indicated they were? Was there more smoke than fire? Always with heretical movements, there's the smoke/fire question. The seventeenth century was exactly that way too, so you have to let the documents tell the story. I should say finally that, as my students know, one principal path I follow is the close reading of texts from whatever situation or period of time we're in at the moment. I always say, "Texts are inexhaustible." I also start with the premise that there's always a strangeness about the texts. So although you can read parts of this anthology for sheer pleasure, I hope that it will lend itself to a close reading.

Q: I like your comment about the "strangeness" of these texts. Even after being in the field for many years, are there things that still surprise you when you read some of these texts?

A: There were lots of surprises. One, in a sense, was technical. I had a wonderful doctoral student, Adrian Weimer, who worked with me on the project. I said to her early on, "Let's do something for our readers that's never been done with these texts in terms of editing them, and that is to identify the scriptural passages."

There are a great many scriptural passages, and quite a few of them are not identified as such by the writer of the text that we're looking at. There's sometimes only one word, or a phrase, or more rarely an entire verse. We did a lot of looking at online Bibles and concordances, punching in key words to see if something came up. Adrian was much better at this than I, and also knew the Bible much better than I did. She could often hear or pick up things. If you look at the texts in the anthology, you'll see a ton of scripture verses or fragments of scripture verses in bold or underlined and in brackets, because we were adding the citation afterwards.

I knew this abstractly, but not until doing this did I really get a sense of the fluency of these people with scripture and how readily they could quote two or three words of scripture, be it a psalm or other Old Testament passage or whatever, with the expectation that their audience could fill in the story. That was one surprise.

Another was related. I had never paid any attention to the word "antichrist." It isn't in my contemporary vocabulary, and it hasn't figured a whole lot in the historiography of Puritanism. But the very first text that we were editing, William Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, uses the word "antichrist." So I had to go to the library and look up "antichrist."

Of course, it's not a simple thing because there's no one meaning of "antichrist," actually. Then I began to see the word "antichrist" everywhere in these texts, and to realize how often the word is used and how important it was to them. That's what can happen when you're editing a text. If it's not strictly an exercise, but something from which you can learn, you'll find yourself encountering words, terms, and categories that have been on the margins of your consciousness, but then move to the center.

Q: Do you find this can happen even with texts you've studied before?

A: Definitely. There are so many words that you can't possibly take all of them on board. My colleague David Little would have been interested in the word "conscience," which occurs in several of the texts. As it happens, I knew it was going to be there, but I don't happen to spend much time on it. But "antichrist" I found very new to me. Another word is "children." We think of the Puritans as having a very harsh view of children, yet the anthology demonstrates exactly the opposite, how they mourned their children when they were sick or dying.

Thomas Shepard's autobiography is in this anthology for the first time. He and his wife lose their first child, and it's just anguishing for them. Mary Rowlandson loses two of her children, and that's anguishing for her. And then you have Anne Bradstreet's wonderful poetry about her children, some of whom die, some of whom live. There's a strong set of texts about parent-child affections and connections. That's another theme of the book.

Q: You talk some in your introduction and throughout about predominant myths that tend to be popularly held about Puritans and how these documents so clearly dispel a lot of them. What are some of the important myths you would like to dispel for people right away?

A: There's one myth I did not directly address, though it might have been more directly addressed had we included more illustrations. It goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne. People think the Puritans dressed in black and never drank beer and were dour.

Actually, they loved beer. They were extremely unhappy when they arrived, because they had to drink water for a while until they managed to grow enough grain to make their own beer and, later on, cider too. And they didn't wear black. A minister in Sunday services wore a scholar's gown that was black. But people wore greens, reds, and other vibrant colors.

Years ago, I participated in a wonderful exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts that included dozens of portraits painted in the seventeenth century, which show all that finery, and the elegance of these people. If you open up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne talks about the "somber clothes" of everybody, and you get the impression that everybody is dour and gloomy. But that's, in fact, not the case.

The more difficult stereotypes have to do, for example, with witch-hunters. That is to say, there is the assumption that any deviant was driven out or punished. I couldn't represent all the various ways we address this as historians in the book. But I will say that some deviants were driven out, but an awful lot stayed. It ties back to another image of Puritans as authoritarian, which is a huge hurdle, because the seventeenth-century culture is authoritarian compared to ours. It's just different. However, this doesn't mean that people lived in fear or felt suppressed. Those were not the categories. You didn't feel suppressed because that wasn't part of your working vocabulary. The assumption that there was a hierarchy and that people who were older or parents automatically had a certain authority (which they were supposed to use for good, not for perverse, reasons) is something that nobody ever thought twice about. And that is represented in the anthology, but what's also represented is that people challenged that authority. For instance, Anne Hutchinson says, "The heck with you, I can interpret the Bible better than you can." So it's not a crushing or limiting authority in the long run. The myth has some relationship to reality, except that we read it through a twentieth-century lens, and that distorts it.

I hope none of these myths are vindicated by the anthology. Actually, Worlds of Wonder contests all of those more fully.

Q: One of the most interesting things I learned from your comments was that the word "Puritans" was at first a derogatory term and eventually Puritans adopted it and transformed it into a positive affirmation.

A: I'm glad you picked up on that. It's not new to me. I was relying on the scholarship of English historians. Puritanism was an English movement, first and foremost, and so the English historians are constantly working on these very same questions, and I depend on their work.

Early in the seventeenth century you begin to get people taking on the word positively, saying, "I'll call myself a Puritan." But it's really not until the nineteenth century that it becomes a fully totalizing category. Before then, they call themselves "of the congregational way," or "the godly," but I don't think there's a single book published in New England in the seventeenth century that uses the word "Puritan" in the title. They call themselves "the Orthodox" or "the 'evangelical." I don't think Cotton Mather uses "Puritan" in his great history book.

Of course, the word "pilgrim" was a nineteenth-century invention, but it occurs as a spiritual word. When someone says "I am a pilgrim," they mean, "I am struggling with issues in this world." It doesn't mean, "I am a capital 'P' Pilgrim."

So the nineteenth century is to blame in many ways for what we inherit, which is this very sharp notion of the Puritans as a certain kind of people set apart from all other kinds of people. The reality is that they were set apart, but they weren't set apart. Another one of the big issues in the field is how much apart they were.

Perry Miller said in one of his interpretive books that 90 percent of what the Puritans thought was shared with everybody else. He never told us what the 90 percent was or what the 10 percent was, I should say. But there's a lot of truth to that. As I said, by today's standards, everybody was authoritarian in the seventeenth century, not just the Puritans. In fact, it could be argued that they were less authoritarian.

It's very easy for us in America to say, "The people who arrive in 1630 or in 1620 were Puritans, capital 'P'," and we don't even bother to ask the question, "How did this term come about and did they use it themselves?" They call themselves English. They were English. This is part of the fascination of the field. Some people want to do away with the word "Puritan" in the field. But then they can't find any word to substitute for it.

Q: What is it like for you to do this work in the very seat of where it all happened, in New England?

A: Let me put the question this way. Is the book related in any way to historical memory in New England? My own way of answering that question is "no," in the sense that I don't think there is a living historical memory of the seventeenth century in New England. The football team is called the "Patriots," not the "Puritans"! We can still feel, in some ways, the Revolution. But there's no real museum of Puritan stuff. You can go to the Museum of Fine Arts and find a few things.

Q: There is Plymouth Plantation.

A: When that was put together, the man who came to direct it in the beginning of the 1970s was a folklorist, and he turned away from the whole question of Puritans and concentrated instead on recreating what they ate and how they slept and spoke. All of that reflects his realizing there was no living memory of the Pilgrims. Plymouth Plantation is really an outdoor museum of late medieval, early modern folkways. There is, of course, Plymouth Rock, but that's kind of a joke. And then there's the re-creation of the Mayflower, but that's kind of a joke, too. All of this is evidence of the collapse of a living historical memory.

Q: You're saying there's a difference between monuments and a living historical memory?

A: Yes. To put it another way, if we're trying to understand ourselves as a country using our past as a guide, I think it could be said now and for some time before now that the Puritans aren't useful in that enterprise. In 1820, they're still very useful. If you wanted to know who you were as a country then, you went back to the Puritans.

At some point, probably after the Civil War, that began to fade. The Puritans became less and less useful as the mirror into which you could look back and see yourself and your nationhood reflected. The end of the Revolution is not an uncomplicated time and one could argue how useful that is as a mirror for us today. People are certainly fascinated by it, witness all the books on Franklin and Washington. Of course, Jefferson and slavery is a mirror because Jefferson's own confusion about race mirrors in some ways our continued confusion about race.

But the Puritans are not accessible to us. On the one hand, it's freedom from a burden. On the other hand, it's a loss, certainly. It's a curious thing.

I've recently had a discussion with a television producer in Oregon about a television series on American history. They sent me a draft on the seventeenth century, and apart from the fact that it was totally stereotypical, I wrote back and I said, "There are so many preconditions to entering the seventeenth century. There are so many things you have to set aside, so many kinds of knowledge you need." And we don't have that. It's not a working knowledge anymore. The Puritans are less than a century from the Reformation—and an unfinished Reformation in England.

If you don't grasp this, you don't understand the Puritans. Nobody quite knows yet how it's going to play out. That's not a live question today. No American denominations, except perhaps little tiny groups somewhere, are debating the question of the Reformation.

Q: Is there anything that the Puritans did debate that you still do see religious groups debating today?

A: Well, church and state would be one issue. In 1938, when Perry Miller was doing his anthology, he was very excited by sin. His book is dialectically set in opposition to liberal Protestant theology, and he himself was very drawn toward the movement called neo-orthodoxy. Miller himself was an atheist, but the book is colored by his saying, "Look, these people knew something about sin. They were realists about human nature."

I didn't play that card in my book, in part because I think it's a tired card to play at this point in time, and it wasn't where my own heart and mind were. But certainly, on church and state, their view is much more subtle and complex than they're usually given credit for. And, on the meaning of America, they were not nationalists. They always differentiated between the church and the state, the church and the world. They believed there's always going to be hostility between the church and the world. That happens to coincide with my own personal view of things, or what I would like to see, rather than the two being just totally subsumed, one into the other.

Also, in terms of life crises, the Puritans are struggling with many of the same life crises we struggle with. They're not the key resource out there, but if you go to them and open yourself to their own lived experiences of everyday life, there are some things to be moved by.

Q: Though their lives were overall more difficult than most of ours . . .

A: They have the word "afflictions," we have the word "stress"!

Q: My final question is: What are you working on now? Do you have anything forthcoming?

A: In a way, I'm producing a trilogy here. There's Worlds of Wonder and recently this anthology. And then there will be, I hope, a third and final book. Actually, that would make five on the seventeenth century, counting the two anthologies. The book in progress will be a mix of narrative and analysis, and focused on maybe three or four questions. It's a little frightening at this stage of the game to discuss, but I do have a year to work on it, so that's nice.

Q: Don't you also have another book coming out soon?

A: I have a book coming out in December. It's a collection of essays by a friend of mine who died, Hugh Amory, who worked in the Harvard Library. We were co-editors of The History of the Book in America, a marvelous book that came out in 2000. Then he died the following year of cancer. In this book, I edited his essays and provided an introduction.