The Puritans: A Transatlantic History 
by David D. Hall.
Princeton, 517 pp., £20, May 2021, 978 0 691 20337 9
Show More
The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom 
by Stephen Tomkins.
Hodder, 372 pp., £12.99, February 2021, 978 1 4736 4911 8
Show More
Show More

Cartoonists​ find it as easy to draw puritans as they do Vikings. There’s an example on my pinboard. A behatted man, buttoned up in black, admires his wife’s sampler, which reads: ‘Way to Go, God.’ ‘Nice sentiment, Martha,’ he beams. Martha wears the same gloomy sub fusc, with black bonnet and broad linen collar. Putting slang in puritan mouths is fun because we know that precision and decorum in speech were hallmarks of righteousness. Puritans were sticklers, who defied Satan, abolished Christmas and hunted witches. Priggish and sexless, they were hostile to pleasure, humiliated women and flogged their mini-me children. H.L. Mencken defined their mentality as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. They held themselves and other puritans to severe account, an obsession they grew into a social vision. They were hard on sin and hard on the causes of sin; they urged magistrates and ministers to join forces, to wield the sword in the service of scripture. But, as with the Vikings, who killjoy historians now insist were peaceable farmers minus horned helmets, have we got the puritans wrong?

Puritans emerged from chaos. Luther’s wish that the laity act as their own priests, reading vernacular Bibles, bred contention not just between traditionalists and reformers but among the reformers themselves. Everyone had their own idea of what the new order should be. Some were content with modest alterations to the liturgy. Saints, for example, wouldn’t be made redundant, but simply moved sideways into a category of numinous beings. Others, known in the Anglo-American world as ‘puritans’, wanted a more thorough rationalisation and restructuring. They believed that the Reformation was unfinished business and that, like the Augean stables, the church needed flushing out. But exactly how unfinished, how much flushing, was moot. Many opposed ministers making the sign of the cross – a popish superstition – while condoning infant baptism. But Anabaptists, who were also puritans, found the entire ritual of baptism obnoxious. The historian Patrick Collinson’s definition of puritans as ‘the hotter sort of Protestants’ was deliberately vague: they are too diverse to be easily grouped together. Eventually the Anabaptists split, into Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish.

The heat was generated by friction as well as zeal. Puritan differences weren’t topics for genteel disputation: factions laid claim to the truth and demonised the opposition. One man’s doctrine of faith was another’s devilish doctrine of works, a profane invention rather than a sacred precept. There were more questions than answers. How should the Holy Trinity be understood? Was Christ, after all, just a man? And what of grace, the divine blessing of salvation? Was it freely given or, as Calvinists believed, the preserve of predestined ‘saints’, the elect separated out from the reprobate? Even ‘Calvinism’ was ticklish. As David Hall points out, not all Calvinists shared the same eschatology, disagreeing about what happened to souls after death.

The question of whether to award the capital ‘P’ or not remains a subject of contention among historians. For Hall, a history professor at Harvard, they are ‘Puritans’ (though in his preface he blames this on his copy-editor); Stephen Tomkins, who is British, prefers lower case. In America, the name carries more baggage than in England and Scotland, and might mean any English colonist in New England, where industry and piety marched in lockstep. But the use of a ‘P’ still suggests a level of consistency and consensus that did not exist on either side of the Atlantic. Nowhere was puritanism a coherent faith or a national church; it was always, as Collinson remarked, ‘only one half of a stressful relationship’. Even the name ‘puritan’ remained an insult until the later 17th century, when veterans of persecution began to wear it as a badge of pride. Until then, puritans called themselves ‘the godly’ or ‘the true church’, but not ‘the unspotted lambs of the Lord’ as the Elizabethan chronicler John Stow claimed (this was another slur: Stow had Catholic sympathies).

Puritanism has long commanded historical attention. Collinson helped put the politics back in, working with the grain of the ‘new’ social and cultural histories of the 1980s. What emerged from this work was a bottom-up puritanism, a deep seam in English life, far more significant than the parliamentary opposition or ‘puritan choir’ historians had identified thirty years earlier. Some historians of religion likened Marxian colleagues, who treated puritanism as a tool of social control, to the blind trying to describe colours. Puritanism, they showed, was not a pretext for the ‘reformation of manners’: it was a spiritual epiphany. Tomkins’s interest, in The Journey to the Mayflower, is firmly religious (announced by endorsements on the cover from the archbishop of York and the born-again Christian MP Tim Farron); his PhD, the thesis of which informs his book, was in church history. His subtitle claims that puritans invented freedom, which might seem extravagant to anyone who associates puritanism with its negation.

Puritans aimed high, and they were often disappointed. After surviving Mary I, whose Catholic counter-reformation (1553-58) involved the burning of three hundred Protestants, many puritans had unrealistic expectations of her successor. They therefore detested Elizabeth I’s church settlement of 1559, with its concessions to Lutherans and Catholics, including the requirements that ministers wear priestly vestments and accept Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Church government was another bugbear. Allegiance to Rome, which Mary had restored, had been again severed and Elizabeth was now supreme governor of the Church of England. Mary’s religious enemies were heretics, but Elizabeth’s would be traitors. Failure to conform, whether by puritans or Catholics, was lèse-majesté. The issue was policed by bishops, whom puritans reviled as relics of popery.

Objection to the 1559 settlement was, however, as far as puritan solidarity extended. Hall and Tomkins describe a movement so variegated and fissiparous it might be better described as a tendency. It used to be said that puritanism fragmented over time: first the mid-17th-century schism between Presbyterians and Independents, the former desiring a national church and the latter self-governing congregations; then an explosion of exotically named sects – Ranters, Seekers, Muggletonians, Grindletonians; and in America the showdown between the ruling Calvinists and ‘Antinomian’ dissidents. Cries of blasphemy and heresy arose on all sides.

Puritans are often thought to have been preoccupied with the idea of a holy war between Christ and Antichrist. Collinson thought this was true only of extremists, those who were radicalised by Charles I’s religious policy in the 1630s, and that puritanism was initially and essentially a movement for reform within the Church of England. As a result, his work neglected the ‘Separatists’ – pissing-in rebels against orthodoxy – whom Tomkins, heading the other way, emphasises to the exclusion of mainstream dissent. All Tomkins’s puritans are ‘outlaws’. Hall’s picture is more inclusive, sensitive and subtle, though he admits that even a book as big as his can’t accommodate all the shades of opinion. To complicate matters, not only were puritanism’s most famous traits – agitation against immorality; witch-hunting; even Calvinism itself – not uniquely puritan, but bishops could be puritan on doctrinal matters yet disagree with puritan positions on church government. It’s dizzying. Milton was, Hall teases, ‘a very un-Puritan Puritan’.

Chronology matters. Early in Elizabeth’s reign puritans weren’t ‘at war’ with church or state, both of which were in any case more exercised about Catholics. By 1565, however, the queen was tired of ‘varieties, novelties and diversities’, which looked like symptoms of a diseased body politic. She instructed the archbishop of Canterbury to enforce uniformity; he delegated the task, but to limited effect. When the bishop of London addressed a crowd, a tinker’s wife ‘unreverently hooted at him’. It was a sign of deeper disquiet. Puritan cells coalesced into networks distributing smuggled treatises and coded notes. These people were not ascetic moralists, rather they were biblical ‘precisians’ who formed conventicles and held secret prayer meetings in parlours and barns and woodland clearings. Illicit city gatherings could be huge – one enthusiast hired a hall, pretending it was for a wedding – and often had an international air: in Marian London, puritans met at the house of Mr Frog, a Dutch cobbler. It was an underground, non-violent yet militant. Fearless determination was girded by biblical typology: Britain’s saints imagined themselves as reprising the covenant God had sealed with the Israelites. Revolution did not mean a radical disjuncture but a return to the perfection of the primitive church.

Many puritans were young, rejecting convention and seeking an identity. The Hebrew scholar Henry Ainsworth spent his early twenties drifting from Norfolk to London to Ireland to Amsterdam, subsisting on boiled roots and the word of God. Even mature figures such as Robert Browne, who in the 1580s lent his name to Ainsworth’s brethren (‘Brownists’), wavered in and out of conformity as conscience and courage dictated. It helped their enemies that some puritans were not only flaky but mad. William Hacket, a maltster, boasted of wrestling lions at the Tower of London, and supposedly once bit off a schoolmaster’s nose (and swallowed it). He progressed from mimicking radical preachers to providing exorcisms and false prophecy; finally, he claimed to be the Messiah. However unusual, Hacket’s enormities were a stick with which to beat more moderate puritans. Puritans used the same tactics against one another: allegations of drunkenness, adultery, incest and perversion advanced vicious power struggles. One Brownist was accused of hanging a naked servant by her hands and whipping her, which Tomkins calls ‘a new genre of puritan pornography’.

Squabbling among themselves wasn’t dangerous, but facing down the state was. The puritan concept of a visible church – as a community ruled by Christ – conflicted with the assertion of royal supremacy. The link between religious orthodoxy and political loyalty made criminals of puritans: they were flogged, mutilated and imprisoned. ‘Frantick’ Hacket was hanged in 1591, begging God to send a miracle from a cloud. He and a few others like him became martyrs. The Welsh preacher John Penry, who called for the light of the gospel to be shone in dark corners of the land, was condemned in 1593 for owning a seditious petition. On the eve of his death he charged his daughters – Deliverance, Comfort, Safety and Sure Hope – with brandishing the torch of faith against the established church.

Hopes that James I, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, would cut puritans some slack were dashed by the instituting of new church canons. Some protested and were suspended; most capitulated. A brave few took a stand. In 1612 Edward Wightman, who dismissed the Trinity as a fiction and believed the soul slept in the body until Judgment Day, became the last person to be burned for heresy. Wightman, a literate mercer from Staffordshire, was armed to the teeth with biblical quotations and never ducked a verbal scrap. His last debate, of course, was the one he lost. By this time, however, there was another way to win: emigration to the Low Countries or the New World. A tiny minority of puritans had lost interest in the good fight at home, especially if it meant protesting weakly from prison, and envisaged a New Jerusalem where they might worship unmolested and enjoy the free land that was so scarce in overpopulated England. Wightman’s son and grandsons made new lives in the distant haven of Rhode Island.

Inthe 17th century 350,000 people swapped the British Isles for what a Scots reformer called the ‘free air of the new world’. Most of them were seeking economic opportunity rather than religious liberty. Even those who left in the godly fleets of the 1630s were a mixed bunch with mixed motives. Their leader, John Winthrop, a Suffolk puritan, was a gentleman of ailing fortunes and as pious as a priest. He learned a lot from the Pilgrims, those who had settled New Plymouth in 1620, but he never renounced his loyalty to the crown or Church of England, even as the Massachusetts Bay Colony he founded came to seem more like a free state.

The Pilgrims, by contrast, were Separatist puritans. They had lived first in Leiden until they discovered that Dutch cities weren’t best suited for keeping teenagers on the straight and narrow; next, they boarded a rackety wine ship, the Mayflower, and sailed off into the Atlantic. Their destination was Virginia, which after a rough start was now a flourishing colony. Planters there exported tobacco, and in 1619 convened the first representative assembly in the New World. To the emigrating Separatists this outlier of the motherland was a template for the Promised Land. Unfortunately, high winds drove them to Cape Cod, which, they fretted, was not covered by their patent. So they drew up a scratch agreement, the ‘Mayflower Compact’, cherished ever since as a fag-packet draft of the US Constitution. After a severe winter, which killed half the settlers, there came – with Indigenous people’s help – an abundant harvest. They traded beaver skins, which commanded a good price back home, and so the Atlantic became a bridge as much as a barrier between cultures and economies. This commercial streak runs through Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon (2010), which sees the Pilgrims for what they were: enterprising English men and women. A similar shift in perspective shapes Tomkins’s focus on the Pilgrims’ intellectual origins. Neither writer – Bunker is also British – is invested in the US creation myths that distort the bigger picture. More than 90 per cent of British emigrants went to Virginia, Maryland and the West Indies, but it was the 21,000 settlers in New England who had the greatest cultural impact. Not all of them were puritans, but they were, in that special sense, Puritans.

Historians eager to rehabilitate puritanism – Winthrop’s biographer calls him ‘America’s forgotten founding father’ – have not succeeded in denting the popular image of intransigence and cruelty. The scarlet letter worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the pointy reckonings of The Crucible are indelible stains; even the folk horror of H.P. Lovecraft assumes some evil resident in the land. The devil the puritans fought at Salem was in themselves; they became the monsters of their own crusade. Repressed and repressive, puritans stood for the freedom to abide by a truth they enforced with draconian laws. This was the paradox that ensured their demise: that liberty – liberty from Romish corruption – led its guardians into tyranny. And it was largely a tyranny turned against themselves. When puritans burned other puritans’ books, as they did in London and Boston, critics were quick to evoke memories of Marian counter-reformation bonfires, the furnaces in which puritan resistance was forged in the 1550s.

Traditionally exempt from obloquy are the Pilgrims in Plymouth, puritans who cut their ties with England to become wholesome pioneers, who broke bread with Indigenous people and generally did their own thing – a sort of American Dream 1.0. As such they are celebrated and annually respliced into America’s cultural DNA at Thanksgiving dinners and school pageants. Plymouth, MA attracts thousands of visitors, who gaze upon the dubious fragment of Plymouth Rock (which, it has been said, resembles ‘a fossilised potato’) and wander round a seaworthy replica of the Mayflower. Re-enactors cling to their backstories and accents under cross-examination by tourists. The pandemic curtailed the planned celebrations of the 400th anniversary last year, but 2020 also inflamed the question of race. The statue of William Bradford, the bookish Yorkshireman who governed Plymouth for more than thirty years, is a short walk from Plymouth Rock. But his is not the only memorial there. Around the corner stands Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoags, all but wiped out by the English invasion. Wampanoag descendants have for fifty years gathered by the statue at Thanksgiving for a National Day of Mourning. These days, Bradford looks a bit sheepish.

And so he should: the Pilgrims were arrogant and brutal. The bleached bones of Indigenous Americans who had died in an epidemic were taken by Bradford to mean that God had cleared the land for his people. It was a mandate and a responsibility that forbade tolerance. The maypole belonging to the adjacent plantation at Merrymount, where standards of devotion were lax, was destroyed as a pagan idol and the revellers’ non-puritan leader repatriated. Bradford’s ruffian enforcer, Myles Standish, stabbed three Massachusett warriors at a peace summit and brought back a head as a trophy. In Mayflower (2006), Nathaniel Philbrick slots these episodes into a long sequence of racially aggravated land grabs ending in the 1670s with the decisive trauma of King Philip’s War. Prisoners were enslaved, though Africans were thought to be better workers and were available in bulk. New Englanders were not avid slaveowners, but they supplied the horses, timber and food that allowed Caribbean plantations to specialise in the production of sugar using unfree labour. The Pilgrims were complicit in what now looks plainly like a crime against humanity. ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,’ Malcolm X said, ‘the rock was landed on us.’

Even so, puritans were complex, nuanced people, whose racism and misogyny were so universal and ingrained as to make such epithets anachronistic. Understanding (rather than judging) them is easier than we might think. Michael Wigglesworth, author of the bestselling poem ‘The Day of Doom’, was allergic to merriment; while teaching at Harvard in the 1650s, according to the historian Edmund S. Morgan, he ‘suffered the most innocuous pranks of his students with a ludicrous air of mourning’. But he was also prey to normal irritations and fears: he was a twitchy hypochondriac, a neighbour’s swinging door bugged him, and he sulked that nobody missed him when he went on holiday to Bermuda – a trip that gave him constipation. We know all this because Wigglesworth kept a diary, where he confessed things we might not admit even to ourselves. Many puritans made records of their lives, which, far from being vain indulgences, were scribal acts of contrition, reflexive aids to contemplation. Wigglesworth wasn’t being falsely modest when he called himself ‘a poor sinful worm’: God was his witness. Dreams were a frequent source of perplexity. Samuel Sewall, another diarist, dreamed that Christ came to Boston and lodged at his father-in-law’s house. It meant everything and nothing.

Unlike The Journey to the Mayflower, Hall’s book is a fine-grained synthesis of wide scholarship, suffused with all the supranational dynamism of Atlantic history. But both books share a ‘theology-and-ecclesiology-in-action’ approach. Questions about the ways in which Protestantism seeped into Englishness and how it was experienced are marginalised – deliberately in Hall’s case. Yet this popular and cultural dimension is crucial to understanding puritanism. Collinson thought so, and so do his disciples Alexandra Walsham, Peter Marshall and Peter Lake. The inner turmoil of a man like Wigglesworth should make puritans natural subjects for the ‘emotional turn’ in history. Puritans, we now acknowledge, wept as sermons melted their hearts and abased themselves when their children lay sick. They idealised mutually fulfilling marital love and sent letters of startling romantic tenderness. Pride was only one spoke in a wheel of passions that soon came back round to self-doubt and wretchedness; awareness of sin was despair, exile from God. Winthrop’s lay sermon to his fleet was an ardent plea for charity between Christian neighbours, devoid of exceptionalist swagger. Puritans were outrageously wrong, but they were tearful and hopeful and knew most human joys and miseries. Emotion might be the key to understanding who they really were.

We’ve lost sight of much of this because posterity has pilloried puritan memory. In England, Cromwell’s Roundheads were despised as fanatics who cut off the king’s head. New England’s puritans were branded as the tormentors of adulterers, Quakers and innocent ‘witches’. The communitarianism of the godly colonists was swamped by capitalism. This ‘declension’ has been exposed as a myth – even the Pilgrims knew ‘religion and profit jump together’ – yet puritan authority had waned by 1700. New England was by now made up of crown colonies, and property, not church membership, shaped the electoral franchise. Liberty ceased to mean simply freedom from religious error in a covenanted township, expanding to encompass, as some Massachusetts petitioners put it, ‘the right from God and man to choose our own governors, make and live under our own laws’. England became nominally Anglican, a loose fold within which Baptists, Quakers and Methodists kept the puritan tradition alive, collectively capitalised as ‘Dissenters’ and stigmatised well into the 19th century. In America, Congregationalists and Unitarians parted company, though they agreed that the Calvinist concept of predestination had encouraged moral irresponsibility in the colonial era.

Perhaps, like witches, puritans are good to think with. Like ‘witch hunt’, ‘puritanism’ is a glib shorthand, a means of distancing ourselves from incivility, injustice and misanthropy. No one wants to be ‘puritanical’: better to be thought fun-loving, broadminded, easygoing, even (perhaps especially) if we’re not. Puritans hold a mirror to the anxious self-image of individuals and societies, reflecting both intolerance and a hatred of intolerance, a fear of corruption in perfection, of dystopia seeded in utopia. They have never been more useful.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 43 No. 8 · 22 April 2021

Malcolm Gaskill condemns the Puritans of New England – who numbered very few slaveowners and whose descendants were largely abolitionists – for trading horses, timber and food with the owners of sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean (LRB, 18 March). Nearly everything about the distant past seems unjust, when viewed from the present day. In light of the current global effort to vaccinate people against Covid-19, perhaps this is a good moment to recall the risky move proposed by Cotton Mather to his fellow Puritans in New England three hundred years ago.

In April 1721, an epidemic of smallpox spread through Boston and its neighbouring towns; by June it had infected nearly 5900 people and caused 844 deaths. Mather, a leading minister, had read about the favourable outcome of inoculation as reported in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. What’s more, his slave Onesimus claimed to have recovered from smallpox after similar treatment in Africa. Mather spoke with some Boston physicians about an inoculation trial, but only Zabdiel Boylston was interested. Having survived smallpox some years before, Boylston could not experiment on himself, so tried the procedure instead on his willing children and servants.

The people of Boston were horrified. A pamphlet war started, with Increase and Cotton Mather on one side, joined by Boylston and Benjamin Colman, and the physician William Douglass on the other. But the beneficial effect of smallpox inoculation became clear when of the 248 persons treated, only six died, with the rest being protected against the disease. A bill introduced in the legislature aiming to forbid inoculation by law failed to pass, and the first clinical treatise ever written on the subject of smallpox inoculation was sent by Cotton Mather to the Royal Society and published in the Transactions.

Carol Maibach
Menlo Park, California

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences