In the final chapter, “Legacies”, Hall carries the story down to the present day and shows how Puritanism has constantly been caught up in culture wars over the making and meaning of American history. A crucial turn in this story was the nineteenth-century schism between Congregationalists and Unitarians which led Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Unitarian, to write The Scarlet Letter (1850), with devastating effects for the reputation of Puritanism in popular memory. The afterlife of Puritanism, little more than a coda here, deserves a book-length study in its own right. As Daniel T. Rodgers has argued in As a City on a Hill (2018), to understand the history of Puritanism, one has to understand the history of that history: how, generation after generation, the image of Puritanism has been refashioned in the quest for a usable past.
Hall’s book, the product of a lifetime studying the subject, guides us steadily, lucidly and authoritatively across a huge landscape of place and time. His enormous endnotes demonstrate the depth of modern research on Puritanism and the endless complexities of scholarly debate, which mirror the intricacies of the Puritans’ own theological contests, but on which Hall never founders. Though the book is subtitled ‘A Transatlantic History’, New England gets less space than Scotland and England, because the Puritan colonisation came only in the later part of the period Hall writes about.
Hall does not make me like the Puritans much, but he does help me to see what made them tick, and to recognise the heroism of the ‘Saints’ who set out for New England. The fate of William Prynne, having his ears cut off at the behest of Archbishop Laud and the Star Chamber, and the letters SL (‘Seditious Libeller’) branded on his forehead, will flicker uneasily across the minds of those who read this book when they next settle down to listen to a sublime broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3.