‘Puritan’ is a term of abuse, and we tend to use it to refer to such figures as the nightmarishly moralistic, sour-faced women who force Hester Prynne to be emblazoned with the Scarlet Letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. But David D. Hall, doyen of 17th-century puritanism, goes deeper than this. His history is not so much one of ranters as of honest men and women trying to get right the most fundamental things of all: the human relationship with God, and hence the right way to be living and the right sort of society to be ordering. It is these basic questions, as he shows over and over again, which determined the pattern of the Puritans’ behaviour in the early stages of the Reformation, in Scotland and in England. Then, as they drew away from, or were driven out of, the Church of England, in their subsequent life as British nonconformists or as Americans.
To know what it was like to be a 17th- century Puritan, you could hardly do better than read Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by his widow Lucy. As Hall points out, in the 1640s, the Hutchinsons hesitated to use the label. Their experience of the Civil War, and the colonel’s imprisonment after the Restoration, changed all that. Lucy described men like her husband as ‘zealous for God’s glory and worship’, unable to
endure blasphemous oaths, ribald conversation, profane scoffs, Sabbath-breaking, derision of the word of God and the like. Whoever could endure a sermon, modest habit or conversation, or anything good — all these were Puritans.
Similarly, the chief incentive for John Brock — one of the godly who crossed the Atlantic in the 1640s to escape the evil of the ‘idolatrous worship and ceremonies of the Church of England’ — was his love for ‘the Saints that were called Puritans’.