A revelatory account of the aspirations and accomplishments of the people who founded the New England colonies, comparing the reforms they enacted with those attempted in England during the period of the English Revolution.
Distinguished historian David D. Hall looks afresh at how the colonists set up churches, civil governments, and methods for distributing land. Bringing with them a deep fear of arbitrary, unlimited authority grounded in either church or state, these settlers based their churches on the participation of laypeople and insisted on “consent” as a premise of all civil governance. Encouraging broad participation and relying on the vigorous use of petitioning, they also transformed civil and criminal law and the workings of courts. The outcome was a civil society far less authoritarian and hierarchical than was customary in their age—indeed, a society so advanced that a few dared to describe it as “democratical.” They were well ahead of their time in doing so.
As Puritans, the colonists also hoped to exemplify a social ethics of equity, peace, and the common good. In a case study of a single town, Hall follows a minister as he encourages the townspeople to live up to these high standards in their politics. This is a book that challenges us to discard long-standing stereotypes of the Puritans as temperamentally authoritarian and their leadership as despotic. Hall demonstrates exactly the opposite. Here, we watch the colonists as they insist on aligning institutions and social practice with equity and liberty.
A stunning re-evaluation of the earliest moments of New England’s history, revealing the colonists to be the most effective and daring reformers of their day.
David D. Hall is Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author or editor of numerous books on American religious and cultural history.