Saturday, April 14, 2007

Book Review: "Puritans in the New World"

Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology is a collection of documents, sermons and poems edited by Harvard Divinity School professor David D. Hall (Princeton University Press, 2004). Hall's stated purpose is "to present, in all its richness, the lived experience of being a Puritan in the strange, contested, and hopeful setting of the New World" (p. x). He has woven together a string of the most important Puritan writings (mostly well-known), with useful and accessible introductory essays and suggestions for further readings in many different areas of Puritan culture and life.

What I found most intriguing about the texts as edited by Hall was how brightly the humanity of the Puritans showed through. It's easy for us to envision the Victorian caricature of Puritan religion and society, but from these documents it becomes abundantly clear that things weren't quite so black and white (literally and figuratively). They were a people vastly different from us, in many ways, but they felt and loved and worried and rejoiced over most of the same things we do.

I have concerns about all edited collections, particularly those in which documents are abridged (I cringe at the sight of ellipses), and those concerns remain in the back of my mind whenever I'm reading something like this. Thankfully most of these documents are widely available elsewhere, so we don't have to feel constricted by Hall's excisions. A worthy compilation volume, well selected; Hall's contextual comments top it off admirably.