Best 5 Books on the Puritans

Best 5 Books on the Puritans July 17, 2012

I recently reviewed Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill, and thought I would use the occasion to offer a list of 5 all-time great books on the Puritans in America. The Puritans have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, so there are lots of excellent books not included here. I am also focusing (unsurprisingly) on books written by historians, not by theologians or pastors.

1. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province . OK, so I have already bumped the list up to six, in order to include both volumes of Perry Miller’s magnum opus. These are the books that hooked me on the Puritans and early American religion when I read them in graduate school. Miller is widely regarded as the greatest historian of American Puritanism. His interest in the Puritans is a fascinating story in itself: an atheist and heavy drinker, Harvard’s Miller nevertheless admired the Puritans as serious intellectuals who really lived out the beliefs they espoused.

2. Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. Morgan, a student of Miller’s, wrote several excellent books on the Puritans; this sympathetic treatment of the warmth and passion of Puritan family life belies the stereotype of Puritans as legalistic killjoys.

3. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England. Many histories of the Puritans illustrate their ideas or evoke their social lives, but Hambrick-Stowe brilliantly explicates Puritan devotional practices and their fervent love for God.

4. Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. Miller emphasized the changing nature of Puritanism in America, but Stout tells a story of continuity. Through heroic archival research in regular, unpublished sermons, Stout finds that Puritan theology, focused on the doctrine of covenant, remained quite stable throughout the colonial era.

5. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. Written in a compelling, unconventional style, The Name of War recounts the tragic, brutal history of this Puritan war with Native Americans in the 1670s, which remains by percentage of people killed one of the deadliest wars in American history.

So there you go–what would you have included instead?

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  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks Thomas. My college history prof was a student of Miller’s and loved him, but he had us read Derek Rutman’s American Puritanism, a book not on your list. This kind of list is invaluable to non-specialists like me.

  • Thanks again, Thomas, Discovered recently that my Dad’s ancestors were Puritans who arrived in Connecticut in 1635, migrated to the eastern end of Long Island, and planted the first English speaking church on The Island by 1640. Been reading Jonathan Edward’s Resolutions compiled while he was a 19 year old pastor in NYC in 1722-23. These books will help me with the context to appreciate my root system and Edward’s fruit system. Grateful. Sic Em Bears!

  • Christopher

    I like your list, though I don’t think I would include Lepore’s book and would probably replace it with David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment.

  • John C. Gardner

    Are there any books on the Puritans and economics(e.g. did they endorse unbridled capitalism or a more nuanced view of commerce)?

  • Randy

    Thanks Tommy. I’m biased towards Marsden’s Edwards (which I was fabulous), so I’m assuming you’re stopping your list prior to Edwards (how is he categorized, besides sui generis?).

    Christopher – thanks for removing a book when you made a suggestion (which Scot also did impliedly). That’s a pet peeve of mine on lists like this as it creates unmanageably long lists and does little to further the conversation. But I might make an exception for Hall’s book because it pairs really well with Hambrick-Stowe, not only as teacher/student, but also to highlight the role faith can play in shaping scholarship.

  • Sean Lucas

    I wouldn’t replace any of those five (six!), but my favorite book on American Puritanism is Janice Knight’s Orthodoxies in Massachusetts. That was paradigm forming for me.

  • Wasn’t Roger Williams a Puritan? His contribution to our religous heritage is incalculable.

  • While probably not as academic as the ones mentioned (and I do like Stout and Miller) two that I have found helpful, and use in helping others understand the Puritans, are:
    1. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken
    2. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J.I. Packer

  • Mark Peterson, The Price of Redemption, and Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth, are good options here, John.

  • Thanks Randy! I don’t technically consider Edwards a Puritan. My personal date for the end of American Puritanism is 1692, when the new Massachusetts charter required toleration of other Protestants!

  • yes, Knight is an excellent choice!

  • Williams started out as a Puritan, but ended up getting booted out by them when he criticized Massachusetts authorities for a variety of faults.

  • yes, both very nice choices!

  • thank you Scot! glad to help.

  • I’m glad to see Perry Miller made the list. Even if the historiography has moved on from Miller, The New England Mind is still a classic.

    I’d add David Hall A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England on politics and the economy.

    John—a third good work on Puritans and economics is Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.

  • Agreed, Lincoln. That the “historiography has moved on” does not detract from the value of books like Miller’s. Historiography will continue to move on, but few have been able to write like Miller.

  • Great list. Thanks for posting. I did my dissertation on English Puritanism. For what it’s worth, here’s my top 5 from that side of the pond:
    1. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Patrick Collinson)
    2. The Rise of Puritanism (William Haller)
    3. The Precisianist Strain (Theodore Bozeman–this one crosses the Atlantic and covers American Puritanism in the second half)
    4. Godly Clergy in Early Stuart England (Tom Webster)
    5. The Puritan Lectureships (Paul Seaver)

  • Interesting