Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Faithful Shepherd, by David Hall

David D. Hall.  The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century.  University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

I took Professor Hall for a class on early American religion back when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I enjoyed the subject matter, especially the part of the class about the Puritans (and you can read about my interest in the Puritans here).  I also liked Professor Hall’s dry sense of humor in his lectures.

The Faithful Shepherd is about Puritanism in America.  It is set against the background of Puritanism in England, as well as the Protestant Reformation.  The book is also about how Puritanism in America began a certain way and drifted away from that with new generations.

According to David Hall, Puritanism in seventeenth century America was congregationalist.  That means that each congregation was independent and rather democratic.  Each congregation was to be an exclusive holy community, and people had to demonstrate repentance and the work of God’s grace on their lives in order to join a particular Puritan church.  Some of these trends began in England, as Puritanism there opposed the priestly system of the Church of England in favor of a congregational model.  At the same time, there was diversity within English Puritanism, for some Puritans preferred to work within the system rather than in opposition to it, and there were Puritans who were not particularly exclusive about church membership: they were open to welcoming people to church even if they did not meet specific criteria of repentance or grace, out of the hope that God could use church as a way to make himself known to these people.  The Puritanism that came to America, however, did so with the goal of establishing an exclusive holy community.

Hall details the conflicts involving Puritanism in seventeenth century America.  Puritans had a complex relationship with the state: they wanted the state to enforce certain religious laws, yet they did not care for how people went over the church’s head and went to the state to get what they wanted.  Some magistrates wanted the colonists to focus more on farming than attending election sermons.  Meanwhile, non-members were resentful of how exclusive the churches were as well as the special privileges that church members were receiving.  The church was rather small, but second generation Puritans became more open to an inclusive stance, and third generation Puritans became even more open to it.  Times were changing, and harsh jeremiads about God’s wrath were not stemming the tide!

Something that surprised me as I read this book was the Puritan stances towards the church sacraments.  These stances reminded me of the view of Christians who argue that baptism is irrelevant to salvation, for what saves a person is faith.  For some reason, I was expecting the Puritans to have a stronger view of the sacraments than that.

Another issue that interested me was that of faith and works.  Puritans believed in God’s grace, yet many of them treated good works as a means through which God can show grace.  Meanwhile, Anne Hutchinson and the antinomians were exhorting people, not to focus on their good works or whether they were manifesting proper signs of repentance and God’s grace on their hearts, but rather to look to Christ alone: to desire Christ.  I identify with both perspectives, probably with the latter a bit more.

There was a lot of nuance in this book, and sometimes I had difficulty keeping track of the characters and who believed what.  I did enjoy the book, however, on account of its nuance, and also my love for the Puritans.  As I looked at Hall’s bibliography, I was tempted to check out those books (or more current books about the same topics).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog