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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Social Ethics and Social Practice in Puritan New England: A Reconsideration

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Event Recap

The social ethics and practices of the New England Puritans are widely misunderstood, said David Hall, Harvard Divinity School historian and author of the new book A Reforming People, at an October 18 lunch colloquium. Often depicted by twentieth-century historians as authoritarians who suppressed religious and political dissent, Puritans are better understood, Hall argued, as moral reformers who brought a democratic sensibility to early American social and political life.

For example, the Puritans refused to privilege religious authorities in land or wealth distribution, and they allowed non-church members to hold land. In fact, they explicitly declared that the saints should not decide material matters; town governments were to address these matters in broadly participatory fashion. Hall highlighted some of the crucial political precedents instituted by the Puritans, most notably their emphasis on government accountability, active consent, and popular sovereignty. Rather than promulgating authoritarianism, New England Puritans called upon equity more frequently than any other concept. They also, he said, had very different understandings of some key concepts in American political thought. Liberty, for example, was understood by the Puritans to be the state of being subordinate to the good, whereas we most commonly take it to mean a freedom from interference.