42: David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder

Like John Butler and Bob Abzug, David Hall sets out to decenter Parry Miller’s Puritan-focused history of religion in early America.  In Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Vernacular Religion in Seventeenth Century New England, Hall argues that far from an institutional orthodoxy, religion in the New World was a fluid process in which formal Christianity and popular religious beliefs informed one another.  Unlike in the Old World, multiple belief systems didn’t exist side by side; they intermingled – to the point where clergy incorporated wonder and miracles and regular people worried about sin and repentance.

Unlike Butler, Hall relies not just on formal church records but on any source that will give him information about the religious lives of ordinary people; he thus reads official manuscripts alongside popular broadsheets, ballads, chapbooks, and devotional books, all of which would have been accessible to regular people.  Hall’s is not the first book to extend the “new social history” to religion (that honor belongs to Keith Thomas’ 1971 study of witchcraft in Europe), but it IS the first to use this method for religion in the New World.  It also does a good job of situating American religion in its broader transatlantic context, rather than trying to keep it separate as something uniquely American. AND it contributes to the history of reading in America by expanding the definition of “literature” to include popular publications.

While it would be nice not to have to infer what people were thinking based on the few popular written sources we have left from them, and while it would be even nicer if this book didn’t extrapolate from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to speak for all of New England, Hall does bring in new, interesting sources, like the Wonder Books and Samuel Sewell’s journals, and I, for one, am entertained by the idea of Puritan ministers incorporating the language of witchcraft into their sermons in hopes of reaching more of the people.

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