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Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction

By Francis J. Bremer
March 2010 | Review by Stuart Fisher


Written by a leading expert on the Puritans, this brief, informative volume offers a wealth of background on this key religious movement. This book traces the shaping, triumph, and decline of the Puritan world, while also examining the role of religion in the shaping of American society and the role of the Puritan legacy in American history. Francis J. Bremer discusses the rise of Puritanism in the English Reformation, the struggle of the reformers to purge what they viewed as the corruptions of Roman Catholicism from the Elizabethan church, and the struggle with the Stuart monarchs that led to a brief Puritan triumph under Oliver Cromwell. It also examines the effort of Puritans who left England to establish a godly kingdom in America. Bremer examines puritan theology, views on family and community, their beliefs about the proper relationship between religion and public life, the limits of toleration, the balance between individual rights and one's obligation to others, and the extent to which public character should be shaped by private religious belief.

  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-0195334555
  • Pages: 122
  • Price: £4.99
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Book Review

This book is faithful to its title and gives a clear if somewhat passionless account of Puritanism on both sides of the Atlantic. It is part of a major series by OUP of short introductions. The series is very eclectic and in some cases bizarre. For example one title is ‘A very short introduction to nothing’, which, presumably, is very short! However, this should not deter the curious reader.

Written by an American scholar, this title is divided into seven parts, each detailing an essential aspect of Puritanism. After a brief introduction, the first chapter gives an historical overview of the beginnings of the movement from the English Reformation.

Chapter two moves the focus to the New World. The third chapter attempts to deal with Puritan theology. The next three chapters focus on the lifestyle of the Puritans and its influence on society. Chapter seven concludes with a summing up of Puritanism and its legacy.

Considering its limitations, the author achieves what he sets out to do, but leaves the reader somewhat unmoved. It is this reviewer’s contention that Puritanism is anything but a dry account of a bygone period of history.

The narrative seems to lack dynamism and passion. Whether this was due to editorial restraints or the author’s concern to remain totally objective is unclear. To be fair, there are some excellent passages, but overall, I found this work patchy in quality.

Although preaching is referred to, it is not given the pride of place it deserves for a work on Puritanism. The constant hopping from one side of the Atlantic to the other also interrupted the flow of the narrative.

Also, the book’s presentation in a clumsy format, with a dull brown cover, will only enhance many people’s mistaken view of the Puritans as sombre, misguided and irrelevant.

Having said all that, this does give a reliable overview of the subject from both sides of the Atlantic. The references are up to date and the last chapter helpful. It’s a useful work to have, but there are better introductions available.

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