by E. Brooks Holifield
David Hall, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School, has done as much as any historian of the past three decades to shape the direction and hone the methodology of both American religious history and the history of the book and of reading. We have much to learn by looking at his career — his career so far — and I would like to examine his style of historical thinking by noting a series of metaphors that began to appear in his books and articles in the 1970s. The metaphors assumed different shadings of meaning, but they exhibit a consistent habit of mind, a way of thinking historically that will influence us for a long time.
The central image is “middle ground,” or the “middle way,” or “middle space,” or “middling spaces.” And it attracts other related metaphors: negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, mediations, mediating contexts, reciprocities, tangled reciprocities. These metaphors, in turn, attract a related set of conceptions: ambivalence, paradox, overlapping contradictions, ambiguity, and dialectic.
Those metaphors and concepts have carried the weight of David Hall’s consistent opposition to binary constructions, sharp polarities between orality and literacy, piety and indifference, tradition and the market, clergy and lay, misogynist patriarchs and insurgent women, literate and illiterate, theocrats and democrats, purity and declension, formality and ecstasy, the people and the elite, dominating and dominated, communal and individualist, local and metropolitan, genteel and common, and European and American.
He has always acknowledged differentiations, but he has also relativized them, situated them in historical settings in which one finds both oppositions and mediations. He has been a critic of “stark extremities” and simple dichotomies. When he has looked at the past, he has found conflicts but also subtle negotiations.
He has written about educated elites, but he has uncovered their intimate linkage to “the people.” He has insisted that we look at both social history and intellectual systems, at both behavior and language, at both the liminal and the ordinary, at both the conserving and the radical, and the ways in which they are entangled with each other.
His position has been hard-earned, grounded in prodigious research in the primary sources and a mastery of the secondary literature that few can equal. When Hall published his study of the New England clergy in 1972 — The Faithful Shepherd — a growing array of colonial social historians were ready to say that the clergy were largely irrelevant to understanding early America, even the New England colonies. And intellectual history and the history of ideas were largely irrelevant to understanding almost everything about the past.
The opponent of choice for the social historians of colonial America was Perry Miller, whom they accused of overstating the power of “elite ideas,” and they published a variety of local studies that ignored religion, and especially religious leaders and their ideas, built a wall between high and popular culture, and accented the vast distance between the collective mentality of folk belief and the rarified and isolated mental world of the literate. Intellectual history seemed “irretrievably displaced by numbers-driven social history.” [“Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation,” 281] There was always, he wrote later, both conflict and negotiation, and so unpredictability and uncertainty, in the hunt for witches. He urged the necessity for a vision of mediation in the historiography of witch-hunting.
By 1989, when he published Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he had become an incisive critic of the Americanization thesis (with its pronounced contrast between Europe and America). He also called into question notions of decline from supposedly pristine orthodoxies and over-precise distinctions between the people and their leaders. And he had found imaginative ways to get inside the heads of ordinary people who lived in both an enchanted universe and a Protestant world.
The 1990s brought a shift of interest in his scholarship in at least four ways: (1) First, he began to publish the results of his research on the history of reading and the book. Second, an assignment to edit one of the volumes of the Yale Edwards edition cast him into the manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. (3) Third, he moved deeper into social history by exploring the dynamics of the colonial family and of women in New England religion. (4) And fourth, he began to develop his concept of “lived religion” as an alternative to the binary “popular” and “elite.” In all these endeavors, he exemplified a resistance to simple binaries.
In Cultures of Print (1996) and A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000), with Hugh Amory, he emphasized again the ambiguities and overlaps. Had there really been a revolutionary transition from intensive reading in colonial America to extensive reading in the nineteenth century? Did the polarity of domination and resistance really clarify the role of gender in reading? Should we distinguish high and low with as much confidence as we sometimes do? Was there really a vast gulf between local and metropolitan readers? The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World —rich in detail— will be, for our lifetimes and beyond, the classic, comprehensive study of the book in early America.
His work on Edwards led him to look closely at the institutional settings and the family dynamics in the background of Edwards’s ideas about the church. In fact, Hall’s study of the family helped him explain the ways in which the desires of women to protect their children helped define both seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritanism as a continuing “negotiation between extremes,” a multilayered system out of which both clergy and laity selected motifs and symbols that sometimes overlapped and sometimes did not. [“Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Ecclesiastical Writings, 82]
Finally, his concept of lived religion — a concept that has deeply influenced recent directions of American religious history — enabled him to look at how religions and cultures embodied overlapping tensions and even contradictions in early America.
The notion of lived religion was an effort to move beyond an undifferentiated notion of popular religion and to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the religion of the people and official religion. For example, his essay on Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder — a small masterpiece — showed through imaginative detailed reading of the diaries the ways in which this seventeenth-century Puritan layman partook both of Protestant tradition and popular sensibilities in his quest for protection in a frightening world of harsh contrasts and unpredictable forces.
Now, simply to trace a few continuities — a few motifs — in David Hall’s historical writing is to miss, of course, the textured complexity of his work. He has not written history that admits of simply summary. He has immersed himself in the detail — and unearthed both the spoken and the unspoken in early America. He has taken us into the stubborn recalcitrance of a history that is sometimes messy, rarely malleable and submissive to our simplifying categories, and always engaging of our serious attention.