The Puritans have gotten a bad rap. From the very beginning the word “Puritan” was a term of derision. Indeed, we have the term “puritanical” because they have been wrongly pictured as dour, joyless, negative and repressive. But that is a caricature made by those who either do not understand or do not like the Puritans. The truth is, they were radical, committed disciples of Christ who took their faith and life very seriously indeed.
They may have gotten a bad press, but their legacy lives on. One simply has to look at many recent and contemporary Christians who have been so very profoundly influenced by the Puritans. Simply think of Charles Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, J. I. Packer or Martyn Lloyd-Jones as but four examples. All have keenly expressed their great dependence on and inspiration from the Puritans.
Far too much can and should be said about the Puritans, but that is just not possible in a short article like this. So here I simply wish to do two things: offer a brief description and synopsis of who the Puritans were and what their emphases have been; and highlight two important new books which any lover of the Puritans should be aware of, if not possess.
Who Were the Puritans?
Many famous names easily enough roll off the lips here: John Owen, Matthew Henry, Richard Baxter, John Flavel, William Perkins, Thomas Hooker, Richard Sibbes, John Bunyan, Thomas Manton, Cotton Mather, Thomas Goodwin, William Gurnall, Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Watson, and so on. But who were they and why are they so important?
Erroll Hulse says that the original Puritans of the Elizabethan period (1558-1603) were a “distinct brotherhood of pastors who emphasized the great central truths of Christianity: faithfulness to Scripture, expository preaching, pastoral care, personal holiness and practical godliness applied to every area of life.”
Beeke and Jones offer this short summary: “The distinctive character of Puritanism was its quest for a life reformed by the Word of God. The Puritans were committed to search the Scriptures, organize and analyse their findings, and then apply them to all areas of life. They had a confessional, theological, and trinitarian approach that urged conversion and communion with God in personal, family, church, and national life.”
Lloyd-Jones says this in his study on the topic: “The Puritan is primarily concerned about a pure church, a truly Reformed Church. Men may like aspects of the Puritan teaching – their great emphasis on the doctrine of grace, and their emphasis on pastoral theology; but however much a man may admire those aspects of Puritanism, if his first concern is not for a pure church, a gathering of saints, he surely has no right to call himself a Puritan.”
James Packer puts it this way: “Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition – indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God’s honour – it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy.”
Peter Lewis offers this summation: “Puritanism was not merely a set of rules or a larger creed, but a life-force: a vision and a compulsion which saw the beauty of a holy life and moved towards it, marvelling at the possibilities and thrilling to the satisfaction of a God-centred life.”
If all that has not whetted your appetite, Packer asks – then answers – this question: Why do we need the Puritans, and what can they offer us that we need? He says: “The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity.
“The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-travelled leader, a native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep.
“The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined. Visionary and practical, idealistic and realistic too, goal-oriented and methodical, they were great believers, great hopers, great doers, and great sufferers.
“But their sufferings, both sides of the ocean (in old England from the authorities and in New England from the elements), seasoned and ripened them till they gained a stature that was nothing short of heroic. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do, and the Puritans’ battles against the spiritual and climatic wildernesses in which God set them produced a virility of character, undaunted and unsinkable, rising above discouragement and fears, for which the true precedents and models are men like Moses, and Nehemiah, and Peter after Pentecost, and the apostle Paul.
“Spiritual warfare made the Puritans what they were. They accepted conflict as their calling, seeing themselves as their Lord’s soldier-pilgrims, just as in Bunyan’s allegory, and not expecting to be able to advance a single step without opposition of one sort or another.”
One could keep quoting from Packer all day, but I think you get the drift. If the Puritan influence could produce such spiritual giants as Packer and Lloyd-Jones, then surely going back directly to the Puritans themselves should be a spiritual tonic and blessing for any one of us.
Two important resources
One brand new and one slightly older resource are must reading for anyone who wants to dig deep (or deeper) into Puritan history, biography and theology. I refer to two volumes, both co-authored by Joel Beeke, and both published by Reformation Heritage Books.
The first one is the brand new A Puritan Theology, co-written by Mark Jones. This is a monumental volume of over 1000 pages, and is the first and most complete one-volume compendium on the theology of the Puritans. All things theological are to be found here: the Puritans’ views on the attributes of God, the Trinity, Christology, law and grace, sin and salvation, demonology, eschatology, ecclesiology, practical theology, and so on.
The slightly older volume is Meet the Puritans, co-authored by Randall Pederson. In almost 900 pages we are introduced to over 150 English, Scottish, Dutch, and American Puritans. This handbook offers us a wonderful biographical and bibliographical look at this vital movement. Both these volumes are first rate, and taken together will supply you with an enormous amount of material on who the Puritans were and what they believed.
Warning: these are heavy duty books in more ways than one. The two of them will set you back around $100. But they are nonetheless an invaluable investment and well worth grabbing. We all owe it to ourselves to learn about the Puritans, if not immerse ourselves in them. These two volumes are a major means of doing so. But see below for more helpful resources as well.
For further reading:
It should be pointed out that the leading publishing house specialising in reprints of Puritan writings is Banner of Truth. It has published plenty of volumes from the Reformation and Puritan eras. Those wanting to get a hold of many of these original authors can do no better than to begin here: www.banneroftruth.org/pages/home.php
Adair, John, Founding Fathers: The Puritans in England and America. Baker, 1982, 1986.
Barker, William, Puritan Profiles. Mentor, 1996.
Beeke, Joel and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology. RHB, 2013.
Beeke, Joel and Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans. RHB, 2006.
Bremer, Francis, Puritanism. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Dickens, A.G., The English Reformation. Schocken Books, 1964.
Hulse, Errol, Who Are the Puritans? Evangelical Press, 2000.
Kevan, Earnest, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology. RHB, 1964, 2011.
Lewis, Peter, The Genius of Puritanism. Carey, 1977.
Loane, Marcus, Makers of Puritan History. Banner of Truth, 2009.
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Banner of Truth, 1987, 2002.
Miller, Perry, The New England Mind. 1939.
Morgan, Edmund, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Cornell University Press, 1965.
Murray, Iain, The Puritan Hope. Banner of Truth, 1971.
Packer, J.I., A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Crossway, 1990.
Ryken, Leland, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. Zondervan, 1986.
Note: In Australia many of these volumes can be found at Koorong Books. For those overseas, see online sites such as amazon.