Those Admirable English Puritans

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Michael Gleghorn corrects a number of misunderstandings and stereotypes about the Puritans, suggesting there is much about them to admire.

Introducing the Puritans

J. I. Packer begins his book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by comparing the English Puritans to the California Redwoods. He writes, “On . . . the northern California coastline grow the giant Redwoods, the biggest living things on earth. Some are over 360 feet tall, and some trunks are more than 60 feet round.”{1} A bit later he draws this comparison: “As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras.”{2}

download-podcastOf course, in our day, if people think of the Puritans at all, it’s usually only for the purpose of making a joke of one kind or another. As one author notes, “the Puritans are the only collective stock-in-trade that virtually every cartoonist feels free to use to lampoon society’s ills.”{3}

But who were the Puritans really? When did they live? And, most importantly, why should we care?

Many scholarly studies of English Puritanism begin by noting the variety of ways in which the term “Puritanism” has been used and defined. Christopher Hill begins his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, with a chapter entitled, “The Definition of a Puritan.”{4} And John Spurr, in his book on English Puritanism, has an introductory section on “Defining Puritans.”{5} But we’ll leave it to the scholars to haggle over details. For our purposes, it’s good enough to say that the Puritans were English Protestants who were influenced by the theology of the Reformation. They were zealous to “purify” not only the Church of England, but also their society, and even themselves, from all doctrinal, ceremonial, and moral impurity—and to do so for the glory of God.{6} The time period of English Puritanism spans roughly the years between 1550 and 1700.{7}

So that’s who the Puritans were, but why on earth should we care? Personally, I think it’s because the Puritans can offer us a great deal of wisdom, wisdom that could really benefit the church and society of our own day. As Packer reminds us, “The great Puritans, though dead, still speak to us through their writings, and say things . . . that we badly need to hear at the present time.”{8}

The Puritans and God

Before going any further, we need to come right out and admit that, at least on the popular level, the Puritans really seem to suffer from an “image problem.” According to J. I. Packer, “Pillorying the Puritans . . . has long been a popular pastime.”{9} Likewise, Peter Marshall and David Manuel observe that “Nearly everyone today seems to believe that the Puritans were bluenosed killjoys in tall black hats, a somber group of sin-obsessed, witch-hunting bigots.”{10} Of course, like Packer, they regard this view as “a monstrous misrepresentation.”{11} But when a view is so widely held, we seem to be in for an uphill battle if we want to suggest some ways in which the Puritans were admirable!

So where do we begin? Let’s briefly consider the way in which Puritans sought to live their lives before God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a teaching device highly esteemed by many Puritans,{12} begins by asking, “What is the chief end of man?” That’s a great question, isn’t it? They answered it this way: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”{13}

Now what follows if this answer is correct? Well first, it would mean that human life is objectively full of meaning, value, and purpose, for God exists and (as General Maximus asserted in the hit movie, Gladiator) “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”{14} But second, in claiming that “man’s chief end” consists not only in glorifying God in the here and now, but also in enjoying Him forever, we see the potential for the complete and eternal fulfillment of human existence. For what could be better than enjoying God, the greatest good, forever and ever?

It is doubtless for reasons such as this that the Puritan theologian, William Perkins, defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever”!{15} He understood that theology is not some dry, academic discipline, with no relationship to the rest of one’s life. Rather, theology is all about knowing God personally. And this, according to Jesus, is eternal life, the life of supreme blessedness (John 17:3). So the first reason for seeing the Puritans as admirable is that they sought to live their lives in such a way that they would glorify God and enjoy Him forever—and what could ultimately be wiser, more fulfilling—or more admirable—than that?

The Puritans and Books

Now some may have thought of the Puritans as ignorant, or anti-intellectual—people who either feared or hated learning. But this, claims Leland Ryken, is “absolutely untrue.” Indeed, he says, “No Christian movement in history has been more zealous for education than the Puritans.”{16} Many leaders of the Puritan movement were university educated and saw great value in the life of the mind. One can list individual Puritans who were interested in things like astronomy, botany, medicine, and still other subjects from the book of nature.{17}

Above all, however, Puritanism was a movement which prized that greatest of all books, the Bible. Puritans loved their Bibles—and deemed it both their joy and duty to study, teach, believe and live out its promises and commandments. According to Packer, “Intense veneration for Scripture . . . and a devoted concern to know and do all that it prescribes, was Puritanism’s hallmark.”{18}

Indeed, so great was this Puritan veneration for Scripture that even those without much formal education often knew their English Bible exceedingly well. A great example of this can be seen in John Bunyan, the famed author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Although he did not have much in the way of formal education, one of his later editors declared (doubtless with some exaggeration) that “No man ever possessed a more intimate knowledge of the Bible, nor greater aptitude in quoting it than Bunyan.”{19}

For Puritans like Bunyan, the Bible was the inspired word of God. It was thus the highest court of appeal in all matters of Christian faith and practice. Indeed, since the Bible came from God, it was viewed as having the same divine authority as God himself. It was therefore worth one’s time to know the Bible well, and to be intimately familiar with its contents. As two contemporary scholars of Puritanism remind us, the Bible was both “the mirror before which each person could see the . . . status of one’s soul before God, and the guidebook for all human behavior . . .”{20}

The Puritan stress on knowing, believing, and obeying God’s inspired word is refreshing. What might the church in America look like if it really recaptured this Puritan vision for the importance of Scripture? Here the writings of the Puritans can still be a valuable resource for the church today, which is yet another reason for seeing them as admirable.{21}

The Puritans and the Church

Even in our own day, the Puritans remain fairly well-known for their desire to “purify” the Church of England from anything which, in their estimation, smacked of doctrinal, moral, or ceremonial impurity.{22} The Puritans were passionate about the purity of the church. But how were they to determine if a particular doctrine or practice was suspect?

For the Puritans, it was only natural that God’s inspired word, the Bible, should serve as the final authority in all such matters. If a doctrine was taught in Scripture, then it should also be taught in the church. And if not, then it shouldn’t. The same standard would apply to all moral and ceremonial issues as well. Scripture was to have the final word about whether any particular doctrine or practice was, or was not, to be taught or permitted in the church of God.{23} Of course, this is right in line with what we said above about the Puritan devotion to Scripture.

But once one is committed to judging everything within the church according to the standard of Scripture, it probably won’t be long before one’s view of the church undergoes a similar biblical scrutiny. Such scrutiny soon led Puritans to “the notion that the church is a spiritual reality.” The church is not the building in which the redeemed gather to meet, it is rather “the company of the redeemed” themselves.{24} Doubtless this was one of the reasons why the Puritans were eager to purify not only the church, understood in a corporate sense, but themselves as individuals as well.

It also helps explain the Puritans’ devotion to both the fellowship of the saints and the discipline of an erring brother or sister in the faith. The Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes urged God’s people “to strengthen and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.”{25} And Robert Coachman reminded his readers that “it is no small privilege . . . to live in . . . a society” where one’s brothers and sisters in Christ “will not suffer them to go on in sin.”{26}

But isn’t it all too easy to allow Christian fellowship to lapse into something that is superficial, boring, and sometimes even frankly unspiritual? Yes; and this is why the great English Puritans are quick to remind us (sometimes in the most forceful of ways) that we must continually seek, in our fellowship together, to promote both faith and holiness, along with a deep love and reverent fear of the Lord our God. And isn’t that an admirable reminder?

The Puritans on Marriage and the Family

If there’s one thing that almost everyone thinks they know about the Puritans it’s that they “were sexually inhibited and repressive,” right?{27} But just how accurate is our knowledge about the Puritans on this score? Well according to some scholars, it’s wide of the mark indeed.{28}

Of course, it’s certainly true that the Puritans believed, just as the New Testament teaches, that human sexual behavior should be enjoyed only within the marriage relationship between a husband and wife. And naturally enough, they disapproved of any sexual behavior outside of this relationship. But within the union of heterosexual marriage, the Puritans were actually quite vocal proponents of a rich and vibrant sex life. Indeed, one Puritan author described sex as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage” and encouraged married couples to engage in it “with good will and delight, willingly, readily and cheerfully.”{29} And need I add that the Puritans thought it important to practice what they preached?!

But with Puritan couples so “readily and cheerfully” enjoying their sexual relationships within marriage, they naturally had to give some serious thought to the raising of children and the purpose of the family! So what did they have to say about such matters?

For the Puritans, the family ultimately had the same purpose as the individual; namely, “the glory of God.” The reason this is important, notes Ryken, is that “it determines what goes on in a family,” by setting “priorities in a spiritual rather than material direction.”{30}

The Puritans rightly saw that if one wants a spiritually healthy church and a morally healthy society, one must first have spiritually and morally healthy individuals and families—for the former are inevitably composed of the latter.{31} Hence, if we want healthy churches and societies, we must also prize healthy individuals. And such individuals are best produced within spiritually and morally healthy families.

Now I personally find it difficult to argue with the Puritan logic on this point. And although they lived in a different era, Puritan views on the purpose of the family really seem to offer “some attractive possibilities for our own age.”{32}

And now we’ve reached the end of our discussion of English Puritanism. Of course, the Puritans also had their faults—and I’ve no desire to pretend otherwise.{33} But I hope you’d agree that there’s much to admire about these oft-maligned and misrepresented giants of the past. And I also hope this might encourage you to read (and profit from) these giants for yourself!

Notes

1. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 11. I should probably note that the California Department of Parks and Recreation gives figures slightly different from those in Packer’s book, but this is really immaterial for my purposes in this article. See, for example, “How Big are Big Trees,” California Department of Parks and Recreation, accessed February 12, 2015, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1146.

2. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 11.

3. Bruce C. Daniels, New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 230.

4. Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 1-15.

5. John Spurr, English Puritanism, 1603-1689, ed. Jeremy Black, Social History in Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 3-8.

6. Definitional help was gathered from the sources cited above, as well as the article by Mark A Noll, “Puritanism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 897-900.

7. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 11.

8. Ibid., 16.

9. Ibid., 21.

10. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory: 1492-1793. Revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2009), 211.

11. Ibid.

12. According to Packer, the Puritan Richard Baxter used this catechism to help instruct (and encourage) his parishioners in the truths of the Christian faith. See Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 45.

13. This catechism can be found many places on the internet. See, for example, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism,” The Westminster Presbyterian, accessed February 15, 2015, www.westminsterconfession.org/confessional-standards/the-westminster-shorter-catechism.php.

14. For a philosophical defense of this view, please see the chapter entitled, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 65-90.

15. William Perkins, A Golden Chain, or The Description of Theology (1592). In The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward. Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics 3 (Appleford, England: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), 177; cited in Reformed Reader, ed. William Stacy Johnson and John H. Leith (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 7.

16. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 7.
17. See the brief discussion in Charles Pastoor and Galen Johnson, The A to Z of the Puritans (Lanham, MY: Scarecrow Press, 2009), s.v. “Science.”

18. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 98.

19. The Works of John Bunyan: Allegorical, Figurative, and Symbolical, ed. George Offor, vol. 3 (London: Blackie and Son, 1859), 396.

20. See Pastoor and Johnson, The A to Z of the Puritans, s.v. “Scripture.”

21. Packer says much the same thing. See A Quest for Godliness, 16.

22. For the Puritans, of course, this was typically some vestige of Roman Catholicism. I purposefully chose not to mention this on the radio, however, because I did not want any of our listeners to somehow get the mistaken idea that this was an anti-Catholic program. It’s not. My purpose in this program is to extol the virtues of the Puritans—not to vilify some other segment of the Christian community.

23. Leland Ryken has an excellent discussion of this issue in his chapter on “Church and Worship” in Worldly Saints, 111-135. See particularly pp. 112-115.

24. This, and the previous quotation, are both taken from Ryken, Worldly Saints, 115.

25. Richard Sibbes, “The Church’s Visitation” (London, 1634), cited in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 133.

26. Robert Coachman (or Cushman), The Cry of a Stone (London, 1642), cited in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 133.

27. Ryken, Worldly Saints, 39.

28. See, for example, Ryken’s chapter on “Marriage and Sex” in Worldly Saints, 39-55.

29. William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (London, 1622), edited, updated and revised by Greg Fox (Puritan Reprints, 2006), 158.

30. Ryken, Worldly Saints, 74.

31. Ryken provides numerous examples of this view from the writings of Puritans in Worldly Saints, 74-5; 84-7.
32. Ibid., 73.

33. See Ryken’s chapter, “Learning from Negative Example: Some Puritan Faults,” in Worldly Saints, 187-203.

©2015 Probe Ministries

Michael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565
info@probe.org
www.probe.org

Copyright/Reproduction Limitations

This document is the sole property of Probe Ministries. It may not be altered or edited in any way. Permission is granted to use in digital or printed form so long as it is circulated without charge, and in its entirety. This document may not be repackaged in any form for sale or resale. All reproductions of this document must contain the copyright notice (i.e., Copyright 2016 Probe Ministries) and this Copyright/Limitations notice.

Michael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565
info@probe.org
www.probe.org

Copyright/Reproduction Limitations

This document is the sole property of Probe Ministries. It may not be altered or edited in any way. Permission is granted to use in digital or printed form so long as it is circulated without charge, and in its entirety. This document may not be repackaged in any form for sale or resale. All reproductions of this document must contain the copyright notice (i.e., Copyright 2016 Probe Ministries) and this Copyright/Limitations notice.

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