For many years before entering vocational ministry, I worked as a journalist in the dog-eat-dog world of secular media. While working as a reporter for a metropolitan daily newspaper in Georgia, one of my more progressive colleagues teased me good-naturedly about being a “conservative boy” from a small town in the sticks of North Georgia. She said, “You know what you are? You’re a Puritan!” At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of this remark. Today, I would see it as a high compliment.
In the minds of many, Puritanism equals scrupulous rules-keeping, dour Christianity, or, as the inimitable American journalist H. L. Mencken famously quipped, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Over the past few decades, thanks in large part to the publishing efforts of Banner of Truth and the advocacy of Martyn-Lloyd Jones, the English and American Puritans have made a strong comeback among Reformed evangelicals. During my years in seminary, I fell in love with the Puritans. Now, I delight in teaching about the Puritans, and during my time as pastor, men like John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, and John Owen were among my shepherds through their deeply devotional theological writing. Though dead, they certainly still speak. And we need to hear them.
Granted, they could be maddenly eccentric and sometimes ran to extremes. The Puritans never met a rule the didn’t seem to relish. They had a decidedly underdeveloped view of recreation and leisure. Their writing tended toward wordiness, often stating and then restating the same point several times. And their moralizing of life experiences and spiritual introspection often knew no bounds. For example, Cotton Mather once saw his sinful heart as the cause of a toothache, as he told his diary: “Have I not sinned against my teeth? How? By sinful, graceless, excessive eating, and by sinful speeched? (Quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints)” They were, after all, sinners saved by grace.
Still, for all their humanness, they represent a high point of (to borrow a favorite phrase from John Piper) Christ-centered, Scripture-saturated, God-entranced living.
In our snap-judgment, 140-character age, we need the Puritans perhaps more than ever. Here are eight reasons why.
1. Because they were mature in ways we are not.
J. I. Packer hits the mark:
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 and inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God.
Would anyone deny the truthfulness of his assessment in much of modern evangelicalism today?
2. Because they understood the deep sinfulness of the human heart.
John Owen (1616-1683) called the human heart a hornet’s nest of evil. He wrote The Mortification of Sin, the most famous treatment of sin among the Puritans. Because they understood the depravity of the human heart, the Puritans realized that only a unilateral work of sovereign grace can rescue fallen man. Thus, their keen understanding of the deadness of the human heart led them to plant their feet firmly upon a theology of grace as the sole catalyst that will draw dead hearts out of the grave.
3. Because they knew their best life was later.
The Puritans suffered long, but they suffered well. Death was a constant companion for the Puritans of the 17th and 18th centuries. In England, they faced deadly persecution at the hands of the Church of England, the church they sought to purify. In the New World, they faced an especially harsh physical climate. Packer writes:
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 wilderness 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.
4. Because they viewed the family as a little church.
Puritan fathers were deeply committed to catechizing their children and serving as shepherds in their homes. One of the great needs of our day is for God to raise up an army of lion-hearted and lamb-like husbands/fathers who will love their families by teaching them the Word of God, by modeling biblical headship and churchmanship. I have written more extensively on the Puritans and family discipleship here.
5. Because they saw all of life as being lived coram deo—before the face of God.
For the Puritans in both old England and new, there was no sacred/secular divide. If they worked as blacksmiths, the calling was to blacksmith to the glory of God. If they farmed, they sowed and reaped in dependence upon God. The Puritans knew vividly that God is omnipresent, that there is not one square inch in all creation where he is not present or where he is not interested in radiating forth his glory. Hard work was for the Puritans a central part of Christian living, and what we call the Protestant work ethic is a gift passed down from them.
6. Because they were highly decorated soldiers on the spiritual battlefield.
They viewed spiritual conflict as central to the Christian’s calling. As Packer memorably puts it, “They never expected to advance a step without some sort of opposition.” This is evident in John Bunyan’s classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, where every step along the path to the Celestial City contends with fighting without, fears within. John Geree (1601-1649) wrote in The Character of an Old English Puritane or Nonconformist: “His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms were prayers and tears. The Cross was his Banner and his [motto] was: he who suffers conquers.” William Gurnall (1617-1679) penned The Christian in Complete Armor, which endures as one of the most compelling books on spiritual warfare.
7. Because they were skilled physicians of souls.
Long before Jay Adams and David Powlison pioneered the movement, the Puritans excelled in biblical counseling. They saw God’s Word as sufficient for the Christian’s every need, including counsel. Tim Keller writes,
Clearly, the Puritans rested their counseling approach on Scripture. In many ways the Puritans are an excellent laboratory for studying biblical counseling, because they are not influenced by any secular models of psychology. Many of those today claiming to be strictly biblical in their counseling approach still evidence the heavy influence of Maslow or Rogers or Skinner or Ellis. But the Puritans had the field of “the cure of souls” virtually to themselves; they had no secular competition in the area of counseling. Thus we need to consider very seriously their counseling models.
8. Because they understood contentment in Christ as the key to genuine happiness.
Christ was enough for them. He had to be; with no modern medicine and at times precious little food available, life expectancy was around 30, particularly in the American colonies. If a family had four children, on average two would die in child birth. Roughly half of the mothers died during child birth. There was no aspirin, no penicillin, no surgery. Economic hardship was the norm. Yet the Puritans wrote often of contentment. Among the best works ever written on this topic were The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs and The Art of Divine Contentment by Thomas Watson. They lived with eternity stamped on their eyeballs.
Read the Puritans
John Piper has been shaped by a close, careful, decades-long engagement with the Puritans. He nails it as to why we need the Puritans:
My own experience is that no one comes close to the skill they have in taking the razor-like scalpel of Scripture, and lancing the boils of my corruption, cutting out the cancers of my God-belittling habits of mind, and amputating the limbs of my disobedience. They are simply in a class by themselves.
Amen. Go, and read the Puritans.
Recommended Reading about the Puritans and by the Puritans
About the Puritans
J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990). Simply the best book I have ever read about the Puritans, their theology, and its application to everyday life. If you love the Bible and good theology, this book will delight your soul.
Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Zondervan, 1986). An excellent survey of the Puritans, including the good, the bad, and the ugly about them. Well-written and a pleasure to read. You may laugh at times as Ryken points out some of the Puritans’ foibles and excesses.
Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage, 2013). Contains a guide to modern reprints. Includes brief sketches of the life, ministry, and writings of hundreds of Puritan ministers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage, 2013). A companion to Meet the Puritans, this work is more or less a Puritan systematic theology.
Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason, eds., The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (IVP, 2004). An excellent primer on the representative Puritans and their best-known works. If you are new to the Puritans, this may be the place to start.
By the Puritans
John Bunyan (1628-88), Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners .
John Flavel (1627-91), The Mystery of Providence
Thomas Boston (1676-1732), The Crook in the Lot: The Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men
Richard Baxter (1615-91), The Reformed Pastor
Thomas Watson (1620-1686), A Body of Divinity, All Things for Good, The Doctrine of Repentance
Joseph Alleine (1634-68), An Alarm to the Unconverted
Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), The Bruised Reed
William Bridge (1600-70), A Lifting Up for the Downcast