The Puritan Era
What did the Puritans teach and believe?
Puritan Roots: A Brief Sketch of the Values of Puritanism
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
To study the Puritans is one of the most profitable religious exercises the elect-saint can undertake. It is true that the Puritans have received an unpleasant reputation among pop-culture advocates. But why wouldn’t they? Pop culture revels in pornography, drugs, violence, adultery, lying, witchcraft, gossip, and every other damnable sin imaginable. Of course the saints will be reviled for speaking out against such things. The Puritans are often the brunt of bad jokes, caricatures and slander. The Subaru car company even propagated a commercial which contrasted their car (which is fun to drive) to the Puritans (who were not fun but a boring, doleful group of people.) The Puritans have a reputation of epitomizing the “holier than thou” attitude, and those who were zealous for extreme ascetic piety. But, this is a caricature of Puritanism. As a matter of fact, Puritanism is far the opposite. And it is a tragedy to envisage so many casting away the ideals of Puritanism because they closely associate it with a dreadful life, toilsome spiritual labor, and a hermit-like attitude which shuns society. Even most Christians, to their own sanctifying demise, typify them in this light without first studying about them. I suppose ignorance is bliss? In this ignorance the Puritans are accused of thinking that sex was bad, that they never laughed and were opposed to “fun,” that they wore drab woeful apparel, that they were opposed to sports and recreation, that they were overly emotional and looked down on education, and that they were exceedingly strict and legalistic. But as stated above, these are unfair and incorrect caricatures, unsubstantiated and false. These ideas are the product of Satan who desires that true spirituality, and those who exemplify it would be cast down into shame and reproach in order that their holy lifestyles would never be followed. For, if the Puritans were truly represented as the caricatures above describe them, then one would have to say the same of Jesus Christ, their Lord, whom they emphatically followed with whole-hearted delight.
The era of the Puritans, and the years which they encompassed, have been often debated. Some scholars restrict the date from 1559 through 1654. Some expand this time to encompass a wider scope, and some scholars restrict it even more. If we say that Puritanism was reserved for the era when the Church of England brutally and relentlessly persecuted non-conformists ministers who would not adhere to legalistic and pharisaic practices of “mother church,” then the date rage above may suffice. That era is what I call the “ecclesiastical” aspect of Puritanism. But if we are to qualify Puritanism by the core ideas and beliefs they preached and wrote vehemently about, then I would grant a far wider date range – even expanding it through to the 21st century. Simply stated, those who are Puritans by ideals, are those who see the church in need of biblical reform found in the truths housed in Reformation Theology.
During the 17th century, there were legal actions taken against the Puritans because they did not want to follow the Act of Uniformity, and could not in good conscience. This Act of Uniformity was an “edict” which demanded that preachers would read from the ceremonial prayer book during services, wear Anglican vestments, and support the Anglican ceremonies. The Church of England was also demanding that young preachers who desired a degree from the university of Oxford or Cambridge, were compelled to sign the Act before they could earn any degree at all. The conscious act of rejecting a forced religious view gave them the name “Puritans.” They desired to purify the church. The Puritans, because of this Act, were vehemently persecuted, and they could expect anything from being burned at the stake, to being placed in prison for an indefinite period of time (You may recall that John Bunyan penned the classic, Pilgrim’s Progress from prison.) The Puritans desired to “purify” the Church of England from its corruption. They did not aspire a full separation from the Church of England, but rather a reformation of it, copying the reformation under John Calvin in Geneva.
Those Puritans who could not tolerate the Church of England and their persecutions, deemed separatists, left England and became “pilgrims.” These pilgrims ultimately settled down in the Massachusetts Bay Colony thinking that religious freedom was the only venue to be untainted from the Anglican tyranny and imposition. As a result, many of the Puritans left to be Pilgrims in the New World, the Netherlands, and various parts of Europe.
We find, at least from the outset, that the name “Puritan” is not essentially bad, even though it was a derogatory term used by those opposed to the Puritan cause. In fact, the term is really a compliment. Should the Christian Church and its ministers aspire to pure doctrine? Should we despise the want of a pure life before God, or are we to embrace it? Are we not to be conformed to the purity of Christ? Being holy and becoming more “pure” (or holy) is the present action and future hope of every true Christian believer. The Puritans simply desired a pure church which hungered after the truth of the Word of God and did not follow after traditions made by men. As with Martin Luther, the Puritans did not have desires of immediately breaking off all relations with the Church of England. Rather, their goal embodied turning the church back to the Bible.
What made the Puritans so special? Why should we care about them today? The reasoning is simple. Any man or woman who desires a life of true godliness before Christ should seek and search out those who exemplify a holy life. The Puritans exemplified this in the extreme. There was a two-fold ideology about them, 1) They knew their Bible well and consequently wrote deeply, and passionately about it, and 2) They put their knowledge about Christ into action. Compared to the 21st century church, they were biblically intellectual and spiritual giants. They longed so intensely for holiness of saintly living that they strove for the quality of that life through Jesus Christ constantly. This yearning and desire for pure spiritual experience, or an experimental Calvinism, was so overwhelming that they were religiously zealous for the Kingdom of God and for purity of doctrine and life in every area of life. Nothing held them back in attempting to attain this.
How did the Puritans express a religious outlook in a pagan world with such ardor? There are a variety of factors. Religious and Secular education was a key element in the home, in the church and in the university. The Puritans were an educated group. Many if not all of the Puritans, at one time or another earned degrees at either Oxford or Cambridge. They did their homework, to say the least. Religious education was emphasized even more so. Puritan ministers knew the Word of God intimately. They did not just study it, rather, it became part of them. William Perkins states it nicely when he says, “He [the preacher] must be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affection in other men.” This was in total opposition to those Anglican ministers who merely viewed their positions in the church as jobs and were commonly “in it for the money.” The Puritan preachers were not in it for the money at all, rather, they desired godliness, and to glorify Christ. The Puritans were unanimous in voicing that the primary duty of the Preacher was preaching. Hours of study and preparation were the most important of tasks. For what could be more important than bringing the Word of God to the people? This mindset was a direct result of the reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura [Scripture Alone]– this was the Puritan’s high view of Scripture. Their whole life was based on and around the Bible, and the teachings of Christ. As John Preston stated, “there is not a sermon which is heard that should bring us closer to heaven or hell.” And it was not only that the Puritans wanted to hear preaching, they wanted to hear sound Biblical study arise from balanced preaching. Today’s preaching cannot compare with what was said over oak pulpits 400 years ago. Preaching back then was critically important to the welfare of every soul in their eyes. Case in point: today the Pastor’s area is called the “office.” The Puritans referred to their space as the “Study,” as in 2 Timothy 2:15. Balanced preaching would not have mimicked the homily given in the Anglican Church. Rather, the non-conformist minister would have preached anywhere from an hour and a half (which was normal) to three hours, which was often invited by the people who sat listening and were hungry for sound doctrine. One small English church had borne the burden of a mediocre pastor, where one day a non-conformist minister was asked to preach. After two hours of preaching, he checked his pocket watch of the time and excused himself for the length he had taken, knowing the people were not used to such long sermons. But one of the parishioners shouted, “Go on sir, Go on!” and the others agreed in like sentiment. Would such be the case today? Probably not. Rather, our 21st century church would much rather listen to the Anglican Homily lasting 15 minutes, than power, God-centered, hell-fire, non-discriminatory preaching lasting 2 hours.
In light of their high estimation of the Word of God one can imagine that the religious education of the minister was of extreme importance. He was the teacher, pastor, under-shepherd, leader, example of the multitudes. Not only did he receive an education at home from godly parents, but his ministerial training would have been at either Oxford, or the Puritan center – Cambridge University. After this, time would be spent under the tutelage of a godly minister. Then, this religious education and tutelage would be dispensed to the people through preaching, teaching and writing. Without a good education in the home or in the university, there would be no educating the people of God in the church.
Puritan preaching has often been shunned because modern day preachers think the Puritan sermon approach would not sit well with contemporary hearers. The Puritans were not interested in entertaining listeners, as “preachers” are today. They focused on 3 main ingredients, 1) To read the text from the Bible and then expound on the plain meaning from the text; 2) To note and discuss a few key points of doctrine from the text; and 3) to apply those doctrines to the life of the believer. They loved the Word of God so much, and cared for the souls of their listeners, that they preached just the Word. An excellent example of this kind of preaching is seen in William Perkins’ small book The Art of Prophesying which outlines the classical Elizabethan-Puritan style of preaching which would become most popular among the non-conformist ministers. Though this is not the only viable form of preaching, it is certainly, in my estimation, the most helpful and orderly. I am not stating that topical preaching, or exhortation, was not used. But the overall consensus of the Puritan minister was to preach an exegetical and expository message rather than topical.
A second key point in the Puritan life was that which surrounded church life and the worship of God. One of the most important doctrines of the church was exegetically drawn from the Bible clearly in the Puritan era. It was their doctrine of the church. They saw the church, not as a building or edifice, but as the body of the redeemed-elect gathering together to reflect back to Christ the glory due His name. The church is the people in the church, not the stone of the walls or the wood of the building. And they deemed a church strong and planted in Christ when it obtained 5 things, 1) the true preaching of the Word by sound doctrine, 2) the right administration of the sacraments, 3) the activity of church discipline, 4) strong leadership and 5) biblical worship. In worship, they were reverent and clearly organized during the service. And its structure was clearly opposed to the ceremonial worship and liturgy of the Anglican Church. Leland Ryken in his book, Worldly Saints points out that a common puritan worship service would be characterized as such: Prayer, scripture reading, the sermon, baptisms, a long prayer accompanied by the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s creed cited by the minister, a Psalm sung, and the benediction read. They did not go to church simply out of duty, but rather duty coupled with desire. Their simple worship was intended to bring the participant, which would regularly include the participation of the laity, to experience God through the Word in its variety of forms.
Not only did they worship on Sunday in the service, but also, worship continued through the whole of the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day. It was not a time of idleness or a time of play. They were wholly dedicated to making that specific day, Sunday, a true Sabbath. Richard Baxter stated that after 7 years of labor in the church he ministered at in Kidderminster, England, that one could not walk down the streets there on a given Sunday without hearing the houses of families filled with spiritual songs and readings from the Scriptures. They utilized all of their day to worship. Worship was so important to them that they began to prepare their hearts for it the night before. They would retire after supper for family devotions, and then read for some time, and finally go off to sleep. If worship to God on earth now was of chief import (the reason men were created), it could not be considered a light matter in the Christian’s eyes. Thus, the one day in seven given to men by God as a day of rest was to be viewed as a special day of sacred piety, not as a day to watch football games.
The Puritans were not only active in church polity, but in social action as well. At the time, these two arenas (the church and social reform) were intrinsically linked together. Here the Puritans were rigorously opposed to the state interfering with churchly affairs, and that, in and of itself, was one of the sparks to begin the fire of Puritanism. They yearned for reforms not only in the church of England but throughout the country of England as well. And since, in their estimation, that the church of England was not up to such a task because of unorthodox and unbiblical views, the true church of Christ, those bonded together in a spirit of Biblical unity, should take up the challenge. They believed that genuine piety and true spiritually would procure exactly what the Apostle James stated, “good works.” Faith, when it did not work, was considered dead. James utilizes this word “dead” as to say, “you have no faith, no real faith, if you show no works.” The Puritans viewed godly fruit as the immediate result of godly people who had the living God present within them. If the power of the Holy Spirit truly possessed by a believer, then this motion and action by the Spirit should procure fruitful works so that Christians and non-Christians alike could see the outward working of an inward faith and godliness. It was a constant practice of piety in this respect that the Puritans did not believe was present with the clergy and people of the Church of England.
The Puritans vehemently encouraged the Biblical Christian life. The written exegetical work on this subject, and the classic devotional work they pressed on their congregations, abounds to more volumes than one could read in a lifetime (almost). Every helpful Biblical topic from the Law of God, to the Righteousness of Christ, to the coming judgment, to the impending doom of Satan was written on, preached and taught. It sometimes causes one to wonder, if collectively, they did not exhaust the topics of the Bible! But their doctrine of Scripture would never allow them to exhaust the infinite Word of God.
Puritan writing should be a common resource for every Christian in their home library. They are essential Christian reading, and their works ought to be vigorously studied. The 21st century church is in desperate need of their educational and theological prowess on worship, on education, on the Bible and especially on preaching. We need to recapture what we have lost in the last 400 years. We have become spiritual “grasshoppers” compared to the spiritual giants of Puritanism. Only a few prominent theologians and preachers in these past years have endeavored to regain the ground: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge and the like. Why did they become prominent? Because they understood the Puritans, who in turn understood the Bible. Who in the 21st century is as prominent as these men or as knowledgeable as the Puritan Divines? Men with such theological and godly caliber are far and few between. The Puritan’s deep Biblical wisdom overflows from a disciplined study of the Bible and their keen ability to adapt that theology in application to the life of the believer. Thy knew how to screw truth into men’s minds. This work is extensively incredible, to say the least, because of their rational capabilities and grasp of Ramean Logic. The great pain to parse out and systematize all the biblical data, or at least what they were able to accomplish in their lifetime, is astounding. But alas, we must endeavor to imitate them.
The theology and practice of Puritanism is not a perfect. There is no theological system which sinful men have gained a perfect insight into the Bible. While men live upon earth coupled with the remnants of remaining sin, they will never have a mind free of error, and thus, never have a theological system free from error. However, this does not mean that the theologians and preachers of Christ’s church should surrender being as theologically precise as possible. Rather, in assessing the theological systems which exist they should choose the one which hits closest to the mark of the Gospel on the Biblical target of doctrine. In my estimation, the theology of Puritanism is as close as fallible human beings may come to understanding the Scriptures systematically. I am quite aware that the Scriptures continue to illuminate our minds by varied angles and insights seen in some of the same passages which we read over and over. But a consensus on the overall understanding of Biblical and systematic theology for clarity, preciseness of doctrine, and application in preaching must be awarded to the Puritans. They have come closest to teaching men the mind of Christ contained in the Bible. This Puritanism, even for the 21st century church, is not dead – though many would like it to be dead. However, it is in a restless slumber awaiting the next generation of men who shall be raised up by God to preach the truth of His Word in righteousness and conviction. We earnestly await to see those whom God shall raise up as neo-Puritans for a “brave new world.”