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Random Thoughts about the Puritans

We ought to pay attention to the opinions of a man who, according to many Church historians, was possibly one of the greatest evangelists of all times: George Whitefield. On the Puritans he said:

The Puritans of the last century, burning and shining lights, wrote and preached after they were cast out of the church, as men having authority; a peculiar unction attends their writings to this day; and for these thirty years I have remarked that the more true and vital religion that revived at home and abroad, the more the good old puritanical writings have been called for.”

Others concur.

It is probable that history cannot afford in any age or country a body of clergymen equal in virtue, talent, and aptness to teach, with that ejected from the Church of England by the act of uniformity passed by Charles in 1662 (Choules)

The Puritans are unquestionably the safest of all uninspired guides. The masculine sense, the profound learning, the rich and unequalled unction of the fathers of the modern church, exert a powerful influence on the mind, and greatly contribute to form and mature the characters of men (Robert Hall)

And a more lengthy quote from J.I. Packer:

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-traveled 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.

My own personal life has been enriched by the reading of Watson and Goodwin. Goodwin’s work on assurance has influenced my preaching. John Owen (who by purists is not considered a Puritan) has written what is perhaps the best works ever on personal holiness in Mortification and Temptation. I read portions of him at least once a week (I even have a coffee mug memento of Owen!). Next to the Holy Word of God, I do not know of any other work that has helped me in my persistent and never-ending struggle against indwelling sin. Brothers and sisters, please become familiar with these works.

My personal opinion is that your introduction to Owen should be the two works that I mentioned. I am still not decided which should be read first: “Temptation” or “Mortification.” Ask the Lord for guidance. You know your own soul better than anyone else. It is remarkable to me that Jerry Bridges who has written so much on personal holiness had this to say about Owen:

John Owen’s treatises on Indwelling Sin in Believers and The Mortification of Sin are, in my opinion, the most helpful writings on personal holiness ever written.

I think God is doing a wonderful work in His Church through the revival of the “puritanical writings.’ I concur with George Whitefield. A peculiar unction attends their writings to this day. Reading the Puritans is a good thing. Even for dispensational fundamentalists.

5 Responses

  1. I read with interest your 7/22 post on the Puritans. You reflect a common approach to them that puts an emphasis on the pietistic aspect of their theology. Regrettably, what is commonly overlooked with the Puritans is that they embraced a whole system of theology that included concepts of Church and State. As a result, they were notorious persecutors of those who disagreed with them. Just ask Obidiah Holmes who was publically beaten so bad for an “unauthorized meeting” in MA that for weeks he could only rest on his hands and knees. Or ask those Quakers in Boston who were hung by the Puritans. You might want to consider the case of Roger Williams and what he experienced at the hands of the Boston Puritans. I suspect that if Puritanism were alive and well today that even Morning Star Baptist Church would find the going tough.

    I have been convinced that the Banner of Truth has not done us any favors in their selective reprinting of the Puritans. I find that most people tend to view them from the pietistic perspective and, because of this selective reprinting, do not understand or are ignorant of the full essence of Puritanism. I have many Puritans in my own library and find the pietism they reflect helpful. They must, however, be read in their context and they cannot be read exclusively, which is what many in the current sovereign grace movement do. The result is a slanted perspective that leaves much to be desired.

    It seems to me that most current calvinists have made a great mistake in assuming that theology stopped developing in the 1640’s and that the best we can do is to simply restate over and over again the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.


  2. I think the marvel of puritanism invites us to judge them by the standards of their time. It is unfortunate that they exhibited a general intolerance for their enemies – yet by the standards of their day, they were remarkably tolerant. Did they have faults? Yea verily.

    But look at what they accomplished. Our whole body of doctrin and practice rests on the foundation they laid. Did they have the last word in theological thinking? By no means. Yet, we have not yet exhausted the rich fruit of their ministries.

    I dare say that the United States would not exist, at least in its current form without the Puritans. Their blood fertilized the the English soil and from that sprang a crop that caused an explosion of the gospel through mission activity across the entire world.


  3. Martin,

    Your comments in reply to my post raise some interesting points that need to be considered. I will assume that your post reflects sympathy to Puritanism.

    First, on the matter of toleration I think we need to make a distinction between toleration and liberty. Toleration in the religious realm as held in the state/church structure expressed in Puritanism is “the recognition of others religious beliefs or practices without agreeing with them.” Liberty is “the sum of rights possesed in common by the people of a community or state.” You may, of course, tolerate the religion of another and deny him the right to practice it. This was, I believe the issue with Roger Williams. The Mather’s and others in Boston were perhaps willing to “tolerate” him as long as he was content to keep his faith to himself. But when he began to practice what he belived this was unacceptable and he quickly learned that he had no rights in a Puritan Commenwealth to practice his faith. The same experience was shared by the Quakers and early Baptists of the day. By the “standards of their day they were remarkably tolerant” if toleration involves the banishment of a Quaker and then hanging him if he subsequently persisted in returning to his home. But clearly, no one outside of the Puritan structure had a right to excercise their faith.

    Second, I’m not sure that I would agree that the US is what it is today due to the Puritans. Their desire was to build a church/state that embodied the Kingdom of God. As such, they embraced a corporate view of the state that equated the faith with citizenship. They were determined that the state consist of the CORPUS CHRISTIANUM and thus had no place for the concept of CORPUS CHRISTI. Again, the problem that Williams and the early Baptists ran into in the MA Bay Colony. America is what it is today due to the fact that it embraced the political thinking of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Thus the rise of the autonomous and independent individual who is an authority unto himself. The choice is either a corporate society chacterized by coerced uniformity as the Puritans tried or it is a society chacterized by an individuality such as that argued for by Locke, Jefferson and Jackson. Regrettably, most Christians today, as well as those who embrace calvinistic theology, will argue for the primacy of the individual coupled with the private development of pietism in life as expressed by the Puritans. As a Baptist I would argue that neiter position represents a biblical approach. I would argue for the corporate nature of the local church as CORPORATE CHRISTI. Here you have the development of a Christian society but it is not coterminous with the state or civil structure it is located in the local church. The matter of piety becomes also a matter of concern for the CORPUS CHRISTI, hence the need for consistent Church discipline as opposed to the civil discipline of Puritanism. Those who embrace a theonomic theology are at least consistent while many Reformed Baptists and contemporary calvinists are not.

    Again, I appreciate much of Puritan theology and piety. I do not, however, belive it to be the sum total of Christianity as most of my Reformed Baptist friends believe.


  4. Bob,

    I am not familiar with “Goodwin’s work on assurance”. Can you identify it with more specificity so I can purchase a copy – or, even better, if it’s available online, can you provide a link?


  5. I am finally back online… I don’t know if you are still reading this.


    I mispoke. It is not Goodwin, but Guthrie. Sorry. The work is “The Christian’s Great Interest.” John Owen highly appreciated this man. I hope this is a blessing to you.

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