Can we still learn from the Puritans?

Is it possible still to look to the old Puritans and expect to learn anything good?  Can the contemporary church find any resources for wisdom, renewal, or reform in their writings? I believe the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes!” It’s easy these days to dismiss the wisdom of the past. Given our improved technology and all our current collected learning, surely learning from the past would lead to regression, right? Plus, weren’t all these people basically racist, patriarchal, and generally mean-spirited? That’s, at least, how some perceive the Puritans. After all, we use the word “puritanical” only in a negative way, to denote someone who is self-righteous, morally rigid, and generally un-likable. But perhaps there is more to this group of believers than meets the post-modern eye. Maybe they knew some things that have been forgotten. And maybe, we can still learn from them what it means to live a genuine Christian life. This blog will consider some of the more important lessons that today’s evangelical church could learn from the English Puritans.

The Puritan movement began as an effort to further reform the Church of England beyond the provisions of the Elizabethan Settlement. However, that generation of Christians (approx. 1550-1700) has more to teach present day evangelicals than most people realize. Their maturity and integrated Christian lives, their love and devotion to Christ and the Bible, and their intensely theological and practical preaching and living are continuing beacons of gospel light. They are proven examples of holy and delightful discipleship. Here we will look at some of the ways that Puritan maturity and theology could, and should, influence and guide Christians in the 21st century.

The Puritans and Christian Maturity

When one begins to read the Puritan writings, and perhaps Puritan biographies, it is easy to become overwhelmed at their depth of insight, their intense solemnity, their precise articulation of doctrine, and their fullness of religious experience. The Puritans truly believed a holistic Christian faith, applying gospel truth to their understanding, their affections, and their will. They were also eager to demonstrate in their preaching and writing how every doctrine of Scripture was immanently practical, and should be put towards its proper “use”. They believed the Scriptures to be fully and finally authoritative for all truth and life, thus leading to a radically God-centered worldview, encompassing not just “churchly” matters of faith, but directing family life, civic duty, legislation, education, money, and vocation. They were Protestants come full bloom in that they took the theology of the Reformers and applied their teachings in all areas of life, with implications and applications fully thought out. They were, as J.I. Packer states, in one word, “mature”. And there has perhaps been no other generation of Christians since their era that has imitated their maturity in its fullness.

What does maturity consist of? Wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity, according to Packer. If this is true, as revelation, history, and experience demonstrate, then the Puritans exemplified maturity. The Puritans combined a “clear-headed passion” and a “warm-hearted compassion” unlike most of their successors. In times like ours, filled with spiritual fog and lukewarmness, this clarity and warmth (or “light and heat” as they said) is much needed.

The contemporary church faces many challenges. Among them is the lack of genuine, or biblical, vision for Christian spiritual formation and flourishing. What direction shall we take in our growth, commitments, and actions? What is the goal, and how do we get there? We are in a sort of fog, full of speculations, agendas, and trendiness, both in academia and church leadership. Our vision and definitions of legitimate Christian experience, devotion, and maturity are almost as varied as the number of denominations and local churches. For the Puritans, this was not so. Although, they were not uniform in all matters of theology or Christian commitments, they were profoundly united in the major doctrines, and shared a common vision of Christian life. So what were some aspects of their maturity from which we may learn?

An Integrated Faith. The Puritans were committed to a fully integrated Christian faith. They believed that all of life should be lived to honor God and to bring Him glory. This would encompass church and Sabbath commitments, as well as family and civic commitments. In fact, the Puritans saw no necessary distinction between what was “churchly” and what was “earthly”. All areas of life are ruled over by the Sovereign God, and thus should be viewed as existing for His glory. As such, home life (for example) was crucial and essential for “kingdom” faithfulness. The way one treated one’s spouse and children was reflective of one’s devotion to Christ and His Word (the entire Bible). The father had the responsibility and privilege before God to lead his family in daily worship, prayer, and catechism. The family was in fact viewed as a small church, with the father as the pastor and the mother as the assistant. This was not reflective of any patriarchal supremacy, but rather of a holy order and beautiful design commanded in Scripture.

Social Engagement. Their holistic faith also led them to passionate social action. Some of these actions may be judged by historians to have been poorly thought out or ill-performed, especially if they involved political takeovers or judicial presumption. However, for the most part, Puritans were motivated by their faith in Christ to serve mankind with useful and noble skills. In fact, Puritan children were often instructed to have sober, godly, and useful lives, for the good of their communities. This resulted in strong economic units and prospering cities. Their attitude in work was one of service to God, goodwill towards others, patience, and consistency. And one can see from history, and one can imagine for today, what sort of a positive influence this would make in any society.

Experience and Devotion. Another aspect of Puritan maturity was the depth of their spiritual experience. This is reflected in the many journals that almost everyone kept, and which remain as a permanent testimony to the grace of God in their lives. Packer suggests that no other generation of Christians before or since has thought so much or so deeply about their own spiritual life. The intensity of their focus led to a wealth of daily experiences with God, recorded with absolute majesty in their writings. When one reads about them, one is immediately drawn to desire and to know and experience God in the same way. They thought deep and long on the truths of Scripture. Pastors labored intensely to expound and apply the Bible. Their affections were raised, being built on these truths, to unashamed heights. Their wills were subdued and subjugated to joyful obedience as a natural (or supernatural) result.

Theology seemed to be everyone’s favorite pastime. The purpose of which was for praise and devotion to God. They also believed that one should feel strongly about truth. Therefore, much of their faith was “heart-religion”. Strong “religious affections” (as Jonathan Edwards later wrote about) led naturally to a delightful devotion. One can enjoy God as they trust His gospel promises. This emphasis on joy in Christian life is reflected in the language of the Westminster Confession. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

All these aspects of maturity are needed in the church today. We live “dis-integrated” lives, often failing to know the Scriptures, and certainly failing to see its implications for all of life. Our lack of intense spiritual focus on Scriptural truth has resulted in an often weak and unappealing experience of God. We try to make up for our lack of Scriptural understanding and legitimate experience of God with new church programs and liturgical styles that may get people excited for a short while. We tend to vacillate between extremes of consumer commercialism or high and dry ritualism. The Puritans would have rejected both, and their experience stands as a teacher and example for us today.

The Puritans’ Theological Identity

One of the main reasons for Puritan maturity was that they were thoroughly and profoundly theological. Puritans were Augustinian in their doctrine of grace and Lutheran on Justification by faith alone. They advocated a medieval concept of a Christian society. And they had an almost monastic passion for methodical holiness. This theology and practice was apparent in nearly all they wrote and taught.

Another way to describe Puritan theology is to say that they were “evangelical Calvinists.” The most astute of their theologians was John Owen. And their theological commitments are verbalized well in the Westminster Confession of Faith. One of the main doctrines elucidated by Owen was Particular, or Definite, Redemption. In his work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, he expounds the doctrine of the particular intention of God in the work of redemption. Packer has stated that Owen’s work on this subject has no comparison. If one would deny this doctrine or declare it unbiblical, Packer believes that they would have to deal with and refute this work first. This treatise exemplifies the kinds of theological acumen the Puritans were capable of. If we were to take Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards as having had significant influence on shaping and developing Reformation theology (Protestant theology), two of these are Puritans (Edwards being born a bit out of the main Puritan era, but no less in line with their theology and philosophy).

Puritans, Pastors, and the Mission of the Church

Puritan preaching was largely doctrinal, built upon the exegetical and theological exposition of Scripture. (This by itself is worth noting for our own imitation). They would draw the biblical doctrines from a text, explain them with impeccable “reason”, and then apply them by pointing to each doctrine’s proper “use” in one’s Christian living. This made for the most thoroughly biblical kinds of sermons. And the people ate the fruit of such pastoral labors to their own great benefit.

Some theological themes that were emphasized included Sin and Grace (almost always), Sanctification (mortification and vivification), ethics, conscience and assurance, the sovereign redeeming love of Christ, continued repentance and perseverance among the elect, and the realities of hell and heaven. Puritan pastors gave their people a biblical vision of Christian life as being that of Pilgrims (heading toward their true heavenly home), warriors (fighting against Satan, the world, and the flesh), and heirs (sons of God and recipients of his gracious favor and bountiful blessings). This vision did not lead Puritans to reject or remove themselves from the world. It didn’t lead them to neglect the cries of the poor or the oppressed. And it didn’t lead them to forsake justice and righteousness in their earthly lives. Rather, it gave them a way to pull everything together. This vision became their worldview, their metanarrative, and their motivation for good and godly work in the world.

This vision is often ignored or lost in a world of affluence, self-interest (coupled with loneliness and depression), such as our western culture. We should retain, or rediscover, these themes in our churches, and beware of over-enculturation, as we seek to apply the gospel to our contemporary context. The truth of Scripture has not changed. People, by and large, have not changed. The developments of certain scientific fields have minimized or thrown out the necessary language for addressing many of our problems. No matter, the church is still God’s means of reaching the lost, equipping the saints, and actualizing the kingdom of Christ. The church is God’s way of proclaiming the gospel to the nations. And only the true gospel saves. Therefore, let us learn from our Puritan predecessors in their kingdom labors. Let us return to what made them mature. And let us return to a theological depth that will result in lasting praise and joyful obedience. Surely these things characterize Kingdom life. If we are to be Kingdom- minded Christians who are gospel-focused, we find capable and proven guides in the English Puritans.         

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Jonathan Huggins is the College Chaplain at Berry College in Rome, GA. He earned graduate degrees from Wheaton College Graduate School, Reformed Theological Seminary, and received his PhD in Theology from the University of Stellenbosch. He is an ordained Priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a member of the St. Peter Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

For Further Reading on the Puritans:

J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Crossway, 1990.

Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. Zondervan Academic, 1986.

Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason, eds, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. IVP, 2004.

D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Banner of Truth, 1987.

William Barker, Puritan Profiles: 54 Puritans, Personalities Drawn Together by The Westminster Assembly. Mentor, 1996.

The Puritan Paperback Series by Banner of Truth Trust

The Works of John Owen

The Works of Jonathan Edwards