We all have those books we are supposed to have read, but we haven’t. For reformed theology folks the list is long, but it always includes the Puritans. “Oh, you’ve read the Puritans? Very impressive.” Confession time: I have not read the Puritans. I have read portions, heard quotes, learned about them in seminary and so on. In light of this, I am starting a new series on the Puritans where I will give you outlines of Puritan works. My hope is to familiarize you (and me!) with Puritan thought. But Eric, wouldn’t it be better to actually read the Puritans?!? Of course. But are you going to? I highly doubt exposing people to Puritan thought in this way is going to discourage them from reading.
Some warnings, caveats, etc.
- Reading or outlining the Puritans is not the same as reading the Scriptures. The Puritans were not right about everything, but they were right about a lot more than they are given credit for.
- If learning about the Puritans leads to pride then you are doing it wrong. Especially since the first title will be The Doctrine of Repentance!
- The church is not helped when we treat the Puritans like the “good old days.” “If we could just get back to those pure days it would be better…” Nope. Stop it.
The Puritans believed the Bible was the word of God. They tried to understand and apply the scriptures consistently and thoroughly. That is the example we ought to emulate. Let us learn from the Puritans as students that our understanding and obedience to God and the gospel will increase.
Who are the Puritans?
A google search might be helpful. There is a stupid-expensive documentary (there are reasons, but c’mon. Release the documentary by itself already!). Really, Joel Beeke’s Meet the Puritans is the only volume you need. In there you have biographical sketches of all the major Puritans. And no, Charles Spurgeon was not a Puritan. He was heavily influenced by Puritan thought!
Puritans were a diverse group of people spanning the late 1500s to the early 1800s from England to America. According to Peter Lewis, the beliefs of the Puritans arose from three needs:
1) The need for biblical preaching and teaching sound Reformed doctrine
2) The need for biblical, personal piety that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer
3) The need to restore biblical simplicity in liturgy, vestments, and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of the Triune God as prescribed in his word. (Beeke, Meet the Puritans, xviii)
The Puritans took their faith seriously. They focused on Jesus and the calling to live for glory to God. They thought logically and critically. They are challenging to read, but they are a great help to us today who are steeped in so much shallow religion.
BUT WITCH TRIALS ERIC! SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD! THE SCARLET LETTER!
These are the cries whenever the Puritans are presented as people whose writings we should take seriously. Yes I had American Lit in high school too. Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)is considered to be perhaps the last Puritan. I can defend that sermon another time because it wasn’t a bad one. I will say that particular sermon is not the sermon we should have read. We should have read, “The End For Which God Created the World,” sections out of Religious Affections or his account of the Great Awakening. These were far more indicative of his preaching. The Scarlet Letter only tells us what Hawthorne’s perception of Puritan life was and his opinion is one to be taken along with others. But dismissing the Puritans on the whole because of Hester Prynne is just silly.
Joel Beeke addresses three common misconceptions about the Puritans:
Misconception No. 1: The Puritans were legalists.
Reality: The Puritans developed detailed instructions about how to live well, yet they gloried in the grace of Jesus Christ as their all-in-all, and treasured union with Christ as their only hope.
Misconception No. 2: The Puritans were witch-hunters.
Reality: from 1692 to 1693 the courts in Massachusetts killed two dozen men and women accused of witchcraft. However, many Puritan ministers wrote against the methods of the witch trials and stopped them. Comparatively, from 1626–1631 several hundred people were executed for witchcraft in Bamburg, Germany.
Misconception No. 3: The Puritans were prudes.
Reality: The Puritans forbade sexual activity outside of marriage, yet they cherished sex between husband and wife, and cultivated personal friendship and marital romance.
Even C.S. Lewis, who was no Calvinist, said we get the Puritans wrong:
Nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them…a Protestant was one “dronke of the new must of lewd lightness of minde and vayne gladness of harte.” Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true.C.S. Lewis (emphasis added)
If C.S. Lewis says it, it must be true. It is good to read books and deal with the thinking of those outside our modern times. My hope is that this series will lead you not only to read the Puritans for yourself, but to think in deeper and biblically about God, Christ, scripture, and the Christian life. My goal is that this would help us to be holier, not smarter.
If you are looking to purchase Puritan books, Banner of Truth is the best publisher out there. You can search for “Puritan Paperbacks” on Amazon and just pick a title. The first outline I will be doing is The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson.
So what do you think? Have you read the Puritans? Is your opinion of them positive or negative? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!