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This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 issues of Journey Magazine.

Who Were the Puritans?

For many people the term “Puritan” or “puritanical” conjures up images of pharisaical judgmentalism or joyless legalism. H. L. Mencken’s quip that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” is still a dominant impression on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet such an impression is badly misguided. It is nothing more than an unfortunate caricature which thankfully has been debunked by scholars over the past 60 years or so — the most accessible treatment is Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.

The truth is the Puritans were spiritual giants. As J. I. Packer likes to illustrate, the Puritans were like the towering California redwoods and we, by contrast, look like spiritual dwarfs beside them. Thus, we have much to gain from reading the Puritans. In an introductory essay, Beeke and Pederson offer several ways to profit from reading the Puritans. They write: “With the Spirit’s blessing, Puritan writings can enrich your life as a Christian in many ways as they open the Scriptures and apply them practically, probing your conscience, indicting your sins, leading you to repentance, shaping your faith, guiding your conduct, comforting you in Christ and conforming you to Him, and bringing you into full assurance of salvation and a lifestyle of gratitude to the triune God for his great salvation” (xix).

Why Read the Puritans?

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some key reasons. First, Puritan writings shape life by Scripture. Their works are saturated with Scripture, in fact most of their writings are simply biblical sermons — and the Puritans were masters of applying the biblical text in practical ways. Beeke and Pederson write, “The Puritans called believers to be Word-centered in faith and practice…if you read the Puritans regularly, their focus on the Scriptures becomes contagious” (xx).

Second, Puritan writings show how to integrate biblical doctrine into daily life. Admirably they rejected the division of the “sacred” and the “secular.” For the Puritans, every task was “sacred” because it was the realm to glorify God and bring blessing to others.

Third, Puritan writings model biblical, God-centered spirituality. Their works address the mind: “The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel quickly becomes an empty, formless gospel that doesn’t get beyond ‘felt needs’” (xxi). Their works confront the conscience: “Devotional reading should be confrontational as well as comforting. We experience little growth if our consciences are not pricked and daily directed to Christ… In this, no writers can help us as much as the Puritans” (xxi). And finally, their works engage the heart. For the Puritans, head knowledge was not enough. They placed a great deal of emphasis on the “affections” (i.e. love for God, desire for holiness, hatred for sin, etc.). Richard Sibbes, for example, draws the connection between head and heart as follows: “Knowledge stirs up the affections. Blessing [i.e. praising] of God springs immediately from an enlarged heart, but enlargement of heart is stirred from apprehension. For as things are reported to the knowledge, so the understanding reports them to the heart and affections…Therefore it is a duty that we ought to take notice of God’s favours…Let us take notice of them, let us register them, let us mind them, let us keep diaries of his mercies and favours every day.”

Fourth, Puritan writings are Christ-centered and Christ-exalting. “They set forth Christ in His loveliness, moving us to yearn to know Him better and live wholly for Him” (xxi). They constantly spoke of the beauty and excellency and glory of Jesus Christ. They exalted the beauties of Christ in ways that stir the affections and kindle worship and devotion (see for example Jonathan Edwards, Altogether Lovely).

Of course, one does not have to agree with the Puritans on every point to benefit immensely from their writings. Christian readers ought always to be discerning, remembering that Scripture is our supreme authority, not the works of men. Nevertheless, to ignore the Puritans is to neglect a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom, piety, and warm-hearted Christian teaching that leads the believer in greater wonderment of the ways and works of our triune God.

Meet the Puritans

Meet the Puritans is a remarkable achievement. It is the one-stop resource for information on Puritan writers and writings. The book provides 146 brief biographical sketches of Puritan authors and a short description of each of their published writings-amounting to comments on nearly 700 volumes reprinted from 1956 through 2005. Since so many Puritan works are now available, the brief reviews found in Meet the Puritans furnish readers with invaluable help in choosing which books to purchase and read. In addition, Meet the Puritans includes a preface that, among other things, attempts to define Puritanism; suggests “How to Profit from Reading the Puritans”; and offers advice on where to begin reading the Puritans. Next is a chapter entitled “A Brief History of English Puritans” which orients readers to the historical circumstances that gave rise to Puritanism.

The volume concludes with five appendices: Appendix 1 describes various collections of Puritan writings. Appendices 2 and 3 comment on Scottish and Dutch counterparts to the English and American Puritans. Appendix 4 is an annotated bibliography of a select number of secondary sources on the Puritans and J. I. Packer brings the book to a conclusion with Appendix 5, entitled: “‘The Great Tradition’: A Final Word on Puritanism and Our Need Today.” Also included is a helpful glossary of terms and events related to Puritanism. While the book provides an author and title index, a topic index of Puritan writings would have been a useful addition.

Given the superficial and shallow nature of what often passes for evangelical Christianity today, we need to recover a heavy dose of Puritan biblical spirituality. One hopes that Meet the Puritans receives a wide circulation and leads many to mine the treasures to be found in Puritan literature.

Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.

Posted by Mark Stevenson

Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.

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