The name "Puritan" was, in fact, mud from the start. Coined in the 1560s, it was intended as a smear word implying everything that was bad and undesirable. The general public attached this label to anyone, who in their view, was too strict in religious and moral matters. Because the Puritans sought to purify the Church of England and reform it along the lines of Scripture, they were accused of being mere discontents and troublemakers. Later, the word "Puritan" gained a further, political connotation of being against the monarchy and for a republican form of government. Thus many regarded them as traitors and enemies of the state.
For most people, however, the term "Puritan" referred to a form of Protestantism that was seen as odd, extreme and unwholesome. It had about the same connotation and brought out the same negative feelings as the word "fundamentalism" does in our time.
In England, anti-Puritan feeling that had been smouldering for a long time, finally burst into flame after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, and it has never let up since. In North America, Puritan-bashing became a popular pastime following the Great Awakening in the 1740s and reached its zenith a hundred years ago in post-Puritan New England.
But today things are changing again. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the present, scholars have been working hard to present a more positive picture of the Puritans. Historians such as Perry Miller, William Haller, Marshall Knappen and many others have conclusively shown that much of what people know of the Puritans is based on pure myth and distortion of facts. The picture that is now emerging of these 16th and 17th Protestants is much brighter and more attractive. The typical Puritans, in Packer's words, "were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens, persons of principle, determined and disciplined, excelling in the domestic virtues, and with no obvious shortcomings save a tendency to run to words when saying anything important, whether to God or to man. At last the record has been set straight."
Granted that the Puritans have been rehabilitated, why should we study them today? The answer is simply this: Because the Puritans have a lot to offer to the present generation of Christians. According to Packer, the one outstanding characteristic of the Puritans was that they were mature Christians who for that reason can teach us a lot, for most of us, he contends, are immature Christians. Anyone studying Puritan theology and spirituality comes away deeply impressed and challenged. These men, Packer says, were spiritual giants while we are mere dwarfs by comparison.
The Puritans were generally well-educated. Their ministers were scholars of the first rank, yet their emphasis was not on scholarship but on godliness. In their preaching they would first give the precise meaning of the Biblical text; clearly stating the doctrine contained in it. But then they went on to draw out the implications of the text and the particular doctrine it taught, listing the various uses. It was not mere exposition of Scripture, but also and especially the application of God's Word that they emphasized and excelled in. In other words, the Puritans were not just interested in intellectual or head knowledge but they aimed especially at heart knowledge issuing in hand activity or godly living. They were eminently practical men.
What then can we learn from the Puritans? Many things, but let me just single out five main areas.
1. First, we may learn from them how to integrate our daily lives. Religion for the Puritans was all-embracing; therefore their living was all of a piece, or as we would say today, holistic. Everything they did, whether it was work or leisure, duties or pleasures was integrated in the single purpose of honouring God. They appreciated all God's gifts and made everything "holiness to the Lord." For the Puritans there was no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation was sacred as far as they were concerned, therefore every human activity had to be sanctified and done to the glory of God.
This was no mere slogan, as it often is for us. The Puritans sought to live for God's glory with great passion and thoroughness, yet in a very balanced way. They planned and proportioned their time with care, not so much to keep bad things out as to make sure that they got all good and important things in. They had their priorities straight, we would say. How much we could learn from their example, we who tend to live such unplanned lives so that we feel swamped and distracted most of the time.
2. The second thing we might learn from the Puritans has to do with the quality of their spiritual experience. For the Puritan, communion with God in Jesus Christ was central and the Bible was the only norm. Knowing themselves to be creatures of thought, affection, and will, and realizing that God communicates His will to the heart via the head, the Puritans reflected and meditated on the entire range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to their lives. As they did so, they searched and challenged their hearts, stirring up their affections to hate sin and love righteousness, while encouraging themselves with Scripture promises.
Because they were keenly aware of the dishonesty and deceitfulness of their sinful hearts, they cultivated humility and self-suspicion, examining themselves regularly for spiritual blind spots and lurking inward evils. Today, many would quickly characterize such activity as morbid introspection causing unnecessary doubts as to one's spiritual state. But the Puritans found the discipline of self-examination followed by the discipline of confessing and forsaking sin and applying to Christ for His pardoning mercy, to be a source of great inner peace and joy. Surely, we who often have such unclear minds, uncontrolled affections and unstable wills when it comes to serving God, could benefit a great deal from the Puritans' example at this point also.
3. We may also learn from the Puritans how to engage in effective and constructive Christian action. The Puritans were not only given to Bible study, meditation and prayer; they were also men and women of purposeful action. Yet, as Packer says, "they were crusading activists without a jot of self-reliance; workers for God who depended utterly on God to work in and through them and who always gave God the praise for anything they did what in retrospect seemed to them to have been right." They prayed earnestly that God would enable them to use their powers, not for self-display, but for His praise. Though they preferred a quiet and peaceful life, they were prepared to fight and bring about changes in church and state wherever such changes were called for.
In this respect too the Puritans can teach us. We in the West tend to be, on the whole, passionless, passive and in all too many cases, even prayerless Christians. We have cultivated a kind of ghetto mentality, gradually enclosing personal piety in a pietistic cocoon. We are content to leave public affairs go their own way and neither expect nor seek influence beyond our own Christian circle. The Puritans prayed and laboured for a holy State as well as a pure Church. We, modern Christians, have instead settled for conventional social respectability and have no higher aspirations, it seems.
4. In the fourth place the Puritans can teach us a thing or two about family stability. It may surprise you to learn that it was the Puritans who created the Christian family in the English speaking world. For the Puritans the right way to prepare for marriage is not to look for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment, but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life and then to proceed with God's help to do just that. Their idea of nurturing was to train up children in the way they should go, care for their bodies and souls together and educate them for a sober, godly and socially useful life.
Patience, consistency and an encouraging attitude were seen as the essential domestic virtues. In an age of every-day discomforts, few medications and no pain-killers, and frequent bereavements, an average life expectancy of just under thirty years and economic hardship for almost everyone, family life was a school for character in every sense. At home the Puritans conducted themselves in a mature way, accepting hardships and disappointments realistically as coming from God and refusing to be disheartened by any of them. The Puritans saw it as their main task in life to make their families a miniature church and to do their utmost to see that those born in it might be born again to God.
Also here the Puritans have much to teach this generation for whom family life has deteriorated to the point where its very existence is threatened, even among Christians.
5. Finally, there are lessons to be learned from the Puritan's ideal of church renewal. A word of caution is in order here. The word "renewal" in its modern sense was not in use among the Puritans. They spoke instead of "reformation" and "reform." To us these terms suggest a basically outward reform of the church's doctrine, church government and worship. The Puritans meant much more than that by reform. They included in this term the notion of inward spiritual renewal. As a matter of fact, this was their real aim in reforming the church. The essence of reformation for the Puritans was growth in faith and holiness of believers and the conversion of the unsaved. The ideal church for them would be one which had a truly "reformed" ministry and in which the congregation would be thoroughly converted, doctrinally orthodox and abounding in good works. This was the goal at which Puritan pastoral ministry aimed throughout the era we are studying.
Such reform, the Puritans believed, could only come by faithful preaching, catechizing and spiritual counselling on the part of truly converted ministers. A specimen of such a pastor is presented in Richard Baxter's famous book The Reformed Pastor. Again the word "reformed" here does not mean Reformed Church of America, Christian Reformed or Free Reformed, but a pastor whose personal life and ministry is thoroughly molded by Scripture and whose aim is to bring his flock to a deep and abiding love for Christ expressed in a life of holiness.
Baxter himself was the best example of such a godly, dedicated pastor. His ministry in Kidderminster, a town of some two thousand people, was unusually blessed. As he himself testified, when I came to Kidderminster there was scarcely a handful of true believers to be found in the town. Now, twenty years, later there are hardly any folk left who are not concerned about their soul!
This will have to do for an introduction. I hope I have given you some idea why the Puritans are worth studying today. In the next instalment D.V. we will briefly look at the times in which the Puritans lived and did their work.