Why should Christians today be interested in the English Puritans? The answer to that is that the English Puritans have left to the Christian Church a most valuable library of expository books. In recent years there has been a rediscovery of this literary heritage.
Who were the English Puritans?
When the 16th-century Reformation took place three distinct sectors of reformation developed: the German, the Swiss (including France) and the English. Of these three the weakest and least hopeful was the English. At first opposition was fierce. 277 Christian leaders were burned to death at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. She earned the title ‘Bloody Mary’ during her reign from 1553 to 1558. Thankfully her reign was short. Yet it was out of the shed blood and burned ashes of the martyrs that the cause of Christ grew and prospered. It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) that the Puritan movement was born. Godly ministers multiplied through the nation.
These ministers supported each other in a godly brotherhood. At first the Puritans received the name Puritan because they sought to purify the National Church of England. In later times they were called Puritans because of the purity of life that they sought. They set out to reform the Church of England. Their desire was to conform the national Church to the Word of God in government, worship and practice.
Queen Elizabeth was head of the national Church and she opposed and blocked reformation. When James I (who reigned from 1603 to 1625) came to the throne there was hope that now reform would progress. Instead the struggle intensified. It did not improve when Charles I came to the throne in 1625. Ministers began to despair of improvement and some left for America where a new race of Puritans developed. The situation came to a climax when civil war broke out during the 1640s. During that time Oliver Cromwell became the supreme governor in place of the King. When Cromwell died there was no one suitable to replace him. The nation returned to the monarchy. Charles II came to the throne.
The struggle in the Church was renewed with even more conflict than before. An act of Parliament was passed which required conformity to rules which the Puritans simply were unable to follow. In 1662 over 2,000 ministers and leaders in the Church of England were forced to leave. Rather than compromise their consciences they left. Historians regard the Puritan period as coming to an end in 1662. However it was after 1662 that the Puritans wrote some of their finest expositions. John Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years after 1662. It was in prison that he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.
Two Puritans who lived through this later period require special mention.
John Owen (1616-1683) is called ‘The Prince of the Puritans’. He was a chaplain in the army of Oliver Cromwell and vice-chancellor of Oxford University, but most of his life he served as a minister of a church. His written works run to 24 volumes and represent the best resource for theology in the English language. On several important subjects such as the Holy Spirit, mortification of sin and apostasy, he is unexcelled.
Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was a prolific writer and included in his works is The Christian Directory which consists of a practical detailed application of the gospel to every aspect of life. This is probably the most comprehensive exposition of its kind ever written.
In Baxter’s exposition of the Christian life we see the Puritan idea that grace is to permeate nature.
During the pre-Reformation time grace and nature were separated. This is the concept of a two storey universe. Upstairs is spiritual and holy. Downstairs is sinful, fleshly and unholy. For example the clergy were forbidden to marry as though marriage were earthly and therefore sinful. Luther partly reformed this and brought grace alongside nature. For example he married an ex-nun, Katherine. John Calvin went further and taught that grace must permeate nature. The earthly must be sanctified by the heavenly. The Puritans went further still and taught in more detail than Calvin that biblical principles must be applied to every aspect of life. There are biblical principles or biblical ethics for marriage, the bringing up of children and the home, for teachers and university professors, medical doctors, lawyers, architects and artists, for farmers and gardeners, politicians and magistrates, for businessmen and shopkeepers and for men of commerce and trade, for military men and for bankers. To the Puritans the dichotomy (division) between nature and grace, the prevalent view of medieval theologians, was essentially wrong. It is not as though the heavenly things are holy but earthly things cursed or tarnished. To the Puritans grace must penetrate and permeate all earthly life and sanctify it. Even the bells on the horses are sanctified to the Lord (Zech 14:20).
In contrast to this the Anabaptists retreated from society on the grounds that society was sinful and corrupt. The Anabaptists discouraged men from becoming politicians or magistrates. With regard to war Calvin and the Puritans taught that defence was lawful. The Anabaptists were pacifist and would have nothing to do with military affairs. It is important that we remember that there are different kinds of Baptists. For instance John Bunyan was a Baptist firmly in the Puritan tradition just like Reformed Baptists today. We see how close the Reformed Baptists are to the Presbyterians (the children of John Calvin) when we compare the 1689, 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith with the Westminster Confession. 28 out of 32 chapters are virtually the same. These Confessions of Faith represent the high water mark of Puritanism. The English Puritans followed Calvin’s example in being involved in all aspects of life.
For example Calvin was active in promoting education. In 1559 he founded the Geneva Academy with the aim of building a Christian Commonwealth. This Academy drew students from all over Europe and by the time of Calvin’s death in 1564 there were 1,200 students. The Puritans likewise were passionately concerned for education and high academic standards. Almost all the Puritans were graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Sidney Sussex College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, were famous Puritan institutions of learning.
Calvin was concerned about provision for the 5,000 refugee families that flocked to Geneva between 1542 and 1560. He was instrumental in the establishment of two hospitals and in one there was a cloth making industry as well as weaving and jug making. (cf Building a Christian World View, vol 2, p 242, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988.) I have described Calvin in positive terms. Like Luther and like all leaders he had clay feet. There were authoritarian trends in Geneva which marred Calvin’s ministry. The essays in the volume edited by Hoffecker are commended for presenting a balanced view of Calvin and not one which idolises that Reformer.
This universal interest in human welfare and social concern is reflected in the lives of the Puritans. As we look back at this period we should note that pressures and trials can bring the best out of Christians. The high quality biblical exposition balanced in doctrine, experience and practical application came out of tribulation. In our generation the republishing of these resources by the Banner of Truth in Britain, and latterly by the American publishing house Soli Deo Gloria has made available many valuable Puritan books.
The question is asked, Why are the Puritans effective in teaching Reformed theology whereas so many others fail? The answer is that the spiritual genius of the Puritans lay in their being men of prayer. To them theology was not merely an academic or intellectual exercise. Reformed theology is designed to transform lives and to inspire action. This genius was a spiritual genius in which the Puritans kept prayer, doctrine, experience and practical application in balance and harmony. Today we hear the cry that Christ unites but doctrine divides! Give us Christ, not doctrine, is the cry! To the Puritans that was shallow nonsense. Christ comes to us wrapped in biblical teaching, that is, doctrine. Furthermore doctrine directs life. Doctrine is essential. It is basic to everything but it must be applied in a loving and persuasive manner.
The Puritan example of applying Christian doctrine and the cultural mandate
The New Testament letters of Romans, Ephesians and I Peter illustrate the principle of a threefold application of the gospel: first our position in the church, second marriage and the family, and third our position in the world.
First the life must be changed and brought under the dominion of Christ. From the Church as the centre where the believer should be inspired by the preaching he goes out into the world. There in the world he is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt 5:13-16).
As we see from the Westminster Confession and the 1689 Baptist Confession the Puritans believed in the doctrines of grace such as election and particular redemption (Rom 8:28-30). They followed Calvin in resisting false human rationalisations. For instance they resisted the idea that God only loves the elect and hates the non-elect. This error is called hyper-Calvinism. It is a very serious error which is recurring today. The Puritans were experts in their understanding of the concept of common grace although they did not use that term. Their teaching accords fully with the way in which the doctrine of Common Grace is expounded by Prof John Murray (cf Works). They believed that the Holy Spirit is constantly active in restraining evil and promoting good throughout society. The Puritans believed in the universal love of God for all mankind (1 Tim 2:1-6; 2 Peter 3:9). They believed in the universal provision of God for all mankind according to the covenant made with Noah as representative of the whole world (Gen 8:20-22 and Ps 145).
The Puritans maintained that the cultural mandate to explore and develop all creation was based on Genesis 1:28-30. The Christian is to strive to be perfect in every good work and as he so strives he knows that it is only God who can make him perfect in every good work (see Heb 13:21 KJV). Included in good works is every aspect of labour and research. Every lawful calling is to be pursued with biblical principles as a guide. The important principle is that the Puritans worked from the inside out, that is from the Church out into the world. It is right that Christians encourage the reformation of society in every realm: education, politics, economics, medicine, science. However it is possible to become so engrossed in our secular calling with all its exacting requirements that we lose the balance of Church and family. Balance is essential. The Puritans exemplified this balance.
Sermons were preached on themes such as universal care about detail in work which included the need for absolute trustworthiness, reliability and honesty in fulfilling contracts or agreements. The Puritans were strict in opposing corruption and nepotism in business life. They did not hesitate to preach on texts such as: ‘The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight’ (Prov 11:1).
Almost all the Puritans preached consecutive expository sermons and so covered every subject in the Bible. But they were prepared to break with this method whenever it was necessary. During the civil war in the 1640s a town was invaded by Royalist soldiers. These soldiers behaved very badly. Part of their bad behaviour was swearing and cursing. The minister of that town was a Puritan by name Robert Harris. He preached a sermon on James 5:12:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No, No, and you will not be condemned. This was so effective and so convicted the uncouth soldiers that they threatened to shoot Harris if he preached from that text again. Fearlessly the next Sunday he announced as his text James 5:12 and began to expound! He saw one of the soldiers preparing his gun ready to shoot him. But the soldier was restrained and did not have the courage to shoot the preacher. The belief in following biblical ethics in all matters cost the Puritans very dearly. In the worship of God they were not prepared to compromise by submitting to rules made by men or formed by tradition.
The same was true in business life or in commerce. The Puritan work ethic became famous. It is called the Protestant work ethic. This means that the worker always gives his best service honestly. He never steals time or goods from his employer. On the other hand the Christian employer must be fair to his workers and treat them well (James 5:1-6).
Scrupulous care about detail is reflected in the Puritan document known as the Westminster Larger Catechism.
What is the 8th Commandment? Answer: The 8th Commandment is; Thou shalt not steal.
What duties are required by the 8th Commandment? Answer: The duties required in the 8th Commandment include the following: maintaining truth and faithfulness and justice in contracts and commerce, between man and man; rendering to every one his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof;…avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, the care to preserve and respect the property and rights of others just as we care for our own.
The Puritans excelled in preaching in a practical way and many of their sermons reflect this concern to be practical. Here are some examples of sermon titles taken from the famous Cripplegate sermons preached in London and recently republished in six large volumes:
What light must shine on our work? (Richard Baxter)
How may child bearing women be most encouraged and supported in the time of childbearing? (Richard Adams)
How may we inquire after news not as Athenians but as Christians? (Henry Hurst)
The Puritan hope and the future
For the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy kingdom come, the Westminster Catechism suggests that we should pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fulness of the Gentiles be brought in, the Church furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption and countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrates.
The Puritans believed in the present reign of Christ. They taught that we ought not to be discouraged by the darkness that prevails. We can always expect the fierce opposition and hatred of Satan. Yet we are to observe the sovereignty of God. We are to remember the promise that Christ will reign until all his enemies become his footstool. When his programme of world evangelisation is complete he will come and conquer the last enemy which is death (Ps 110:1; 1 Cor 15:25). The Puritans held that we are in the last days, that is the last and final dispensation. It is during this time that the mountain of the LORD’S house will be established as chief among the mountains (Is 2:2). It is duringthis time that the stone spoken of by Daniel as he interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream will become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth (Dan 2:35 & 44). According to the Puritans these are the times when we must intercede that the nations become the inheritance of Christ and the ends of the earth become his possession (Ps 2:8). The Puritan Westminster Confession is not premillennial in its teaching.
The Puritan view makes way for hope as it declares that the great apostasy foretold in 2 Thessalonians 2 is fulfilled in the papacy (see ch 25 paragraph 6). That is important because it means that we are to resist a negative attitude of defeatism as though Satan will have the final victory. We are to fulfil the great commission to teach all nations. As lain Murray shows in his book The Puritan Hope the eschatology of the English Puritans lay at the heart of the great world-wide missionary movement of the 19th century. This positive view of the future known as the eschatology of victory has tremendous implications because it inspires vision. It motivates effort and enterprise. If we believe that evil will overcome everything we will be subject to fear and despair. We will not be inclined to attempt very much. If the gospel is destined to prevail in all nations then we will be inspired to attempt great things for God. We will seek to win the nations for Christ. And winning the nations for Christ means that the hearts of men and women are renewed and brought into obedience to the gospel. The kingdom of God is within us. From that position of being ‘in Christ’ we then apply the teachings of Scripture to every sphere of life as Calvin and the English Puritans sought to do.
With regard to culture we have a mandate to develop every sphere and bring every area of human life under the rule and dominion of the Prince of Peace (Ps 8). We are to pray always that his justice will prevail. We are to pray the prayer of Psalm 72. We must plead that the Prince of Peace will prevail. We expect him to defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy. We are to pray that the whole earth be filled with his glory as the waters cover the sea (Ps 72). These prospects were believed by the Puritans as most certain of fulfilment. The future was as bright as the promises of God. These promises have a radical effect on our prayer lives. May we be stirred up to give the LORD no rest until he establishes his Church and makes her the praise of the earth (Is 62:6,7).
From Reformation Today 153, Sept/Oct 1996, by the kind permission of the editor.