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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Why America Still Needs the Puritans

Satirical journalist H.L. Mencken once famously quipped that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Mencken’s quote reflects the kind of pejorative term Puritanism has become for much of contemporary Christianity. When the word “Puritan” is mentioned today, instead of men like Richard Baxter and William Perkins, modern minds tend to think of names like Nathaniel Hawthorne (Scarlet Letter) and Arthur Miller (The Crucible). Fortunately, for anyone who has ever read from the Puritans firsthand, it’s obvious that this faithful group of Protestants were much more than pilgrims and witch-hunters. America owes much of its present conception of Puritanism to a Harvard scholar and New England historian by the name of Perry Miller. In many ways, his famous work The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1961) re-introduced Puritans to the American consciousness. But Miller did more than call attention to the Puritans’ rich Calvinist ancestry. He also colored the Puritans as products of social and political forces that distanced them from their theological forbears John Calvin and Theodore Beza. According to Miller, Puritan “preparationism” and “contractualism” departed significantly from the pure Calvinistic doctrines of grace. However, for all of his erudition in early American studies, Miller wasn’t a theologian. So his view of Puritans and their brand of religion is decidedly misinformed. As a result, the American church has been left with a slightly skewed view of Puritanical Christianity. Thanks to books like Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (1986), an adequate portrait of the Puritans has slowly been restored. (According to Joel R. Beeke, this is “the best overall introduction to the worldview of the Puritans.”) Today, publishing houses like Banner of Truth, renown scholars like J.I. Packer (The Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 1990), and pastors such as Mark Dever (Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, 2000) have also aided in the modern resurgence of Puritan Christianity and literature. According to Ryken, “We are spiritual dwarfs. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants.” (x)

And perhaps that’s why American Christianity still struggles with the Puritan. Despite the rich Christ-centered faith, many nominal Christians can’t seem to digest the strict Sabbatarianism or the singing of Psalms. Their version of holy living grates against the American sense of “freedom.” As a result of the theological gulf between the Puritan age and ours, Perry Miller hasn’t been the only revisionist of Puritan Protestantism. Economist Max Weber famously posited that Protestantism birthed Western capitalism. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905) Former Southern Seminary professor R.T. Kendall, in his famous Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (1979), proposed the idea that English Puritans had betrayed the original biblical principles of John Calvin by introducing covenant theology. Christopher Hill even went so far as to say that covenant theology was a means of “smuggling ‘works’ into Calvinism.” (Puritanism and Revolution, 1958) Kendall’s thesis has since been thoroughly and aggressively debunked many times over. (Paul Helm, Richard Muller, Roger Nicole, etc.) In the words of J.I. Packer, “For the past half-century…scholars have been meticulously wiping away the mud, and as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel have unfamiliar colors today now that restorers have removed the dark varnish, so the conventional image of the Puritans has been radically revamped, at least for those in the know.” (21-22) Puritans weren’t religious fanatics or social extremists. They were devout men and women whose soul purpose was to bring honor and worship to their Lord. And that’s precisely why we need them today as part of the great cloud of witnesses pointing us heavenward.

So what exactly is a “Puritan”? The name originated in the early 1560s as those who wished to “purify” the Church of England. Contrary to American sensibilities, the original sense of “Puritan” was not someone who wanted to “separate” from the Church and forge a colony, but rather someone who wished to reform it from within. The very name of “Puritan” can teach us a lot about remaining faithfully in an imperfect church. Patrick Collinson famously labeled the Puritan “the hotter sort” of Protestant. (The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 1967) Under the Tudor monarchy, these were the individuals who understood that the English “Reformation” hadn’t gone far enough. The stench of “popery” was still abundant in the state church, as evidenced by the Anglican episcopacy, liturgy, and priestly vestments still worn by clergy. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement reached its zenith in the House of Commons over the issues of Prayer Books and presbyteries. However by its end, the largely quelled Puritan enthusiasm had transformed from a political impetus to a pious one. The political defeats of the 1580s left “precisianists” to exercise their precise religion in an inwardly “affectionate” and “experiential” theology that gave rise to the abundance of Puritan literature we know today. During the subsequent reign of “bloody Mary,” Puritans either were slaughtered, emigrated to continental Europe (usually Switzerland), or remained steadfast in their underground churches under heavy Catholic persecution. For those 21st-century American Christians experiencing increasing hostility to the Gospel under an ungodly ruler, these are our spiritual forbears: saints who endured with humility and patience. And in this spirit, the name “Puritan” has reached far beyond sixteenth-century Anglicans (an anachronistic term). The famous Puritan John Owen was an Independent. The famous American Puritan Jonathan Edwards was a Congregationalist. William Gladstone, for example, called English Baptist Charles Haddon Spurgeon “the last Puritan.” In our day, the venerable Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones also carried that mantle. Therefore, admittedly, the name “Puritan” has transformed into something of a portal to the days of pure religion. According to Stephen Wellum, “Even though Puritanism was diverse, ‘Puritans’ were united in emphasizing personal conversion, they rejoiced in God’s sovereign grace in election, and as a result, their hearts’ desire was to live their lives to God’s glory.” (“Editorial: Learning from the Puritans”, SBTS Journal of Theology, 2010) For this reason, Reformed evangelicals often see themselves as the rightful theological and spiritual heirs to the Puritan tradition. In order to carry on that tradition, the following are three short reasons why Americans should read the Puritans for the integrity and advancement of the church.

Puritans combined pious individualism with a strong sense of covenant community

Modern American culture will inevitably exalt the individual above the integrated whole. After all, we live in a “selfie” world. Today, despite the postmodern tendency toward collectivism, countless Christians don’t feel the need to foster lasting relationships in their churches because sermon podcasts and campus ministries seem like acceptable substitutes. “Personal” faith has become a secluded faith. The busy schedules of families are often pitted against commitments like small groups or bible studies. However, Puritans didn’t view individualism and community as mutually exclusive. In fact, Puritanism was both very personal and very group-oriented…all at the same time! Paul Baynes, dear friend of William Ames and the man who converted Richard Sibbes, personalized conversion as such: “Wherefore take heed…and love that word which brings you to the sight of sin, that brings you to fear judgment. These are sound wholesome words; though they smart, yet they are medicinable.” (Commentary on Ephesians) His predecessor William Perkins authored A Golden Chaine, a work that structured the Christian life so meticulously and so personally that his famous charts of salvation left no step of salvation undocumented. According to Perkins, “Theology is the science of living blessedly forever. Blessed life ariseth from the knowledge of God and therefore it ariseth from the knowledge of ourselves, because we know God by looking into ourselves.” (1) Men like William Ames and William Perkins helped to develop the Puritan concept of ordo salutis (“order of salvation”). However, Puritans were also deeply gregarious people who relished the gift of Christian friendship. Puritanism has been called the “spiritual brotherhood.” (The Rise of Puritanism, 15) J.I. Packer has argued that “the idea that direct biblical warrant…is required to sanction every substantive item included in the public worship of God was a Puritan innovation.” (Quest for Godliness, 247) Speaking of church ordinances, John Owen recognized that God made “blessed promises to his people, to grant them his presence and to bless them in their use.” (Brief Instruction) For Puritans, soteriology was little without ecclesiology. Puritanism, like Christianity, is deeply personal and community-driven.

Puritans employed “practical divinity.”

One of the most common phrases you’ll hear in modern Christianity is “living out your faith.” It’s a precarious mix of American pragmatism and clear biblical teaching to show our faith by our works. (James 2:18) But Puritanism wasn’t pragmatic so much as practical. Richard Sibbes, in his famous The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, reflects upon the strength of the Spirit that “actuates”: “Nothing is stronger than humility, that goeth out of itself; or weaker than pride, that resteth upon its own bottom.” (94) Theology, if sincerely embraced, must be visible in the Christian. But this isn’t because our works merit God’s favor. Nor is it because they distinguish our spiritual superiority. Rather, “practical divinity” demonstrates the value of life, the eminence of His church, and the infinite worth of Christ. According to William Ames, “since this life so willed is truly and properly our most important practice, it is self-evident that theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one.” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity) Puritan preachers most commonly transitioned from the text to exposition of doctrine precisely because they believed that theology naturally involves the practice of faith. Contrary to the American church, this practical faith wasn’t utilitarian in nature. Rather, it served to delineate the true church. According to Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, “In Puritan theology the Catholic doctrine of ‘no salvation outside the church’ found fresh and vigorous embodiment.” (“Practical divinity and spirituality,” The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, 198)

Puritans packaged the doctrine of salvation for the church.

What do the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia look like inside of a church? For many Protestant churches in America today, they can start to erode church membership into a licentious “God won’t judge me” kind of faith. If miscommunicated, the faith that fuels church participation can actually detract from it. Between the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakening, the Puritans occupied the unique space in history when Reformation principles needed expounding and packaging for the everyday church setting. And that’s precisely why Puritans are so important for America today. Theology didn’t stay in Geneva. And it’s not just for the university. It’s designed for the church. Richard Baxter, in his famous The Reformed Pastor, said, “For I fear nothing more, than that many ministers, who preach well, will be found but imperfectly qualified for this work, especially to manage it with old, ignorant, dead-hearted sinners.” (46) The centrality of the Word is demonstrated by the constant preaching of the cross and its remedy for weary sinners. Richard Sibbes reminds us, “There is always comfort. The fountain that is opened…to wash in is never dry. Go therefore to the blood of Christ, that is, if we find sin upon our conciences, if we find no peace in our consciences, nor sanctification in our hearts, go to the blood of Christ which is shed for all those that confess their sins, and rely on him for pardon.” (II Cor. I) Christians are a pilgrim people. Therefore the doctrine of Christ's salvation isn’t simply entrance into the vessel, but is the very means by which we row to shore. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, pastor at Northampton, “Thus as the gates of hell can never prevail against the church of Christ, so neither can they prevail against grace in the heart.” (“Charity”) Should Christians need any lessons in navigating the political and religious vicissitudes of modern America, they need only look back, to the men and women who did so with cross-centered hope and joy. America needs the Puritans. Not as saviors, but as historical windows to gaze upon pure and undefiled religion.

(originally published on January 8, 2016)

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