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Who Were the Puritans?

Who were they?

The Puritans were considered to be a rebellious group of ministers during the late sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Puritan writings are among the most influential and treasured Christian writings ever published. Puritan preaching and teaching especially had a deep and lasting impact on the church. But who were they?

The term ‘Puritan’ was a derogatory term which originated with those intending to belittle the men who wanted to further reform the Church of England. 1 However, the word ‘Puritan’, similar to the title ‘Christian’, has refined with time as Marsden says: “It was applied in scorn: but age and use have made it venerable.” 2

Puritans are recognised for wanting to reform the Church of England and held a strong theological view of “three great areas..” as Lewis says. The three being, “..the New Testament pattern of personal piety, sound doctrine and a properly ordered Church-life, and it is the mingling and blending together of all three of these emphases which made English Puritanism the astonishment and the inspiration it was and is still.” 3

Puritan Preaching

The Puritans were very influential during their existence in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and their legacy continues to be influential today. The Puritans were great preachers of the gospel. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones summarise what made their preaching so effective this way: “It was, we believe, a combination of the preachers’ intense love for God and souls, their style of preaching, their loyalty to the Word, their zeal for preaching, their dependency on the Spirit, and their lifestyle of holiness.” 4

Puritans gave strong emphasis on holy living, and this emphasis had a great effect upon their hearers. The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691), for example, once said, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradicts your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling-blocks before the blind, as may be the occasion of their ruin; lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues; and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labours.” 5 This deep conviction of continually striving to live by the scriptures and eagerness for spiritual sanctification is what bestowed on them the readiness and passion for powerful preaching. Again, Baxter famously said, “It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher.” 6 He intended to live a holy and godly life and urged his hearers to do the same. Consequently, the Puritans were indeed the best of preachers with an intense passion for knowledge of the scriptures and a desire to be holy. The Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) made the claim that every great opposition made to gospel doctrine is because men do not strive for holiness. 7

Puritan preaching is what identifiably set them apart from the other clergymen. The Puritans were primarily Anglicans, but they were different from the ‘High-Church’ clergy in that they noticed a lack of evangelicalism within the Church of England. The common Anglican minister favoured books of homilies and would read their sermons. They lacked zeal and passion. The Puritans thought their sermons were too moralistic, not practical, and lacked urgency and holy zeal. 8 Puritan preaching was undoubtedly very different from the common Anglican sermon. Famous Anglican preachers such as Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) and Richard Hooker (1554-1600) were constantly mocking the Puritan way of preaching. 9 Many of the Puritans began to secede from the Church of England which is what gave birth to non-conformity in Britain.

Regarding Puritan preaching, Lloyd-Jones said, “Their view of preaching…was governed by theology”. 10 That is, their sermons expounded the scriptures, and were constructed around the gospel—they were entirely based on the Bible. It is clear that what made Puritan sermons so explicitly clear in doctrine and vigorous in style was their high view of the authority of the scriptures and its impact on their lives. The very essence of Puritan preaching was that their lives were shaped by the gospel and they sought to proclaim the same gospel to their hearers that they too might be shaped by it. The Puritans relied upon scripture for every decision of daily living – “…man is too wretched to discipline himself”. 11

Puritans believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture 12 which was the key to their biblical interpretation and dependence upon God. 13 Therefore, they were careful to hold to a biblical Christology and to emphasise the seriousness of sin which shaped their view of the gospel, that man is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

I try to base my own preaching on a principle held by the Puritans, which is: Christ-centered preaching. Christ-centered preaching was something particular in the Puritan sermon. They were evangelists in every sermon because they believed all of scripture is ultimately about Christ and directs us to him. 14 Packer helpfully says: “The Puritans did not regard evangelistic sermons as a special class of sermons, having their own peculiar style and conventions; the Puritan position was, rather, that, since all Scripture bears witness to Christ, and all sermons should aim to expound and apply what is in the Bible, all proper sermons would of necessity declare Christ and so be to some extent evangelistic.” 15 I completely agree that it is imperative that we see Christ in all of scripture and that it is preached with him at the centre.

The Puritans didn’t always agree with each other. Most notably is the doctrinal differences between John Owen (1616-1683) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691). 16 However, the Puritans were in unity against the liberalism and religiosity of the Church of England, especially when it came to preaching, the sacraments and their clergy’s neglect of holy living.

The strong emphasis on sin and the high view of Christ is what all Puritans held in common. Owen strongly emphasises this as the first general rule of killing sin: “Be sure to get an interest in Christ, if you intend to mortify sin; without it, it will never be done.” 17 Additionally, in explaining what following Christ supposes and implies, the Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston (1676-1732) makes plain that a “dead man cannot follow any person; a dead preacher cannot follow Christ; there must be a principle of life, spiritual life in him, or else he is naught…This is a spiritual following of Christ; and therefore presupposes a spiritual and heavenly principle.” 18 Moreover, William Perkins (1558-1602) highly stressed that preaching the Word is the “profession of the knowledge of Christ”. 19

He explains that in preparing a sermon, a preacher should make use of general arts and philosophy and a variety of subjects, but Christ must remain central.

I hope and pray our church will make much of the Puritan writings. Buy them and read them. They are rich in wisdom and are littered with biblical insight. Get yourself a Puritan Paperback from the Banner of Truth website and enrich yourself with the some of the best insights into how to live a godly life.

 

Click here to be taken to their page on Puritan Paperbacks. I have personally been especially blessed by:

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

Searching our Hearts in Difficult Times by John Owen

Letters of Samuel Rutherford by Samuel Rutherford

As some of you know, our deacon Rob Ramos is a big fan of the Puritans. He highly recommends the John Owen Puritan Paperbacks as they are abridged and made easy to read (The Glory of Christ, Communion with God, The Holy Spirit, etc). He remembers reading the Glory of Christ alone in the house in America and being quite literally lifted up into the heavenly places. That book was a turning point in his Christian life.

 

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Written by: Pastor Gwydion

Notes:

  1. J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants: The Puritan vision of the Christian Life (Sussex, Great Britain: Kingsway, 1991), 23.

  2.  J.B. Marsden, The History of the Early Puritans (London: Hamilton, Adams & co., 1850; repr., Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker, 2002), 3.

  3.  Peter Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism (Haywards Heath, Sussex: Carey), 11.
  4.  

     Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 682.

  5.  Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (ed. William Brown; fifth; 1656; repr., Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 63.

  6. Ibid, 54.
  7.  John Owen, Apostasy from the Gospel (Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 119.

  8.  Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 686.

  9.  D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: their origins and successors (Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 375.

  10. Ibid, 374.
  11.  John F.H. New, Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of their Opposition 1558-1604 (London, UK: Adam & Charles Black, 1964), 27.

  12.  William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (revised; 1606; repr., Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 9-11.

  13.  Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 23-29.

  14.  Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth: A Treatise on Christian Assurance (1653; repr., Chiltern Street, London: Banner of Truth, 1961), 17.

  15.  Packer, Among God’s Giants, 218.

  16.  See: Michael A.G. Haykin and Mark Jones, ed., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 152-156.

  17.  John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1996; repr., Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010), 82.

  18.  Thomas Boston, The Art of Man-Fishing (1998; repr., Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2012), 39.

  19.  Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 71.

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