As we have noted before, the Puritans sure do get a bad rap these days. Many, upon hearing the name Puritan, conjure up thoughts of some dour, lifeless killjoys. Others assume that Nathaniel Hawthorne had it right: the Puritans lived for imposing their strictures onto others. However, these thoughts just don’t do justice to the Puritans. When you read the Puritans, you come into contact with a very different kind of person. Consider this another effort in our PR campaign to bring these great men of God back into favor with the masses.
Rethinking the Puritans
Contrary to popular opinion, Puritans made for some of the warmest pastors in Church history. These were men who cared for their flocks with empathy and compassion. Richard Sibbes was an Anglican pastor in Cambridge in the early 1600s. Sibbes deeply cared for his congregation, and devoted much of his time in helping weak and doubting Christians to see the grace in the eyes of their Savior. His most famous work, The Bruised Reed, stands as a window into his shepherd’s heart.
In the book, Sibbes considers Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…” (Isaiah 42:3) Sibbes unpacks endless encouragement from this promise about Christ. With great care and persuasion, the Puritan consoles insecure Christians with the gentle love of Christ. Sibbes’ contemporaries benefitted so much from the ministry of this man, that they affectionately referred to him as “the sweet dropper”. Izaak Walton, in speaking of Sibbes, said that “heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.” Far from the foreboding figures presented in books like The Scarlet Letter, Richard Sibbes represents a very different picture, common among the Puritans.
Another great Puritan pastor was a man named John Bunyan. You’re probably familiar with Bunyan, but you might not have realized that he was a Puritan. Bunyan lived in England from 1628 to 1688. In 1660, he was imprisoned for twelve years because of his Puritan convictions. While in prison, Bunyan learned to “live upon God” and found much joy in relationship with God, despite his circumstances. It was during this time that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. The book is one of the most famous books ever published. Pilgrim’s Progress serves as a great example of the creative and imaginative minds that the Puritans possessed.
The book is an allegory that traces Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Through story, Bunyan teaches Christians to resist temptation, looking to Christ in the midst of despair, and to be cautious when choosing leaders to follow. Many modern Christians have been pleasantly surprised that they could benefit so much from a man who lived centuries before them. Creative, joyful, and imaginative, Bunyan sits in stark contrast against the sterile Puritan stereotype.
Our Pressing Need
Christians today need the Puritans. These Christians were strongest where we are weakest. In our day and age, technology has shriveled up our attention span. A recent study has shown that modern people have an attention span of eight seconds. Eight seconds! That is the average time it takes before you get distracted away from anything that you set your mind to. The Puritans, on the other hand, were given to deep, focused thinking. Like the blessed man in Psalm 1, they were given to delightful meditation on God’s word day and night. They were people who pondered.
When was the last time you really pondered something? When we come across something we don’t understand in the Bible, we consider the answer for about thirty seconds before we give up and start thinking of something else. Not so with the Puritans. These brothers pored over the Scriptures. They disciplined themselves to come to a place of understanding in their thinking. They explored the heights and depths in the topography of the revealed mind of God. Then, they teased out their understanding of Scripture until they saw clearly how Scripture applied to their experience in practical, daily living.
Head and Heart
But it doesn’t stop there. The Puritans struck an amazing balance between head and heart. They were Christians who thought deeply, with razor sharp precision. But at the same time, they were people of profound emotion. These men and women came to know God deeply. As a result, their hearts were set ablaze with love for God. The Puritans knew that deep feeling was the result of deep thinking. Thomas Goodwin taught Christians to feed their hearts with this kind of deep thinking about God:
Endeavor to preserve and keep up lively, holy and spiritual affections in your heart. Do not let them cool. Do not fall from your first love, fear, or joy in God. Or if you have grown remiss, endeavor to recover those affections again. For as your affections are, so your thoughts will be … It is true that thoughts and affections are the mutual causes of each other, as it is written, “While I was musing, the fire burned” (Psa 39:3)—the thoughts are the bellows that kindle and inflame the affections. And then when they are inflamed, they cause thoughts to boil.
(The Vanity of Thoughts, Thomas Goodwin)
A Sweet Delight in God
Another great example of heartfelt thinking in the Puritans is Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is a Puritan pastor that many of us are familiar with. Most of us know of Edward’s famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards was certainly one who knew and warned of the danger of God’s wrath. But he was also so much more. Edwards was a man who knew the love of God in a way that most of us long for. One spring day in 1721, while riding his horse into the woods for meditation, Edwards was consumed with the love of God. He writes about his experience:
The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Timothy 1:17, “Now unto the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.” As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in him forever! I kept saying, and as it were singing, over these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do, with a new sort of affection.
(The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:xiii)
We tend to think that thinking and feeling are unrelated. You can either be a deep thinker or a deep feeler. However, Puritans like Jonathan show us that deep thinking, in the right way, leads to the deepest possible feeling. Our minds can serve our hearts. Maybe we are missing something that these men can teach us.
A Gift for Our Time
The Puritans are a gift to the Church. They were men and women who knew and loved God sincerely. While they are incredibly helpful to those who read them, they are not always easy to read. In my own experience, it took me a while to get used to the way the Puritans used language. They wrote differently than we do now. At times, they use difficult words. Sometimes they use words in a different way than we would. Besides all of this, they also pack more meaning into their sentences than we are used to these days. But, if you are willing to push through, your effort will be rewarded.
The more you read the Puritans, the more familiar you become with their writing style. Eventually, you will be able to read these books as naturally as you would any other author. At the end of the day, few authors can help you grow in love for God more than the Puritans. We need more of their depth to help us navigate our age of instant gratification. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we need to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” The Puritans may require us to think more than we are used to, but that just might be exactly what we need these days.
For a list of great books by Puritan authors check out Banner of Truth.