Why Read the Puritans?

I am currently undertaking a PhD on William Perkins, who was a famous English theologian and preacher in the 1590s. My studies aren’t just an academic exercise. I believe that Christians today have a lot to learn from Christians from the past. Those in pastoral ministry should particularly take time to read some works by the Puritans. But not just pastors. Most Puritan works were written to benefit ordinary Christians. It is worth taking the time and effort into reading old Puritan books for the ways they can benefit us.

Who were the Puritans?

‘Puritanism’ wasn’t really a clearly defined movement. Basically the term refers to a particular kind of English Protestant from early in the reign of Elizabeth I (1559 onwards) to near the end of the 1600s: a period of a little under 150 years. A lot happened in that time, so ‘Puritan’ refers to a diverse range of Christians dealing with many different challenges. What united them was that they all believed that the process of reforming the English church was incomplete. They wanted to keep reforming Christian conduct and belief in accordance with the Bible. Basically English Puritanism was Stage 2 of the English Reformation; a continued attempt to reform English Christianity where the Reformation hadn’t gone far enough.

Different issues came to the fore at different times: clergy vestments, liturgy, church governance, church discipline, evangelical piety. The Puritans thought through every issue rigorously and promoted change in line with what they found in the Bible. Unfortunately for them, the English church was the state-church and so the monarch held the office of ‘supreme-governor’ of the church. All the English monarchs of the period opposed the puritans in various ways. But puritans were found both inside and outside the established churches. They included some of the best Anglican clergymen of their day as well as many of the best non-conforming ministers, many of whom were responsible for beginning new denominations: Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists.

In sum, Puritans were enthusiastic, Bible-believing Christians who wanted to live all of life under God’s word and wanted to see their entire society transformed by knowing Christ. All evangelicals worthy of the name want that. But the Puritans worked at figuring out how to do that with a kind of enthusiasm, joy, hard work, and sheer tenacity that is almost unique in church history.

Why read the Puritans?

Pastors, in particular, have lots of reasons to read the Puritans. One of the challenges of ministry is finding good models to imitate and good teaching to benefit from. Preachers of the word don’t often hear preaching that challenges them. They are usually the one preaching! Puritan writings will stretch pastors theologically and challenge them personally. Puritans engage in application of the Bible in ways that you haven’t considered before. Whilst we mustn’t imitate their style of preaching today (2-hour sermons are a bit much for most modern congregations), modern preachers will become better preachers by reading them. If you struggle to find older Christians to be mentored by, consider some of your much-older brothers and sisters in Christ. They are now with Jesus, but they have left a treasure-trove of material behind for us to continue to benefit from.

A few years ago I started a Puritan reading group. My reasons were not just that I knew the Puritans would be worth reading. It was also because I was tired of ‘trendy’ theology. Like everything else, in life theology moves in phases. There are topics and ways of doing theology today that are ‘cool’. There are theologians who are very ‘now’ and are basically the cool kid in class that everyone talks about. In 20 years it will be different approaches, different theologians, and different topics that occupy that place in evangelical culture. These patterns indicate some level of spiritual immaturity among Christians, including Christian leaders. Part of spiritual maturity is that we don’t fluctuate like the waves of the sea (Ephesians 4:14). That isn’t to say that there aren’t new insights to gain or that we should avoid contemporary topics. But learning from the Puritans is a great way to avoid being driven by what is new and popular and to instead focus on what is timeless and important.

Of course, the Puritans themselves are not perfect. They have flaws and I don’t agree with everything I read in them. But they exhibit maturity in doctrine and piety that is in short supply today. We have much to learn from them.

Where should I start?

First, it is crucial to work out how you’ll exercise the motivation and discipline to get through a book and reflect on it well. A great way to achieve this is to join or start a Puritan reading group. Find a couple of other people who are willing to sit down and reflect on half a book once a month. I have found this to be a very beneficial practice. As you reflect together on this rich material you’ll soon find yourself having deeply worthwhile conversations about personal, theological, and pastoral issues.

As for choosing what to read, there are guidebooks to Puritan literature that can provide helpful places to start.[1] There are also a surprisingly large number of publishers making Puritan classics available today.[2] In particular, Banner of Truth’s ‘Puritan Paperbacks’ series is an affordable and accessible way to begin reading the Puritans.[3] My reading group has progressed through Thomas Watson’s Christian Man’s Picture, Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and William Perkins’ Art of Prophesying and Golden Chain. I have a long list of others I’m looking forward to getting into.

So choose something and get reading!

[1] For a nearly comprehensive (but very accessible) guide to Puritans and their books see: Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012). For a ‘greatest hits’ approach to good Puritan books: Kelly M. Kapic & Randall C. Gleason (eds.) The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[2] E.g. Banner of Truth (https://banneroftruth.org), Reformed Heritage Books (https://www.heritagebooks.org/). For eBooks see: Puritan Library (http://www.puritanlibrary.com), Post-Reformation Digital Library (http://www.prdl.org/), A Puritan’s Mind (https://www.apuritansmind.com), Still Waters Revival Books (http://www.puritandownloads.com/). 

[3] http://puritanpaperbacks.com/