We live in a day where Puritan works are constantly gaining in popularity. The Banner of Truth is to be thanked for sparking this revival of interest. We should also be thankful to Joel Beeke with Puritan Theological Seminary and Reformation Heritage Books for their work on Puritanism. This revival has brought many people to the great benefits of reading Puritan literature. The effect of this is that faithful church members have been set aflame with a passion for holiness and correct biblical thinking.
I was recently away from my desk for a week and took Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randal Pederson with me as travel reading. Thinking about this, we tend to know a lot about the writings of the Puritans, but not much about the Puritans themselves. I have only had some brief sketches of stories from Puritan lives until now, so reading about some of the Puritans’ lives in this book was a huge blessing to me.
In that book, I read about faithful men standing their ground. I learned about the suffering and hardship that these men faced as they were persecuted and attacked. Truly, the book was a moving read. When we compare their lives to our own, we simply feel that we are a hollow shell compared to their example. This article exists to inspire you to read more about the Puritans and learn about their lives, what they fought for, and how they stood strong.
The Puritan Struggle
To be a Puritan was no easy task. The Reformation had flooded into Great Britain, bringing with it the Doctrines of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. These biblical doctrines were adopted by men who had access to the Bible and, through the work of professors such as William Perkins, the Puritan movement was founded on those doctrines. These doctrines, taken seriously, formed the foundation of Puritan thinking. Doctrine, however, cannot exist without its result. For the Puritans, this result was found in living a life of holiness. The Puritans came to love holiness and worked hard to promote godliness in themselves and those they interacted with. Unfortunately, promoting holiness goes strongly against the grain of any culture. It was not long before the Puritans began to be persecuted for their views.
The act of conformity, which led to the ejection of many Puritans from their pulpits, is one example of how culture tends not to tolerate truth and correct living. Most of the faithful Puritan ministers refused to conform and were removed from their duties. In some cases, these men were shot at and thrown into prison. As I read Meet the Puritans, I was struck by the Puritans’ faithful attitude. The majority of persecuted Puritans refused to relinquish the task of preaching. In contrast to today, we are shocked that so many people are willing to give up this calling out of various fears.
Another great example of Puritan faithfulness is when some preachers were told they would be shot if they tried to preach again. Those men firmly ignored such threats and would the next Sunday saying “do what you will.” Such faithfulness is simply heart-breaking when we think about our Western context.
This is exemplified in Robert Harris, where we read: “Once, in 1642, after preaching on James 5:12, ‘Swear not at all,’ some Royalist soldiers warned him they would shoot him if he ever preached on that text again. Undismayed, he did just that the following Sabbath. When he noticed a soldier preparing his weapon to shoot him, he preached on and completed his sermon without any digression.”[i] Imagine being that faithful to the call of preaching!
In the face of imprisonment and death threats, the Puritans stood strong. But not only in this matter did they stand strong. Some of the Puritans had great struggles with their health while maintaining their faithful work commitments. Beeke and Pederson note of Richard Baxter: “Baxter worked hard, despite chronic pain from the age of twenty-one until the end of his life.”[ii] Such an attitude strikes me in particular because I occasionally have chronic foot pain which tends to stop me dead in my work. This was a kick to the face for me as I had just recovered from such pain the week before departing on my journey.
We have various examples of men who were shot at, threatened, imprisoned, and mistreated for their faithfulness. What exactly was their stance? What was it that they clung to so dearly which caused them to be so persecuted?
The Puritan Stance
The answer to the above question is their simple faithfulness. History can testify how faithfulness has been well-received (think Charles Spurgeon, R C. Sproul, or even today’s popular ministries from men like John MacArthur).
Faithfulness is not always met with intense persecution, but it is generally expected (John 15:18). The Puritans were at a time of history where the truth had been recovered after a long time of being buried under lies and traditions. Their zeal to bring the truth to England so that even governors and rulers were hearing the Word of God is admirable. They gave their very lives into further reformation and the proclamation of truth to dead souls.
Unfortunately, you do not go head to head with rulers and powers without problems (Eph. 6:12). The blinding dedication to faithful doctrine seared the consciences of some people. Normally, dedication to a doctrine does not flare up much persecution. But when it is backed up with holy living, well that sirs up the fires of anger in this world. The conscience, battered by truth, lived and taught, often responds in anger. That is exactly what happened in light of Puritan faithfulness.
The Puritans were dedicated to their doctrine and proving the reality of their doctrine through holy living. Ultimately, however, these were faithful preachers who loved God and His truth. When those who would seek to bury or manipulate the truth come head to head with such an attitude, then persecution is sure to follow.
That is exactly what happened. The Puritans were persecuted, and some of them escaped from governmental clutches. Some remained in England and faced persecution, while others fled to America and The Netherlands. This ultimately had a great benefit because Puritanism, in part, spread to continental Europe and beyond. Is it not ironic that when men seek to quench the truth, often, they only end up blessing the Church?
As we consider the Puritan slove for God and His truth, we are reminded of the epicenter of all that love. Ultimately, it was their love for Jesus Christ that drove them forward. They knew His blood redeemed them, so they worked hard to propagate that blood, living as those who were permanently washed in its cleansing purity. Jesus specifically said that Christian persecution happens because it is an attack on His name. No wonder the most faithful men in history face resistance for their faithfulness.
Oh, how much could we learn for today? Why do we not have the same stance as the Puritans? Why do we allow our cowardice to dictate our faithfulness? I will not answer those questions here; rather, I will leave them hanging for each reader to reflect on individually. Surely, we will die one day. Will, our lives be a testimony to faithfulness, or will we be shown to have desired physical life more than our Savior’s glory?
On his deathbed, William Gouge showed just what Puritans expected from death, namely, final arrival to the fulness of Jesus Christ. “When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness; but when I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fullness and sufficiency.”[iii]
I do not feel any need to state any argument that “we need Puritanism to return,” but we certainly need some of their values today. We need to practice and teach holiness more and stand as firmly on the truth as many of them did. We may face persecution for such a stance, but it will surely be worth it. Those who will hate us are only spitting against the Savior who will bless us eternally for our stance.
May we learn to stand like the Puritans in the purity of doctrine and purity of soul in our living. Surely it will bless us all to see how our God graced their lives? I thoroughly recommend Beeke and Pederson’s book as a great starting point.
After that, get into some Puritan works and see for yourself what God can teach you through their writings. There is a goldmine of rediscovered work out there; you just need to dig and find out how you can benefit from that gold yourself.
[i] Beeke. J. R & Pederson. R. J. Meet the Puritans. Reformation Heritage Books. Grand Rapids: MI. (2006). 320
[ii] IBID. 64
[iii] IBID. 286