“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure. Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.”
-Matthew 5:8; Titus 1:15; Philippians 4:8
Why meet the Puritans? As one modern critic said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I must admit, that was my perspective in my early years of ministry. Puritans were a small group of people that seemed so strict, so out of sync with the rest of the world. I placed them in the Amish category only in an earlier era. But then I discovered “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” I repented of my ignorance. They became spiritual giants in my life as I read of the persecution that they suffered many separating from the Church of England and willing to die horrifying deaths simply because they believed in Sola Scriptura – “by Scripture alone!”
The label “Puritan” first surfaced during the 1560’s referencing those English Protestants who considered the reforms under Queen Elizabeth inadequate in worshipping God. Because they sought further “purification” than the Church of England allowed they were given this name. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Puritan era commenced or when it ended, but their theological convictions were based upon Scripture alone which exceeded the boundaries of England’s state of authority. Following is a sketchy Puritan timeline dating at least back to the early 16th century.
- 1517 – Martin Luther (1483-1546) at age thirty-four nailed his 95 declarations to the castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. This was also the year in which John Foxe, noted martyrologist, was born in Boston, England. His book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, recorded the martyrdom of thousands of godly saints from the twelve Apostles through the reign of Queen Mary in the mid 16th century. John Bunyan considered Foxe’s writings the reason for setting the fire ablaze for the pathway to Puritanism. Thus this volume was one of very few books, if any that rested in a cold dungeon alongside his Bible.
- 1526 – Regular theological discussions were being conducted in the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge, England. Among this number were future martyrs under Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) including Bilney, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Noted present day author, Michael Horton, has a website, WhiteHorseInn.org, which I wondered where he got the name. Now, I know, only he changed “Tavern” to “Inn,” which would be understandable today!
- 1534 – Henry VIII was declared the Supreme Head of the Church of England after forcing an issue with Pope Clement VII regarding an annulment from his wife he had requested some seven years earlier. At this particular time England was responsible to the Roman Catholic Church in Rome on matters of marriage, tithes and oblations. Of course it did result in King Henry’s excommunication from the church but by this time he had converted to the Church of England, which really wasn’t that far removed from Roman Catholicism. They basically exchanged a Pope for a King. This move did sever England’s ties from the authority of Rome.
- 1536 – John Calvin (1509-1664) at age 27 wrote the “Institutes of Christian Religion.” Luther and Calvin were contemporaries whose declarations and writings primed the pump for Puritanism in the mid 1530’s-1540’s.
- 1534-1553 – King Henry’s separation from Rome and Headship of the Church of England did give those who would become known as Puritans some hope that maybe they would have more freedom to worship the God of Scripture but he had no interest in opening the door to such radicalism. Upon his death in 1547, his eight year old son, Edward, ruled through the regents and when he died six years later in 1553, his older sister, Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) became queen. During her five year reign she sought to return England to Roman authority and martyred some 300 Christian leaders, most of them burned at the stake including those mentioned earlier: Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. A lesser known but effective preacher of truth was John Hooper. Born in Somersetshire, England in 1495, while studying at Oxford he came to faith through the study of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Soon he had to escape England because of his convictions and traveled and studied throughout France and Switzerland. Returning to England during King Edward’s reign, he preached to packed houses and before the king himself. His labors ceased when Bloody Mary ascended the throne and unleashed a storm against the Protestants which resulted in terrible prison conditions for Hooker and eventual burning at the stake. Here he was heard to be praying with the assembled crowd, “Our father which art in heaven Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done…” 
- 1553-1558 – During Queen Mary’s rule the Protestants scattered throughout Europe hoping to escape her bloody sword. It was during this time that Foxe published his book of Christian martyrdoms through the years up to this time in an attempt to encourage believers to continue following God’s Word. At Mary’s death her sister, Elizabeth I, a Protestant who never married, became queen and once again this gave great hope to those of puritanical persuasion. Having dispersed throughout Europe they scurried back to England in groves praying and hoping that the Church of England would purify itself of hierarchy and return fully to the Scriptures. But this was not on Elizabeth’s agenda and she, like her father King Henry, had no interest in this kind of extremism, especially those of the White Horse Tavern discussants. King Henry’s children (Edward, Mary & Elizabeth), all by different wives, were certainly a mixed bag of beliefs, but none that would be supportive of those of any biblical conviction.
- 1558-1600 – Though persecution through martyrdom was not as prominent during this era, the Church of England continued to strengthen its grip upon the people requiring all to be members which only caused greater consternation among genuine believers. At least two groups commenced an outspoken reaction to the Church of England, one called the Separatists, and the other the Puritans. The Separatists wanted to reform the church from without and the Puritans thought that they could reform the church from within. Thus the unfolding of the people we have come to know as the Puritans.
Not accomplishing their goals of “reforming” the Anglican Church, the Separatists left for Holland in 1600. Upon returning in 1620, led by William Bradford, and finding no change they sailed on the Mayflower, leaving Plymouth, England, and made their way to Plymouth, Massachusetts. After a long, uncomfortable voyage, they landed in the New World, for which they were ill-equipped. Actually, two separate groups were among the travelers, the Strangers (non-religious) and the Separatists (also known as Pilgrims), and they didn’t get along at all. Thus the signing of the Mayflower Compact to assure the Pilgrims that they would have religious freedom in this new land, for which they so desperately fought for in England. Within the first three months in their newly adopted home, half of the 102 travelers had perished; ten of seventeen male heads of families died due to infection, and of the seventeen wives, all but three died. Establishing their new home on the site of an old Indian village, the Indians taught them how to survive by teaching them how to plant corn and live off of the land.
This began a wave of departures from England, including Roger Williams (1636) landing in Boston and then discovering Providence, Rhode Island. Others followed to Virginia and other places, thus creating the Puritan Movement in what has become known as New England.
William Perkins (1558-1602) is often considered bringing about the name “Puritan” for the first time because of his offensive writings to the demands of Queen Elizabeth. Perkins was educated and taught at Christ’s College, Cambridge, right under her nose. A thorn in the flesh to her he was. Though not in name, many ascribe Puritan convictions dating back to William Tyndale ((1494-1536). A brilliant mind, the Greek New Testament of Erasmus (1466-1536) and the works of Martin Luther (1483-1546) awakened in him the desire to give the Bible to the common people in their own language. This he did at age 32, at which time English merchants smuggled his New Testaments into England. The year was 1526. Tyndale believed that Erasmus’s New Testament showed present day scholars what the church should be. This made a vital impact upon the English people, so much so, that after going into hiding Tyndale was found near Brussels, Belgium, where he was tried for heresy, strangled and then burned at the stake in the prison yard at age 42. Tyndale, Erasmus and Luther were contemporaries along with Jacob Arminius. Erasmus and Arminius were Arminians while Tyndale and Luther fed off of the teaching of John Calvin, also a contemporary (1509-1564).
Thus in this particular period during the 16th and 17th centuries great theological debates were existing as well as church and state issues. If you throw the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Church into the mix, it helps to understand how Puritanism and its devotion to Scripture alone brought about such great persecution and departure from the country they loved so dearly.
In 1662 noted pastor and commentator, Matthew Henry, was born, the year that some 2000 pastors, including his father, Phillip Henry, were ejected from their pulpits in the Church of England. They had refused to conform to the requirements laid upon them by the Act of Uniformity. This meant that all non-conforming pastors whether Baptist, Presbyterian or Congregational, were deprived of preaching publicly. They and all non-conformist students were either expelled or excluded from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the primary ministerial training centers of that day.
Though the Puritans were emphatic in their view of Calvinism, sometimes what they referred to as “Reformed Doctrine” is misconstrued. This did not necessarily reference the Doctrines of Grace which they believed, but more so their “reformed” thinking from the Church of England. Their intent, the Separatists from without, and the Puritans from within the established church, wanted to reform, or renew, or return the church to biblical teachings. They believed in the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture alone. They were passionately committed to the doctrinal teaching of the Trinity, the sacrificial atonement of Christ and the applicatory work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. They believed there was an order of polity for the government of the church and was not to be dictated to by higher authorities. They believed in biblical conversion – “Ye must be born again,” much to the chagrin of the Anglican Church. They believed that their lives should be shaped and influenced by Scripture, not the church. Keep in mind that the Anglican Church was only one step removed from Roman Catholicism.
The Puritans married doctrine and practice. Their focus was Christo-centric. They treated trials as a means of affliction to humble them and trust God more. Their teachings and lives demonstrated how to live in two worlds. The hope of heaven energized them to live here upon earth. They were always looking towards the “City,” whose maker and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10). They with unwavering conviction recognized that they were but strangers and pilgrims on earth and were seeking another homeland, a heavenly country, and this they did with unbelievable faith (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Their writings, often under extreme conditions and stress (Bunyan as you know penned The Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison) have weathered the storms of time and today are being re-printed in greater abundance than ever before. Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, during his ministry at Westminster Chapel for nearly 50 years (1929-1981), discovered the effectiveness of their ethical and doctrinal exposition and was responsible for the Banner Truth Trust Publishers coming into existence to publish the works of great Puritan preachers of the past. This publishing house was founded in 1957 with Westminster Chapel being its first home. Today literally thousands of Puritan writings are available through Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, MI (heritagebooks.org).
The Puritans thirsted after the presence and glory of God. I appreciate spending time in the presence of their writings for they have helped wean me from this present world. Next to reading the precious Word of God, I cherish their encouragement in my life to be steadfast, committed, patient in tribulation and sufferings and meditative in my study of the Scriptures. Certainly we would not agree with all of their doctrinal persuasions and sometimes peculiar ways, but this should not bridle us from learning at their feet. I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to meet the Puritans. They were also responsible for the establishment of moral values upon which our country was founded, but sadly have forsaken. Following is a listing of books to assist you in your journey.
Bibliography & Suggested Readings
- Meet the Puritans, Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Reformation Heritage Books
- Voices from the Past, Edited by Richard Rushing, Banner truth Trust (a daily devotional from the writings of various Puritans – a true treasure)
- The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotionals, Banner of Truth Trust
- Taking Hold of God, Reformed & Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, Reformed Heritage Books
- The Godly Man’s Picture, Thomas Watson, Banner of Truth Trust
- Worldly Saints, The Pilgrims As They Really Were, Leland Ryken, Zondervan Publishers
- The Christian on the Mount, a Treatise on Meditation, Thomas Watson, Northampton Press
- The Art of Divine Contentment (Philippians 4:11), Thomas Watson, Soli Deo Gloria Publications
- All things For Good (Romans 8:28), Thomas Watson, Banner of Truth Trust
- The Rare Jewel of Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs, Banner of Truth Trust
- Matthew Henry, His Life & Influence, Allan Harman, Christian Focus