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 An Introduction to the Puritans

Edward Hindson


Puritanism never designated a particular group or denomination of Christians, but those preachers and laymen who held certain spiritual convictions that transcended confessional boundaries. It was more a religious term than an ecclesiastical label. Puritanism began as a reform movement within the Anglican church of England during the late sixteenth century.1 It was not initially an attempt to split the church, but to continue to reform a church which the Puritans saw as still too much like Roman Catholicism.

Ernest F. Kevan noted that in the ecclesiastical realm the Puritans believed in maintaining the national church, but also in reforming it more extensively2 in line with the true evangelical and apostolic heritage of the New Testament.3 The Reformation of the sixteenth century involved the rediscovery of divine grace and Scriptural authority, and the Puritans recognized that the fruit of the Reformation (the evangelical church) was the outgrowth of its roots (sola fide and sola Scriptura). Thus Puritanism became a doctrinal movement.4 It involved a rediscovery of God's sovereignty and Christ's all-sufficiency. It, like the Continental Reformation, was a revival of Augustinianism and Biblical theology. At the core of Puritan sentiment was an intense disgust for the Roman Catholic emphasis on man's ability to merit his own salvation.

The "early" Puritans strongly opposed High Church notions, a conflict which intensified and came to the fore in the early seventeenth century. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 ejected hundreds of Puritan preachers from the Anglican Church, making Puritanism a nonconformist movement. Puritanism matured later in New England and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. Thus Puritanism touched men of God in many denominations and became the basis of modern-day evangelicalism.

In an age when the evangelical church is being challenged and threatened on every side, it is necessary to reconsider the doctrinal truths that are its root and foundation.5 If it is to survive the ecumenical milieu of our day, orthodoxy must stand on the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. One of the failures of many evangelical preachers today is their lack of doctrinal preaching. A. N. Martin commented that modern evangelicals suffer from a mentality that regards doctrine and theology as a medieval hobgoblin!6 This mentality accuses theologians of obscuring the truth of Scripture instead of clarifying it. The express purpose of doctrinal preaching is to place particular truths in the framework of the whole counsel of God. It involves exegesis and exposition that lead to a philosophically and apologetically sound orthodoxy. It does not isolate truth from experience, but applies truth to experience. To the Puritan preacher truth had no relevance except in its practical application to the believer's life.

Only with the rise of modern theology has theological study returned to entangled, abstract minutia.7 The loss of absolute truth has resulted in the loss of absolute morals. The importance of theology has been minimized by existentialism. Truth as truth is no longer important to the modern theologian, and unfortunately this attitude is affecting many contemporary evangelicals. When doctrine deteriorates, methods of evangelism and standards of conduct do too. The Puritan preacher constantly applied doctrinal truth to the practice and ethics of the individual Christian.8

As Miller showed, the Puritan was not the gaunt, lank-haired kill-joy in a black hat that historians long thought him to have been.9 He was a colorful individual with a sense of humor and a deep sense of spiritual devotion to God. A seventeenth-century contemporary of the Puritans described them as ones who honored God above all else and who believed that the best Christians should be the best husbands, wives, parents, children, masters, and servants, so that the doctrine of God might be glorified and not blasphemed.10

William Perkins, an early Puritan, was the most eminent theologian of Cambridge, and his "Golden Chain" of the decrees of predestination and damnation is included in this reader. Yet he also was the father of English casuistical divinity.11 William Ames recounted his experience of hearing Perkins lecture at Cambridge and noted that he "instructed them soundly in the truth, stirred them up effectually to seek after godlinesse . . . that they might promote true Religion unto God's glory, and others' salvation."12

As hope for the complete purification of the Church of England dimmed, the Puritans became theologians of the Christian life. Kevan said, "They mounted the pulpit, and undertook the task of creating a new understanding of spiritual things in a nation that had not fully awakened to the full implications of the Scriptural principles of the Reformation."13 The weakness of the Anglican church was due not to weakness in the Reformation, but to the Anglicans' failure to comply fully with the principles of the Reformation. Fundamentalism is an outgrowth of Puritanism and has its love for pure doctrine, but most fundamentalists have little appreciation or even awareness of the English Reformers to whom they owe so much.14

The genius of Puritan theologians was that they were preachers first and theological writers secondly. Their written works were mainly edited versions of their sermons.15 Because of their emphasis upon application of doctrine to the Christian life, their writings generally came to be designated as "practical divinity." They were not "ivory-tower" theologians, but preachers of God's grace who were determined to meet the needs of men.

The term puritan was contemptuously given the movement by High Church Anglicans who thought the Puritans narrow-minded hypocrites (just as the term fundamentalist is often applied today by those who oppose fundamentalism).16 The ungodly are often quicker to condemn the godly than vice versa.

Puritan devotion is a model of Christian piety. Despite their strong stand for doctrinal purity, Puritan ministers led their flocks gently, always concerned to deliver Christians from the devices of Satan and to warn unbelievers to rest in Christ alone.17 Richard Greenham and his son-in-law, John Dod, were known for their ability to explain the gospel to the most simple souls in their own terminology and expressions. The Puritans loved God and the truth; they were not Pharisees. They denounced extremists and fanatics (enthusiasts).18 Their spiritual piety was sincere, resulting from their commitment to Biblical doctrine.

The key to Puritan devotion was discipline. The Christian life is a disciplined life, not a happy-go-lucky one. Too many contemporary evangelicals have missed this principle entirely, and so our churches stumble after the truth and grab at falsehoods. On every hand voices are calling for a reevaluation of doctrine, ethics, and methods. Why? We have neglected doctrine, and this has affected our piety and devotion adversely.

At the core of Puritan sentiment was an absolutely authoritative Scripture. The Word of God governed and disciplined their lives. The great transformation of the Reformation was caused by the release of the Word of God from the clerical chain. The Reformation could not be stopped because numerous lives had been transformed by the power of the Word of the living God.19 Thomas Cranmer wrote: ". . . this book is the Word of God, the most precious jewel, the most holy relic that remaineth upon earth."20

The Puritans' interest in the Word of God included an emphasis on the law of God. The moral law retains its authority over disciples- disciplined believers-and it is useful in convicting men of their sin and showing them that their only hope is the grace and mercy of God. The Puritans, then, strongly opposed antinomianism (those who claim the Christian has no obligation to keep the moral law). The Puritans even considered the civil law in Scripture to be their "primary law book."21

Kevan felt that the authority of the law in the believer's life is central to the Puritan concept of the Christian life.22 True devo tion to Christ involves obedience to the moral law of God. The Puritans never taught that this obedience is a basis for salvation, but that it is the inevitable result of a man's heart and will having been regenerated by God. The Puritans criticized the antinomians for their failure to distinguish properly between justification and sanctification, discerning that the doctrine of the antinomians too frequently becomes their practice.23

Thus the Puritans emphasized the practical use of the law: to restrain sin, to lead men to Christ, and to direct the believer's conduct. In this they closely followed the teaching of Calvin,24 who had urged that the law be preached to show the sinner his great failure and need and to encourage the believer to strive for holiness and integrity.25

The Puritan wanted to live as godly as possible, not-as with so many professing Christians today-as worldly as possible. Cranmer wrote, "True faith doth ever bring forth good works."26 Only true righteousness is evidence that one's faith and repentance are true. Edwin Sandys wrote, "The duty which we owe Him again is in holiness and righteousness of life continually to serve Him."27 The twentieth-century church greatly needs to recover and reemphasize this truth in order to restore the dynamic power of Christianity to pulpits and homes. Sandys wrote again: "If the fear of God were planted in our hearts,.. . we would not live in such careless security as we do; the gospel would take better effect in us, and bring forth more plentiful fruit; we would at the length cast away impiety and worldly concupiscence, and live a sober, just, and godly life; . . . the ministers would be more diligent in feeding of the flock, the people more ready to hear the voice of the shepherd.28

Sanctification is the immediate work of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life, but the outworking of it involves being disciplined by the Word of God. John Jewel commented: "We are children of God, the brethren of Christ, and heirs of the everlasting kingdom, we are Christian men, we profess God's Gospel; let us therefore remember that we must walk as becometh the servants of Christ: we must live like the professors of God's holy Gospel."29 This passionate devotion to holy living was intended not to earn salvation but to express sonship, the believer's destiny in Christ.

Puritan piety contrasted greatly with that of Catholicism. The latter, based on Neo-Platonism, identifies three stages in the Christian life: purgation, illumination, and union. For the Puritan, union with Christ was not the end of the Christian life but the beginning! Thus, "all spiritual life and holiness is treasured up in the Fulness of Christ, and communicated to us by Union with him; therefore, the accomplishing of Union with Christ is the first work of saving Grace in our hearts."30 Again, we modern-day evangelicals must recapture these truths if we are to stand the flood of ecumenism that minimizes the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. Love of Christ and faithfulness to His truth were the sterling qualities of Puritan piety.

Puritan Doctrine

The greatness of Puritanism was its fidelity to the Word of God as the only source of true doctrine and right practice. But it was not merely a religious creed; it was a philosophy of life that integrated man's whole being with the teaching of Scripture. Thus Puritans did not fear science, logic, and philosophy, but sought to bring the Word of God to bear on each discipline. They believed that God can be glorified in every area of academic pursuit. They believed Scripture to be in harmony with reason and science, refusing to allow mere rationalism to overrule the Word of God.31 They considered Scripture the fountain of all reasonable truth and sought to discern "reality" in relation to what the Scripture taught. They did not, therefore, avoid natural theology as do most modern theologians.32 They saw the truth of God as the only reasonable answer to man's needs. Despite their strong belief in fallen man's total depravity, the Puritans believed they should show the sinner the unreasonableness of his unbelief and pray that the Holy Spirit would enlighten him with the truth.33

When man discards the truth of God, he also throws away the only possible basis for law, justice, education, and philosophy. He is left with only an empty and meaningless universe, and his only options are self-preservation and self-gratification. Francis Schaeffer said that the only way to reach twentieth-century man is through the truth that the Reformers grasped so well: faith and reason are a unity.34 The truth of God is unreasonable only to the unbelieving heart and mind. Christianity's answer to the despair of modern man is that unified, rational truth is available if one will submit to God's truth. "It is true that man will have to renounce his rationalism," wrote Schaeffer, "but then . . . he has the possibility of recovering his rationality."35

In the matter of doctrine we may safely say that the Puritans were Calvinists. Their view of life was theocentric, directed and controlled by God's Word. J. I. Packer noted that the basic principle of Calvinism is the Biblical principle that "salvation is of the Lord."36 Thus the Puritans emphasized the activity of God in salvation: election by the Father, redemption by the Son, and effectual calling by the Holy Spirit. It is totally unfair, though, to label them hyper-Calvinists, for they made a full and free offer of Christ to sinners and urged them to seek Him.37 Cheap sentimentalizing had no place in Puritan theology. The Puritans were not afraid to preach the clear truth of God as it is expressed in the Word of God. The Puritan preacher considered his ministry a solemn calling from God not to be treated lightly. Because the interpretation of Scripture is an abstruse art to be studied thoroughly and employed cautiously, the Puritans strongly opposed the "enthusiast" methods of the Quakers, who subordinated faith and reason to passion and emotion. John Cotton wrote: "Though knowledge is no knowledge without zeal, zeal is but a wilde-fire without knowledge."38

Puritanism was a healthy combination of orthodox faith and fervent devotion, two elements which were separated by the stepchildren of the Puritans-unitarianism and revivalism. The unitarians replaced Scripture with reason alone as their authority and completely secularized religion; the revivalists overemphasized emotion. The Great Awakening of the 1740s was still essentially Puritan, but revivals in the nineteenth century discarded most vestiges of authentic Puritanism,39 including the concept of a trained ministry.40 In their defense, however, the revivalists' love for Christ kept them from unitarian rationalism, but not from such doctrinal errors as perfectionism and adventism. Fundamentalism is heir to both the Puritans' emphasis on doctrinal purity and the revivalists' enthusiastic piety. The balance between these two strains determines the fundamentalist's denominational affiliation.

Evangelicalism is in a state of uncertainty and confusion today. Packer wrote: "In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of the local church.. . the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and of equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead."41 Packer traced the problem to the loss of the Biblical doctrines proclaimed by the Reformers. The doctrinally "watered-down" gospel of our day fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, and concern for the church. "It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts."42

The result is that worldliness has crept into many conservative churches and affected doctrine, ethics, and even music. Doctrinal reevaluation is widespread among evangelicals who are no longer certain what they believe. Relativistic morality is producing a morality more lax than the church has ever known. Charles Woodbridge identified the problem as an attitude of toleration of doctrinal error.43

The Puritans, like the fundamentalists, insisted on separation from doctrinal error. Both groups have been called separatists by their opponents. The Puritans were firmly committed to the inspired and authoritative Word of God. They believed man fell in Adam, was totally depraved, and could not save himself; he needed a Savior. Christ gave His sinless blood to cleanse man from his sin and set him free from his bondage to it. Salvation is all of grace and man in no way can earn or merit it. He is saved by God sovereignly moving on his behalf.

The Puritans were preachers, not abstract theologians. They studied the Word of God carefully and thoroughly and then opened its truth to their listeners. They were powerful preachers because they preached that God is able to save man from his sin. They opposed the Roman Catholic concept of man's free will and his cooperation with God in salvation. Cranmer preached: "It is not that I take away your sins, but it is Christ only; and to him only I send you for that purpose, renouncing therein all your good virtues, words, thoughts, and works, and putting your trust in Christ."44

William Tyndale, who gave his life that we might have the Scripture in the English language, said of sovereign grace: ". .. the right faith springeth not of man's fantasy, neither is it in any man's power to obtain it; but it is altogether the pure gift of God poured into us freely, . . . without deserving and merits, yea, and without seeking for of us . . . [it] is . . . God's gift and grace, purchased through Christ."45 Hugh Latimer, the converted priest, preached that God must first love us and open our eyes to the truth in Christ so that we may receive him: "So you see, as touching our salvation, we must not go to working to think to get everlasting life with our own doings. No, this were to deny Christ. Salvation and remission of sins, is His gift, His own and free gift."46

How can reading the Puritans benefit the evangelical church today? It can encourage us to reaffirm the doctrines of Scripture in our pulpits. We need not proclaim every detail of Puritan theology, but certain of its emphases are essential.

One is the necessity and nature of true repentance. Men need to be seriously warned to turn from their sin. The apostle Paul preached that men "should repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance" (Acts 26:20). The sinner must turn from his sin, his own righteousness, Satan, and the world.47 Such repentance will leave little room for envying the world and bringing it into the church.

Second, the true Christ must be presented to the sinner. Our passion is not for numbers but for the broken hearts of dying men. Too often fundamental preachers have been sidetracked into extensive discussions of Biblical numerology, the Bible and science, "the gospel in the stars," and extreme interpretations of Biblical prophecies.48 We have preached against the heresy of liberalism, and rightly so, but we have neglected the positive preaching of the person of Christ. Christ needs to be preached from the Gospels where His earthly life is revealed and from the doctrines of Christology where His nature and atonement shine forth. Joseph Alleine wrote: "The unsound convert takes Christ by halves. He is all for the salvation of Christ, but he is not for sanctification. . . . the sound convert takes a whole Christ, and takes Him for all intents and purposes, without exceptions, without limitations, without reserve."49

These selections from Puritan writings are offered in the hope that the reader will discern the Puritans' deep trust in the Word of God and that contemporary evangelicals will refocus upon the doctrinal truths of Scripture. For with soundness of doctrine and fervency of devotion, the church of Christ shall be the church triumphant and the very gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


This article was taken from Introduction to Puritan Theology: A Reader, Edward Hindson, Editor and Foreword by James I. Packer, published by Baker Book House of Grand Rapids, Michigan 1976.


  1. An excellent discussion, including definitions, appears in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans, 1:1-12. This work, though, deals mainly with New England Puritanism and refers only in a limited way to the English divines.
  2. The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology, p. 17. This work is a fine discussion of the place of moral law in sanctification, as viewed by the Puritans.
  3. This concept is best recognized and developed in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers. Unlike those who discuss Puritanism from a merely social standpoint, Hughes recognized the spiritual and theological importance of the movement. The social historians are often baffled by the Puritans' emphasis on spiritual experience.
  4. This theme is developed in William Childs Robinson, The Reformation: A Rediscovery of Grace. Robinson criticized American preachers who fail to appreciate the Reformers' doctrine, saying that without doctrinal roots there is no evangelical church.
  5. The current struggle is examined in Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Chicago: Inter-Varsity, 1970). Schaeffer called the conservative church back to its historic doctrine and practice.
  6. What's Wrong with Preaching Today? (London: Banner of Truth, 1970), pp. 16, 17. Martin traced the failures of modern preaching to deficiencies in the preacher's devotional life and in the Content of his messages.
  7. One example is Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969). His philosophy of history reduces his theology to meaningless "jibberish." His ontological blunder was to make "being" equal everything and thus nothing! Critiques of Tillich are Kenneth Hamilton, The System and the Gospel: A Critique of Paul Tillich (New York: Macmillan, 1963); and John Warwick Montgomery, "Tillich's Philosophy of History," Themelios 4 (1967): 28-41.
  8. This fact is being rediscovered today more than ever before in this century. See two Methodist works: Gordon Stevens Wakefield, Puritan Devotion: Its Place in the Development of Christian Piety; and Robert C. Monk, John Wesley: His Puritan Heritage. The latter traces Wesley's use of various Puritan books, some of which he even republished! On the Puritan influence on Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, see Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).
  9. The Puritans, 1:2, 3.
  10. John Geree, The Character of an Old English Puritan or Nonconformist (London, 1646).
  11. Wakefield, Puritan Devotion, p. 6.
  12. Conscience, with the Power and Cases Thereof, preface. Ames became a famous casuist in his own right.
  13. The Grace of Law, p. 19.
  14. This is due in part to the early dispensational view that the church of Sardis (Rev. 3) represents the Reformation period in church history. The Sardis church was alive but dead; only a few had believed. Thus many fundamentalists have underestimated seriously the importance of the Reformation. The English Reformers, however, were anything but worldly and "dead."
  15. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism, pp. 10-25.
  16. Puritan Robert Bolton actually resented the name puritan. True Happiness (London, 1611), p. 132. An example of contemporary disdain for the term fundamentalism is Bernard Ramm's definition of it as "anti-intellectual," "anti-cultural," "obscurantist," and "separatist." A Handbook of Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 48.
  17. Cf. the depth of compassion in Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices (London, 1652). On every page Brooks pleaded with great compassion with his readers.
  18. Cf. Richard Alleine, Vindiciae Pietatis (London, 1664), pp. 1-12.
  19. See examples of conversions in Theology of the English Reformers, pp. 12-15.
  20. In John Strype, Memorials of Archbishop Cranmer, 3 vols. (London: Oxford University, 1954), 3:385.
  21. Cf. discussion in John D. Eusden, Puritans, Lawyers, and Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England, p. 120.
  22. The Grace of Law, p. 22. He cited several important Puritan refutations of antinomianism: Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (London, 1649); Rutherford, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (London, 1648); Thomas Bedford, An Examination of the Chief Points of Antinomianism (London, 1646); Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (London, 1645); Henry Burton, The Law and the Gospel Reconciled (London, 1631); George Downame, An Abstract of Duties Commanded in the Law of God (London, 1620); Thomas Gataker, Antinomianism Discovered and Confuted (London, 1652); Robert Trail, A Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine Concerning Justification (London, 1692).
  23. Cf. John Sedgwick, Antinomianism Anatomized (London, 1643), p. 29.
  24. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Geneva, 1559), 2.7.12. See also Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 141-47.
  25. Institutes, 3.19.2.
  26. "Homily of Faith," in Works, ed. John Edmund Cox, 2 vols. (Cambridge: University, 1844, 1846), 2:140.
  27. Quoted in Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers, pp. 80, 81.
  28. Sermons, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge: University, 1842), p. 280.
  29. Works, ed. John Ayre, 4 vols. (Cambridge: University, 1845-1850), 2: 1056ff.
  30. Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, 8 vols. (London, 1692), 1:69.
  31. Cf. John Cotton, A Practical Commentary upon the First Epistle General of John (London, 1656), p. 8.
  32. Cf. chapter 2.
  33. It is in this vein that Schaeffer analyzed the current trend of modem philosophical thought away horn reason and toward the despair of existentialism. Escape from Reason (Chicago: Inter-Varsity, 1968), pp. 42-45. He traced the loss of meaning and purpose in contemporary thought and life to the abandonment of any rational hope in finding the real meaning of man's existence. He called contemporary man back to the truth of Scripture. Ibid., pp. 80-87.
  34. Ibid., p. 82.
  35. Ibid.
  36. "Introductory Essay," in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London: Banner of Truth, 1963), p. 4. This essay provides a guideline to Owen's teaching on the limited atonement.
  37. Hyper-Calvinism is that form of Calvinism that forbids the use of evangelism and missions to reach unbelievers. But advocates of this view forget that the same God who ordained the result (salvation by God's sovereign grace) also ordained the means (the fervent preaching of the gospel to sinners and inviting them to trust Christ as Savior) in order to bring it to pass.
  38. Christ the Fountain of Life (London, 1651), p. 145.
  39. Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, 1:3-5. Cf. J. Edwin Orr, The Second Evangelical Awakening (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1964), pp. 117-20. On the social influence of revivalism see Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (New York: Harper, 1965).
  40. B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1931), pp. 101ff.
  41. "Introductory Essay," p. 1. This confusion is apparent in the speculations in Carl F. H. Henry, Frontiers in Modern Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1966), pp. 120-42.
  42. "Introductory Essay," p. 1.
  43. The New Evangelicalism (Greenville: Bob Jones University, 1969), pp. 13-16.
  44. Works, 2:131.
  45. Works, ed. Henry Walter, 3 vols. (Cambridge: University, 1848-1850), 1:53.
  46. Ibid., 1:419, 420.
  47. Joseph Alleine, An Alarm to the Unconverted (London: Banner of Truth, 1964), pp. 37-42.
  48. These extremes are criticized in John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
  49. An Alarm to the Unconverted, p. 45.


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