“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Unfortunately, for many people, H. L. Mencken’s witty quip is still winning the battle of perception over the Puritans. Intolerance, dogmatism, and bigotry are the common synonyms for “Puritan” in today’s parlance. A band of serious, dour do-gooders, rigid and fastidious, snuffing out any flicker of joy. But is this who the Puritans really were?
The real Puritans lived in England and the American colonies for about 120 years. They rose to prominence in the wake of the English Reformation in the 1560s, urging Queen Elizabeth to purify the church. They slowly disappeared from public life by the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Behind the stereotypes, we find a group of people who were joyous, vibrant, and fully committed to God. They lived during some of the most tumultuous years of English history—many were persecuted, others ruled England, and many of their writings remain in print to this day.
It’s only been in the last 75 years that the Puritans have returned to popularity. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of these authors are more popular and widely available now than they ever have been before, including their own lifetimes. It was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who almost single-handedly revived interest in the Puritans. His frequent mentions and founding of the Banner of Truth have brought these men into the modern age.
Who Were the Puritans?
Now, anyone who takes hold of a Puritan paperback or the collected works of John Owen or John Bunyan will see Mencken’s error. In Meet the Puritans, Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson group the Puritans by five characteristics:
Applying the Bible to all of life.
Investigating and implementing the trinitarian nature of theology.
Focusing on the significance of the church.
Submitting all areas of life, including the state, to the dictates of Scripture.
Focusing on individual conversion. (Meet the Puritans, xvii)
This jolly group of biblicists should be remembered for their unwavering commitment to Scripture, intense focus on the family as the first congregation, and particular theological styles and emphases. Though they are not always easy to read, they are always worth reading and stand as an important part of the great cloud of witnesses to God’s faithfulness through the ages.
These Puritans have been among my great influences and encouragers. John Owen (see my interview with Dr. Crawford Gribben), Stephen Charnock, and Henry Scougal have challenged and bolstered me in the last year, and I have made it a mission to get more people to read these works.
For a great introduction to some popular Puritan works, consider J.I. Packer’s Puritan Portraits. In this short book, Packer writes a brief bio and an introduction to the work of nine Puritan authors. For a Puritan encyclopedia, try Joel Beeke’s Meet the Puritans, which has 150 short biographies and bibliographies of re-published works.
But the best thing to do is to start with the original sources: the Puritans themselves. In a recent interview, Joel Beeke, who is undoubtedly the greatest living scholar of the Puritans, put together this list of who to read in order of difficulty.
I’ve starred a few of my favorites, and while he can be difficult, there is nothing wrong with starting with Owen. His writings are voluminous - literally, the Crossway reprint of his works will run to 40 volumes - but they are full of riches. A set of books just re-released by Kris Lundgaard tracks Owen’s thoughts in more modern prose. Wherever you start, you can’t go wrong.
Commenting on reading Owen, Sinclair Ferguson wrote, “What is important, however, is not to read much but to profit much.” This is good advice. Don’t just take up and read; take up and profit from these wonderful godly forebearers.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.