Every now and then I still run into prejudice against the Puritans amongst Reformed folk. I deeply lament this. Hundreds of years later, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from these Reformed giants of old.
I was introduced to the Puritans while in university. An online friend from South Africa moved to Edmonton to study. He had a nearly complete collection of the Puritan Paperbacks published by Banner of Truth. He got me hooked. My copy of Thomas Watson’s classic All Things for Good was a gift from this brother — still a treasured gift and one of my favourite books.
We discussed theology and the Puritans endlessly in those days. We talked about the prejudices that many people have against the Puritans. He pointed me to two books that dispel the myths surrounding these men. These books are still worthwhile and I want to recommend them to those readers who are willing to have an open mind.
The first is Leland Ryken’s volume, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. This book takes a balanced look at Puritanism. Ryken takes apart the caricatures that have often been painted — for instance, he has an entire chapter on marriage and sex. Be ready to rethink the label “Puritan” when it comes to those subjects! The book tackles the Puritan approach to a number of subjects and then concludes with two summary chapters. One deals with some of the things the Puritans did wrong, the other with what they did right.
The other volume I want to recommend as an introduction to the Puritans is J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. This is a more theological book, but with a focus on how theology bears on living as a Christian. This was one of the strengths of many Puritans. They understood that doctrine was not a game theologians play, but the foundation and root of a God-pleasing existence. Packer’s book does touch on many Puritan figures, but he spends the most time with John Owen. If you need to be convinced to read the Puritans, Packer presents a compelling case.
I love the Puritans and have for many years. I get a lot of spiritual nourishment from reading their works. That said, not all Puritans are equal. Not all Puritan works are of equal value. Some, like Thomas Watson, were dynamic preachers and communicators. Because of his use of vivid word pictures, his writing has a timeless quality. Others were excessively verbose, at times convoluted, and sometimes brought methods that belonged in the academy into the pulpit. However, they were Reformed, many effectively combined emphases on head and heart, they all understood the gospel, and they believed that an understanding of the amazing grace of God in Christ would compel one to strive for holiness. One can find valid reasons to criticize some of the Puritans in certain times for this or that. However, the same can be said for Reformed figures of any era or background. No matter who we’re reading, we must always chew the meat and spit out the gristle and fat. If you begin with Ryken and Packer, you’ll quickly figure out where to find some of the best cuts.