Just what is meant by the term Puritan? Many people today use the term to describe a morose and legalistic brand of Christianity that borders on fanaticism. Much of this stereotype was the product of nineteenth-century anti-Puritan sentiments. While subsequent cultures have expressed various opinions of the Puritans, it is helpful to chronicle a brief history of the term and to assess the movement as objectively as possible.
The term Puritan was first used in the 1560s of those English Protestants who considered the reforms under Queen Elizabeth incomplete and called for further “purification” (from the Greek word katharos, “pure”). Its negative connotation derived from its being a translation of the Latin term catharus (Puritan) or cathari (Puritans; from katharos), a title given to medieval heretics (Gordon S. Wakefield, “The Puritans,” in The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, p. 438). For William Perkins (1558- 1602), often called “the father of Puritanism,” Puritan was a “vile term” that described people with perfectionist tendencies (The Works of Mr. William Perkins, 1:342, 3:15). Leonard J. Trinterud concludes, “Throughout the sixteenth century it was used more often as a scornful adjective than as a substantive noun, and was rejected as slanderous in whatever quarter it was applied” (Elizabethan Puritanism, pp. 3ff.).
The terms Puritan and Puritanism stuck, though what they mean has changed over the years. Twentieth-century scholars offer various opinions on what the terms actually intend to describe. William Haller sees the “central dogma of Puritan ism [as] an all-embracing determinism, theologically formulated doctrine of predestination” (The Rise of Puritanism, p. 83). Perry Miller finds the “marrow of Puritan divinity” in the idea of the covenant (Errand into the Wilderness, pp. 48–49); and Alan Simpson, in the concept of conversion (Puritanism in Old and New England, p. 2). Christopher Hill emphasized the social and political ideas in Puritanism (Society and Puritanism). John Coolidge linked the Puritan emphasis to a rejection of the Anglican doctrine of adiaphora, or things indifferent (The Pauline Renaissance in England: Puritanism and the Bible).
Richard M. Hawkes offers this summary: “Was [English Puritanism] essentially a theological movement, emphasizing covenant theology, predestination, and a reformed church service? Or was the heart of the matter political, asserting the inalienable rights of conscience before God, the rule of natural law over arbitrary prerogative courts, the dependency of the king in parliament, the foundation of state authority in the people? Some modern research has pointed to a third possibility, that the essence of Puritanism was its piety, a stress on conversion, on existential, heartfelt religion” (“The Logic of Assurance in English Puritan Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 52 :247).
All of these concerns and more are involved in Puritanism. More simply put, we would assert that the Puritans embraced five major concerns and addressed each of them substantially in their writings:
- The Puritans sought to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life. In so doing, the Puritans also aimed to be confessional and theological, and drew heavily on the labors of dedicated Christian scholarship.
- The Puritans were passionately committed to focusing on the Trinitarian character of theology. They never tired of proclaiming the electing grace of God, the dying love of Jesus Christ, and the applicatory work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of sinners. Their fascination with Christian experience was not so much motivated by an interest in their experience per se as it was in their desire to trace out the divine work within them so that they could render all glory to their Triune Lord.
- In common with the Reformers, the Puritans believed in the significance of the church in the purposes of Christ. They believed therefore that the worship of the church should be the careful outworking and faithful embodiment of her biblical faith, and so Puritanism was a movement that focused on plain and earnest preaching, liturgical reform, and spiritual brotherhood. Likewise, the Puritans believed that there was an order or polity for the government of the church revealed in Scripture, and the wellbeing of the church depended on bringing her into conformity to that order.
- In the great questions of national life presented by the crises of their day, the Puritans looked to Scripture for light on the duties, power, and rights of king, Parliament, and citizen-subjects.
- In regard to the individual, the Puritans focused on personal, comprehensive conversion. They believed with Christ that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3). So they excelled at preaching the gospel, probing the conscience, awakening the sinner, calling him to repentance and faith, leading him to Christ, and schooling him in the way of Christ. Likewise, the Puritans believed with James that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead being alone” (James 2:17). So they developed from Scripture a careful description of what a Christian ought to be in his inward life before God, and in all his actions and relationships in this life, at home, in the church, at work, and in society.
Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints
By Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson