From the sixteenth to eighteenth century lived a group of men and women who plunged diligently into the depths of Scripture, passionately upholding it as the ultimate standard for both belief and practice, and leaving a rich legacy of writings on the practical application of biblical doctrine.
They were known as the Puritans.
You might recognize some of their names: John Bunyan, Stephen Charnock, Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, Thomas Brooks, Richard Sibbes, John Flavel, John Owen, Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards . . . the list goes on to include over 2,000 great men of God.
They were intelligent men, though not necessarily well-known outside their circle of fellow believers. Many of them were well-read in science and philosophy, exploring the mysteries of the universe and the complexity of man. Theirs was not a legalistic lifestyle, but was ordered and shaped by diligent adherence to Scriptural teaching. The Puritans were solemn, due to their single-minded focus on pursuing holiness, but they did not eschew laughter or God-honoring entertainment. They were not dull or dry, but passionate, vibrant with love for God’s Word and God’s people. They were not stodgy, but eager to learn and hungry for every morsel of truth they could find.
British historian Thomas Macaulay describes them this way:
“If they were unacquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they were recorded in the Book of Life. If their steps were not accompanied by a splendid train of menials, legions of ministering angels had charge over them.”
The Puritans were so-named by their contemporaries because of their earnest desire to purify the church according to the standards of Scripture, and to see individuals exquisitely purified by the truths of God’s Word.
America had her share of Puritans; the pilgrims who emigrated for the sake of religious freedom gave birth to men who become great preachers of the Word and fervent ambassadors for holy living; their focus was mainly on purifying the church from unsaved members masquerading as Christians. However, many of the men we think of as Puritans remained in England, striving to reform the Church of England by rooting out unsaved clergy and state-imposed liturgy.
By the mid-1640’s, they had somewhat succeeded, and England experienced a great revival of godly preaching and righteous living. Iain Murray offers a good explanation:
“These years form the great Puritan period. Great, because of the mighty working of the Spirit of God upon the land; godly men were in the government of the nation; godly ministers were raised up in numbers who preached with tremendous authority, power, and fervour; never in English history was the Gospel more known and loved; prayer, praise, and Bible reading were the usual employment for many of the common people in their leisure hours.”
Sadly, just two decades later, most of that godliness and righteous fervor had disappeared. Charles II gained the throne, and subsequently expelled over 2000 ministers from the official church, because they would not conform to his commands. Sermons of true biblical Christianity disappeared from the pulpits, thus causing immorality and wickedness to increase over the following decades (sound familiar?). In fact, it is said that by 1730, “such was the profanity and godlessness of the masses that one would scarcely have known there had ever been a Reformation or a Puritan period.”
At that time, there arose a bit of a “second wave” of Puritanism through evangelists and ministers like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies — men who had been profoundly influenced or even directly taught by seventeenth-century Puritans. Their aim was the same: to purify the church of unrighteousness, and to see men and women saved and transformed to holy living. With those men, the refining fire of God’s truth reached across the Atlantic into the heart of America, sparking the First and Second Great Awakenings.
By the late 1700s, many of these great soldiers for truth had passed into eternity. They certainly weren’t perfect: they had their weaknesses, their besetting sins, and their errors. They were, as we are, merely human. But as Macauley says of them: “when all circumstances are taken into consideration, we do not hesitate to pronounce them a brave, a wise, an honest, and an useful body.”
It’s been over two-hundred years since the last of them walked on this earth, but their influence continues on today. As George Whitfield famously wrote: “Though dead, by their writings they yet speak.”