Typically, when you hear the word “puritanical,” it has a negative connotation. People use it to disparage those who are morally restrictive or religiously legalistic. In history classes as a kid, I learned to associate the Puritans with the Salem Witch Trials and The Scarlet Letter. They were a rigid people determined to force an outward morality on the populace.
But a careful look at history will find a far more favorable picture of the Puritans on the whole. The movement arose in 16th century England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. As the Protestant Reformation was taking hold on the European Continent, England was experiencing the same tug-of-war between the Catholic Church and those who sought reform. In 1534, King Henry VIII made an official break with the Catholic Church, signing the Supremacy Act, which declared the English Monarch to be the head of the church in England. This would appear to be a wonderful development for the Protestants, however, Henry’s action was motivated by self-interest, not a desire for theological purity in the church.
The coming decades would see a back-and-forth pattern of breaks and re-associations with Rome depending on who was sitting on the English throne. Edward VI was a Protestant who genuinely sought reform, but died at the age of 16. Mary Tudor was a die-hard Catholic and persecuted the Protestant church. Under her reign many Protestants fled to the mainland and studied under some of the big name reformers, like John Calvin. When Elizabeth, a Protestant, came to the throne, these exiles returned to England to help with the reform of the church there.
But what they found was disheartening. Although Queen Elizabeth was supportive of the theological reform of the church, she did not want to see changes in form. In other words, she still wanted the church to “look” Catholic, i.e. with the clergy in robes, icons displayed, etc. Many of the Protestants decided to compromise on “form” for the opportunity to preach the Word faithfully and work for the purity of the church from within. For this reason, they were called Puritans.
When the pro-Catholic Charles I became king, he sought to squelch the Puritan reform. Many Puritans left for Holland or New England to escape the persecution.
A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. In learning more about them and in reading their works, I came to the conclusion that their desire to reform the church stemmed from a desire to reform themselves for God’s glory. They were a people who longed for purity in their own personal lives, and therefore, in the church as well.
In Packer’s first chapter, entitled “Why We Need the Puritans,” he writes this: “In thought and outlook they were radically God-centered. Their appreciation of God’s sovereign majesty was profound, and their reverence in handling his written word was deep and constant. They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures, and their grasp of the various threads and linkages in the web of revealed truth was firm and clear. They understood most richly the ways of God with men, the glory of Christ the Mediator, and the work of the Spirit in the believer and the church.
“And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to ‘reduce to practice’ all that God taught them.”
So much of our time is caught up in pursuing the things and pleasures of the world, and so little in pursuing the things and pleasures of God. I have found the writings of the Puritans to be both challenging and inspiring. Hundreds of years after their deaths, they are still ministering to souls and reforming believers. We do indeed need the Puritans.
A Quest for Godliness is a wonderful introduction to the theology, history, biography, and writings of the Puritans. Please consider taking the time to read this book. I know that you would be blessed by it.