More than four hundred and fifty years ago, God raised up a people in England who loved His Word and wanted to live just as the Bible said. Because other people made fun
of them as God’s “pure” people, they came to be known as the Puritans. But they called themselves “Christians.” They tried to live out the teachings of Reformers such as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, Henry Bullinger, and John Calvin.
Who were the Puritans, and what were they like? Some people have strange ideas about them. They think the Puritans always dressed in black and white, never let anyone have fun, and were mean and cruel. Supposedly, “Puritan” means a religious person who is bad and dangerous. However, none of those things are true.
In many ways, the Puritans were like other people who lived in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They worked on farms or at their trades and callings, while their children played at home or studied in school. Some of them attended college to learn to be lawyers, pastors, or teachers. They enjoyed racing on foot or horseback, hunting, fishing, target practice with guns, and wrestling. They loved singing and music. They were interested in the latest discoveries of science and medicine. They believed that government should respect people’s rights, and they fought in wars to defend those rights. They wrote poetry and kept journals and diaries about their lives. They loved their spouses and dear friends. In all these ways, the Puritans were ordinary people like you and me.
But the Puritans did stand out, for they worked to apply the Reformed faith to all things according to God’s Word. In the middle of the sixteenth century, much of England knew very little about the Bible. For many years, English Christians had been part of the Roman Catholic Church with its false teachings, man-made rituals, and spiritual ruler, the pope. King Henry VIII had pulled the Church of England away from the pope’s control, and though Queen Mary I put the English church back under the Roman Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth I separated it from Rome once and for all. Nevertheless, the Reformation was only beginning to affect England. Queen Elizabeth did not want people to change too many things in the church, but the Puritans believed that God’s Word must be preached throughout their nation and worship must be according to God’s will. This caused the Puritans a lot of trouble from leaders in the government and the church. Some Puritans had to leave England and live in exile in the Netherlands, where they found friends in the Reformed churches. Others came over the Atlantic Ocean to plant the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. For a short time (1649–1660), Puritan leaders ruled England as a republic and the nation had no king. The Puritans played an important part in English, Dutch, and American history.
How do we explain what made the Puritans who they were? The difference between the Puritans and most other people started with their faith in the Bible as God’s Word. The
Puritans believed that when they read or heard the Bible, God was speaking to them. Therefore, the Bible is perfect and should be believed and obeyed in all that it teaches.
They taught their children to read, so they, too, could read God’s Book. Many of the other books they read and wrote were about the Bible. They loved good sermons, which for them meant sermons that helped them to understand and obey the Bible, to hate sin, and to love the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Their favorite songs were the
psalms of the Bible set to music. The Bible was the spiritual food they ate and drank every day.
From the Bible, the Puritans learned the knowledge of the great and good God. Their God is the majestic King who rules over heaven, earth, and all that is in them— for He made them. He is in control of all that happens, for even bad things are planned by God for good. God is not like a human king, for God is a Spirit who lives everywhere; He was never born and will never die. The Puritans believed that God loves sinners even though they hate Him. God loves them so much that God sent His Son to die for the sins of His chosen people and sent His Spirit to live within them. The God worshipped by the Puritans is the God of the Trinity: one God who is three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Many people say they believe in God, but the Puritans loved God and wanted to know Him and think about Him as much as possible.
This God, the Puritans knew, can be known only through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whatever part of the Bible they were studying, the Puritans asked how it points us to Christ. They were amazed that God the Son would become a man like us, while remaining fully God. They taught that the Lord Jesus is the Prophet who teaches His people the truth, the Priest who sacrificed Himself for their sins, and the King who rules them by the Holy Spirit. He is the only Mediator, or middle-man, who can bring us to God. They spent time thinking about and rejoicing in each of Christ’s many names and titles in Scripture. The Puritans believed that Christ is altogether lovely, and so they wanted to be as close to Him and as much like Him as they could. All of the Puritan hope hung upon Christ. Therefore, the Puritans had great hope because God the Father will honor His Son and Christ’s kingdom will not fail.
Since people can receive Christ only by faith, the Puritans believed in everyone’s need for conversion. People all start life as sinners because of Adam’s sin. One of the first things Puritans taught their children was, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Sin is not merely a mistake or imperfection; it is evil, the worst of evils, far worse than the greatest pain. The most deadly sin of all is our unbelief. The Puritans did not believe that baptism or the Lord’s Supper had the power to save sinners apart from an inward change of heart. They urged people to repent of their sins and trust in Christ alone to save them. Many Puritan sermons and books talk about what conversion is and how it happens, so that people could know whether they are saved. The Puritans thought the sweetest thing in the world is to know that you are God’s child.
With conversion as the beginning of Christian experience, the Puritans pursued godliness that involved their head, heart, and hands. Since God has spoken, and we have His Word, we must learn about Him with our minds. Puritan Christianity was thinking Christianity and demanded that people meditate or carefully consider what they heard from the Bible. Their preachers filled their sermons with points of doctrine to understand and believe. However, it did not stop there. The Puritans sought to know God in the experience of their hearts. They warned sinners that they need to feel the evil of their sins if they are going to repent. They wanted Christians to taste a little of heaven on earth by the Holy Spirit given to them. They studied how the Holy Spirit kills evil lusts in God’s children and makes them more like Christ. They also called Christians to put their faith into practical action, giving specific directions based on the Bible for how people should treat each other as husbands and wives, children and parents, pastors and church members, government officials and citizens, and so forth. They were convinced that God’s grace in the heart produces fruit in good works. Holiness was not just for church meetings, but for the whole of life.
The Puritans viewed godliness and spiritual growth as the Christian pilgrim’s journey to heaven. They knew that this world is not their home, but believers in Christ are citizens of a better country, the heavenly city of God. Life is a vapor, but Christians are headed for glory. The Puritans measured a man’s life not by how much money he got in this life, but in this progress as a pilgrim through trials and temptations toward heaven. They often meditated on the everlasting rest of God’s people with Christ in glory. As a result, they were bold in life and ready for death.
As pilgrims on their way to their heavenly home, the Puritans showed patient endurance under trials. Life was hard in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the Puritans experienced a lot of suffering. They suffered when disasters came, such as a terrible disease known as “the Plague” or the Great Fire of London (1666). They suffered when England was torn apart in civil war and thousands of men perished by sword, musket, and cannon. They suffered when they buried the many wives who died in childbirth in those times and many children who died young. Christians sometimes feel discouraged even when life is good, what the Puritans called “melancholy” but we call depression. Through all these sorrows, the Puritans were teachers and models of trusting God’s promises and submitting to His will.
The Puritans, however, did not try to overcome trials by themselves, but through the help of the true church. Though they knew that the Holy Spirit works when and how He
pleases, they understood that the Spirit blesses what they called “the means of grace.” These means are the reading and hearing of God’s Word, worship with God’s people, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and godly conversations with Christian friends. History had taught them, however, that not every church was true and faithful to God; many churches had replaced God’s Word with man’s ideas and traditions. Therefore, the Puritans said that the church, its leadership, and its worship must follow the pattern God gives us in the Bible, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it. Preaching must be plain, clearly based on the Bible, informing the mind and shooting straight for the heart. Though they had strong beliefs about the church, the Puritans were not a separate organization or denomination; what held them together were their shared beliefs and friendships between people who loved Christ and loved one another.
The place where Christian love was first lived out for the Puritans was the Christian home. They took very seriously the responsibility of fathers and mothers to raise their children in God’s ways. They wrote books about marriage and family life to show how God’s Word should direct each person in his relationships at home. They expected parents to lead family worship, believing that the family that prays together enjoys the smile of heaven, and the family who reads the Bible together hears the voice of God in their home. Puritan pastors wrote many catechisms to help parents and children learn the basic truths of God’s Word. Without taking away from the need to go to church, the
Puritans wanted each family to be a little church where God was glorified through Jesus Christ. They understood that Christian families are a major way God raises up the next generation of leaders and members for the church, and trusted that their faithful covenant God would bless their efforts to raise their children in the Lord.
The Puritans did not hide in their homes and churches, but showed a real concern for the welfare and righteousness of their nation. Though they knew that this world was not their home, they longed for Christ to be loved and honored in their cities, towns, and countryside. They sought to model government and business on the Bible’s teachings, while recognizing that God’s laws for ancient Israel were not necessarily His laws for England. When disaster struck, the Puritans responded with prayer and fasting for God to be merciful to their nation. They wanted the Lord to be honored in the planting and gathering of the harvest, the buying and selling of goods at the market, and the judgments of the courthouse. In a word, the Puritans wanted all of life to be reformed by God’s Word to the glory of God.
Though the great age of modern missions would not dawn until a century after the Puritan era, the Puritans had their hearts set on the spread of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world. Their churches regularly prayed for the salvation of the Jews, the strengthening of the persecuted church in other nations, and the advance of Christ’s kingdom among all peoples. They trained and sent out hundreds of gospel preachers to places of darkness in their own land. They supported colonial missions to the Native Americans so that they too might hear of Jesus Christ and be saved, and entire villages became places of prayer.
Starting a new religion was not the Puritans’ goal, but to follow the old paths revealed to God’s people in God’s Word. Today, people pay little attention to the past and think that the newest ideas are best. That may sometimes be true of inventions and machines, but the Puritans knew that when it comes to God, church, and how people live, the old ways are usually best because God does not change. Therefore, the Puritans saw themselves as part of a long line of godly men and women through the ages. They read old books and learned from Christians who lived many centuries before they did. In this manner, they followed in the footsteps of the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, who also aimed to restore the church to a simple and pure devotion to God’s Word that is not mixed or obscured by man-made traditions and rituals added to the church over the years.
The Puritans were Reformed Christians. Christianity had been deformed by teachings and practices not found in the Bible. It needed to be reformed by the Word of God. A
special mark of the Puritans is that they realized reformation must begin with the application of the Bible’s truths to the heart and flow outward into practical living in family, workplace, church, and nation. Hence they strove for purity of Christian doctrine, worship, and life. Although we do not live in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and therefore cannot be “Puritans,” we can learn much from them about what it means to live unto God by faith and obedience toward His Word.
Adapted from Puritan Heroes, a new title for young people and families from Reformation Heritage Books.