A review article on Who are the Puritans? by Erroll Hulse, published by Evangelical Press, 220 pages, paperback, £7.95.
This book has a very worthy purpose. Inthe authors words: “My concern extends beyond narrating the story. I want to create enthusiasm for the Puritans in order to profit from their practical example, and benefit from their unique balance of doctrine, experience and practice. The Puritans were men of deep theological understanding and vision who prayed for the earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. . . . Teaching which engenders holy living and stability is vastly needed. Historically the Puritan epoch is best able to supply the need, for they were strongest where the churches in general are weakest today.”
The Introduction expands on the relevance of the Puritans today in relation to modern thought, both secular and religious, including such aberrations as Pentecostalism. Yet in showing that the Puritans were more scriptural than present-day Fundamentalists (using the word in the correct, American context) the author states that the latter “have also been inclined to add such issues as a ban on alcohol, card-playing, tobacco, dancing and theatre-going”. In developing the point, he does no more than state, correctly, that what the Bible teaches is temperance, not total abstinence, from alcohol. But one finds it impossible to imagine a Puritan spending an evening dancing, at the theatre, or playing cards with his friends. It is true that “Puritanism concentrates on the great issue of the state of a persons soul”, but it is not accurate to say that, “while [the Puritan] makes rules for his own life, he will avoid making them for others”. The authors claim is contradicted by the long lists of sins forbidden in The Larger Catechism; among “the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment” are dancings and stage plays. There has been a welcome renewal of interest in the writings of the Puritans since the middle of the twentieth century; regrettably their emphasis on godly living has not been taken up to the same extent as their doctrines.
The remainder of the book has three parts: 1. The Story of the Puritans, 2. The Lives of the Puritans, 3. Help From the Puritans. The first part traces the Puritan movement from its roots in the Reformation. It lays particular stress on the work of William Tyndale and those who came after him as translators of the Bible into English. The role of John Foxe in writing his Book of Martyrs is also highly significant. It “was the principal practical means of turning England to Protestantism. The powerful testimony of the Marian martyrs in their agonising deaths moved hearts and turned minds to consider the reasons which inspired such faith.” Daniel Neal, author of The History of the Puritans, is quoted: “No book ever gave such a mortal wound to Popery as this” book by Foxe. There follows a brief but useful outline of the whole Puritan period, highlighting the main events of the time.
Mr Hulse sums up: “The explanation of the story of the Puritans is that here we have a race of preachers/pastors who believed in expounding and applying the whole counsel of Gods Word with all the hard work that requires. This was a labour in which they sought the closest conjunction of the Holy Spirit with the Word. Sometimes to a greater, sometimes to a lesser extent, the Holy Spirit did breathe upon the Word and He breathed new life into their souls. The Puritans did not seek a new age of wonders, signs and miracles. Their view was that a church rises or falls as the ministry of the Word rises or falls in that church.”
Among those whose lives are briefly recalled in this book is Edward Dering. In a sermon he preached before Queen Elizabeth, “he reproved Her Majesty for neglect in her duty to rid the churches of unworthy incumbents, some of whom he described as ruffians, hawkers and dicers. He pictured these ministers as blind guides and dumb dogs that will not bark. And yet you, he told her to her face, in the meanwhile that all these whoredoms are committed, you at whose hands God will require it, you sit still and are careless, and let men do as they will.” The Queen tried to prevent him preaching any more but failed. No doubt we can see Gods providence in the difficulties that thwarted the attempt to silence this godly minister. However, Dering died of tuberculosis at the early age of 36.
Next follows a paragraph on “silver-tongued” Henry Smith. He died at the even earlier age of 31. It was said of him that, like Edward Dering, “he lived long in a little time”. Robert Bolton, on the other hand, was 35 when he became a minister. We are told that, “having been a slave of worldly pleasures, he knew at first-hand how to expose sin in all its deceptive, destructive and poisoning powers. . . . He was fearless and had no regard for the hatred and resentment that can be aroused through a faithful ministry. The author notes concerning William Gouge: “It is said that thousands were converted and built up under his ministry”. He then makes the welcome comment, “Assessment of conversion was quite different in those days. A convert was one who demonstrated in his life that he was a new person in Christ. Today decisions are reported as though they were conversions. Sadly, very few decisions can be equated with true conversion.”
The final part of the book shows the relevance for today of Puritan teaching in a number of areas. Among the quotations from Puritan writings on the Sabbath are: “Joy suits no person so much as the saint and no day so well as the Sabbath” (John Wells), “If you would leave your heart with God on the Saturday night, you would find it with him on the Lords Day morning” (George Swinnock). Another area dealt with is entitled, “A biblical basis for spiritual experience”. With the Toronto Blessing and other Charismatic phenomena in mind, the author states, “A clear line of division can be drawn between those who insist that the Bible must be the basis by which all spiritual experience is tested and those who regard experience as pre-eminent and resist the tests of Scripture. . . . The Puritans were strong in the area of knowing God by heart experience but they sought to test everything by Scripture. We do well to follow their example.” A quotation from John Howe is significant: “Gods pleasure is that He Himself would be the great object of His peoples delight”.
The doctrine of the Puritans was built on the right foundation, and their practical conclusions were wise and profitable. Hear Stephen Charnock, for instance, preaching on John 4:24, “God is a Spirit infinitely happy, therefore we must approach Him with cheerfulness; He is a Spirit of infinite majesty, therefore we must come before Him with reverence; He is a Spirit infinitely high, therefore we must offer up our sacrifices with deepest humility; He is a Spirit infinitely holy, therefore we must address Him with purity; He is a Spirit infinitely glorious, we must therefore acknowledge His excellency”.
The truth of the authors statement should be obvious: “The Puritans were strongest where we are weakest today. This is especially true with regard to the doctrine of sin.” He quotes Jeremiah Burroughs to emphasise the seriousness with which the Puritans viewed sin: “Sin is of the same nature as the devil and a furtherance of the devils kingdom in the world”. And again, from the prince of Puritan theologians, John Owen: “The deceitfulness of sin is seen in that it is modest in its first proposals but, when it prevails, it hardens mens hearts, and brings them to ruin”.
One is glad to see something of the Puritan optimism for the future of the world presented in this book. Elnathan Parrs commentary on Romans 11 is quoted: “The casting off of the Jews was our calling, but the calling of the Jews shall not be our casting off but our greater enriching in grace”. Parr interprets “the fullness of the Gentiles” as “a full and plentiful propagation of the gospel whereby many of all of the nations shall be converted to God”. And Mr Hulse comments, “The Puritan doctrine of the last things is a doctrine which inspires prayer, motivates effort, inculcates endurance and strengthens patience”. In this section he also makes a useful reference to the “powers of evil and apostasy that have worked in the Church to destroy it.” “The most telling passage concerning the man of sin”, he goes on, “is commonly termed the little apocalypse of 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-12. Thomas Manton . . . demonstrates that the apostasy described by Paul is an apostasy from apostolic Christianity which took place over the centuries and is seen in the development of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy which usurped the gospel. . . . This interpretation is followed by John Owen. . . . The Church became the monolithic, institutionalised persecutor of the faithful in the name of religion, driving them to death or into the wilderness, as described in Revelation chapter 12.”
The book is exclusively a survey of English Puritanism, except for a brief appendix on the Reformation in Scotland. Here, however, the author has confused the Solemn League and Covenant with the National Covenant.
One is disappointed that in a book about the Puritans, the Authorised Version, the Puritan translation of the Bible was not used exclusively. Apart from the few reservations expressed here, this should be a useful book, particularly for those who are not familiar with the Puritans. It is attractively presented, although the typefaces used are not particularly suitable.
The purpose of this extended review is similar to that of the book itself: to encourage readers to make use of the spiritual riches in the Puritans writings, which in Gods kindness have been bequeathed to us. Some of the writings quoted are not in print; some of them may be difficult for beginners. But those new to the Puritans might start with writers like Thomas Watson, whose The Art of Divine Contentment is available from Free Presbyterian Publications. His A Body of Divinity also makes a good starting point, as do such Puritan Paperbacks as Prayer by John Bunyan, Precious Remedies Against Satans Devices by Thomas Brooks and A Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations. All of these books are available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.