American Puritans: About This Issue

MANY CHRISTIANS today are concerned about bringing Christian values to bear in an increasingly secular nation. The Puritans felt they had the same problem in seventeenth-century England. Their solution? Go to America and create a purely Christian society, a “city on a hill” for all the world to see and emulate.

This radical experiment worked, more or less, for 100 years. And then, as do all such movements, it fell apart. Still, the Puritans left this land a profound legacy: a nation imbued with the Puritan character: a strong work ethic, a distrust of authority and tradition, an anxiety to do right at home and abroad. Such traits have sometimes gotten our nation into trouble, but they’ve also been the source of much that is good.

The Puritans continue to inspire many modern Christians, and you’ll see why as you explore this issue of Christian History. We look at an overview of the movement in “Puritans: Quest for Pure Christianity,” discuss their spirituality in “How Puritans Grew Spiritually,” take a look at the greatest Puritan family in “The Mathers: New England Dynasty,” analyze their preaching in “Puritan Preaching,” and summarize their theology in “Puritan Thought: Theology on Fire”—to mention a few articles by leading Puritan historians.

In addition, we sprinkle many excerpts from Puritan diaries and writings to give you a feel for the time and the people. In our interview, Harry Stout, Jonathan Edwards professor of history at Yale University, talks about the legacy that Puritans have left to Christianity and America.

By Mark Galli

The American Puritans: Did You Know?

CRITIC H. L. MENCKEN once said, wrongly, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” On the contrary, Puritans read good books and enjoyed music. They drank beer with meals and rum at weddings. Puritans swam and skated, hunted and fished, and played at archery and bowling (as long as the games were not in a public tavern or on Sunday).

The famous “Pilgrims,” who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, were so radical they were usually disliked and sometimes hated. Unlike most Puritans, they did not seek to reform the Church of England; they thought the church was beyond help.

Most weddings in New England were performed not by ministers but by magistrates. Wedding rings, seen as “popish,” were not used.

The early settlers of Massachusetts included more than 100 graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. One historian termed Massachusetts “the best-educated community the world has ever known.”

In Puritan worship, a prayer could last an hour or more; a sermon, two hours. In a lifetime, a Puritan might hear 15,000 hours of preaching.

Within only six years of their arrival, while still trying to hew out an existence, the Puritans founded a religious college named Harvard. Puritans wanted highly educated ministers, not “Dumme Doggs,” as they called less-trained examples.

New England residents who failed to attend worship services on Sunday morning and afternoon were fined or put into stocks. Failing to glorify God for all his good gifts was a sacrilege.

Puritan women, though they didn’t receive a college education, were generally literate and often well-read. The only respectable female vocation in Puritan America was managing a household. But that “household” generally included large numbers of children, servants, apprentices, and even single men and women (who were required to live with families).

American Puritans did not celebrate religious holidays such as Easter or Christmas. The weekly “Lord’s Day” was celebration enough.

New England Puritans devised an approach to church membership that prevails in many churches today. By 1640, a person seeking membership was required to testify that he or she had been converted. Consequently, many settlers never became church members, even though only members could vote in civic affairs.

To permit undistracted worship of God, the Puritans did not use choirs, polyphonic hymns, or organs; they sang a cappella and in unison. No art adorned meeting houses (but paintings hung in many homes).

There was no religious freedom in New England. Quakers and Baptists were often forced to pay higher taxes or were banished.

American Puritans were hardworking but not capitalists in the modern sense. They placed common welfare ahead of self-interest and set modest caps on profit-making. Unemployment was virtually nonexistent in New England. A visitor from abroad testified, “In seven years I never saw a beggar.”

Puritans called Rhode Island “the latrine of New England” because it permitted all sorts of religious beliefs and made no religious requirements for citizenship.

Worshipers in New England were assigned seats by a committee. The best seats went to the minister and family. African-Americans and native Americans were assigned the lowest-ranked seats, usually in second-floor galleries. Men and women sat on opposite sides.

The American colonies became, in one historian’s words, “the most Protestant, Reformed, and Puritan commonwealths in the world.” When American colonists declared their independence in 1776, a full 75 percent came from Puritan roots.

By Cassandra Niemczyk

Quest For Pure Christianity

PURITANISM HAS BECOME A LABEL. For some, ”what’s wrong with America” is that too much Puritanism survives to haunt and inhibit their country. Other Americans, though, believe the failures of our country result from the dilution of Puritan discipline and ideals.

Whether one thinks of Puritanism as bane or blessing, this is sure: no religious experiment in the New World has had a more enduring impact upon our nation’s education, literature, sense of mission, church governance, ethical responsibility, or religious vision.

This is the story of the Puritans' mission, what they termed an ”errand into the wilderness.”

Purifying the Church

American Puritanism has its beginning in sixteenth-century England. King Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509 to 1547) shook the Church in England loose from its Roman Catholic moorings. The two brief reigns that followed muddied the waters: during the reign of Edward VI (15471553) the nation veered sharply toward Protestantism; in the reign of Mary I (1553–1558), it veered even more sharply back toward Rome.

In the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), citizens caught their collective breath and tried to determine, more precisely, the character of their new national church. It isn’t surprising that people differed—strongly, bitterly, and even bloodily.

Some passionately sought to make the Protestant Reformation a redeeming reality in all of English life and culture, thus purifying it. They came to be called Puritans. The Puritans wanted to rid the Church of England of all evidences of its historic Catholic connection, and to let the New Testament determine church order and worship. As petitioners to King James I (1603–1625) put it in 1603, the true church ought not to be ”governed by Popish Canons, Courts, Classes, Customs, or any human invention, but by the laws and rules which Christ hath appointed in his Testament.”

But Puritans themselves soon split as to the method of purifying.

The Pilgrims

While some worked patiently to reform the church, moving it inch by inch and year by year, others gave up hope that such a political megachurch would ever change. So they separated from the national church in order to fashion a fellowship of their own, with the New Testament as their only guide.

One Separatist congregation meeting in secret in Nottingham (north of London) hoped that the new king, James I, would be more lenient in religious matters than Elizabeth had been. But those hopes were dashed when James declared that all dissenters must conform to England’s worship and submit to England’s bishops, or ”I will harry them out of the land, or else worse.” ”Worse” clearly meant ”death,” for failure to conform to the Church of England was a capital crime. Yet to conform was impossible for these men and women.

In 1607 the group fled to Holland, where they could worship in a manner that did no violence to their consciences. After some years, however, they found that solution unsatisfactory; their children, burdened with difficult labor, were growing up as Dutch young people, not as English.

Aware of English claims in the New World, the Pilgrims (as these Separatists became known) conceived the ambitious and expensive plan to start a colony across the sea. They received a land grant from the Virginia Company of London and some promise of merchant support, though neither came easily. The Pilgrims had to prove they were not radical heretics; the merchants had to be assured that some return on their investments would be forthcoming.

Being ”knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord,” the group of about 100 sailed from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. Two months later, the Mayflower arrived off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where these settlers soon established their own Plymouth.

The Virginia Company’s patent extended no farther than 41 degrees latitude, roughly around the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The new arrivals thus realized they needed some instrument of civil government, especially since some of their number, not sharing the same religious fervor, had made ”discontented and mutinous speeches.” The resulting Mayflower Compact, dated November 11, 1620, pledged the group, ”solemnly mutually in the presence of God and one another,” to ”covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.” The good of the colony, not the interests of any individual, was to be the guiding principle.

Deathly Winter

During that first hard winter, death reduced the contingent by nearly half. Many continued to live aboard the ship. Only the intercession of the Wampanoag Indians, who taught them how to plant and fish, kept the mortality rate from growing worse.

The Pilgrim migration consisted of men and women accustomed to labor in the field. So that first spring, crops were planted, houses built, and game successfully hunted. No prolonged ”starving time” haunted Plymouth as it had the earliest settlers in Virginia. Nor did the Indians attack this vulnerable group; instead they assisted them, joining in their ceremonies and feasts, including the much mythologized first Thanksgiving.

William Bradford, who was elected governor thirty times between 1622 and 1656, proved to be a steady hand in directing the colony, as well as an able historian of its courage and trials.

Great Migration

England’s King Charles I, who ruled from 1625 to 1649, asserted his authority over Parliament, church, and people with even more vigor than his father, James I. His archbishop, William Laud, repressed all religious dissent. Those Puritans who had not separated from the Church of England now labored for reform with increasing difficulty, and they sensed the odds of success were against them. They faced the hard alternative of conforming, at great cost to their consciences, or defying, at great cost to their lives and fortunes. They likewise chose that other way out: migration to the New World.

When, in 1629, Charles dissolved a Parliament that tried to restrain his autocratic power, Puritans in the Church of England saw little hope. Just weeks before Charles’s action, some Puritans had applied for a charter under the name of the Massachusetts Bay Company. With such a document in hand, the time seemed ripe for a migration. John Winthrop—lawyer, Puritan, and soon-to-be first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—noted that God ”hath disposed the hearts of so many of his wise and faithful servants, both ministers and others, not only to approve of the enterprise but to interest themselves in it.”

The sheer number of people involved distinguished this colony from earlier English efforts. About 700 sailed with Winthrop in March 1630, another 300 followed soon thereafter, and another 1,000 before the year was out. The decade of the 1630s, producing what has been called the Great Migration, saw the population of Massachusetts Bay soar to nearly 9,000. Thus, the colony did not lack labor, skills, productive farmers, and infusions of new blood.

City Upon a Hill

What set Massachusetts apart from Virginia was its adherence to certain ideas that have been termed ”the New England mind.”

In 1630, while still aboard the ship that brought them across the ocean, John Winthrop—though a layman—preached a sermon entitled ”A Model of Christian Charity.” Just as one would avoid shipwreck at sea, said Winthrop, so they must avoid similar calamity on land. The only way to do that was to follow ”the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man.” If they would so conduct themselves, ”the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us.” They were ”entered into covenant with [God] for this work.”

Winthrop saw the Puritan venture as a way of demonstrating how nations could prosper and be blessed. God, Winthrop said, would ”make us a praise and glory,” so much so that ”men will say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England.' ” In short, ”we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

The weighty task of government, then, was to see that the covenant was not broken, that in both behavior and belief the Puritan settlers did nothing to offend God. The covenant bound them to know the will of God, as revealed in the Bible, and to follow that will as faithfully as human frailty would permit.

To help men and women follow God, ministers were chosen to interpret and enforce his will. Meeting houses were built in every town for collective praise and collective obedience. Church members, no less than pastors, must study their Bibles, examine their souls, and make straight their paths. The whole ”fellowship of the saints” bore responsibility for the integrity of the church.

Each congregation, though, directed its own affairs, hiring or firing ministers and setting standards for church membership. Neither bishop nor synod ruled over them. Thus, the Puritans later assumed the denominational name of Congregationalists.

Sunday was a day not for recreation and sport (as James I believed), but for worship and meditation. Puritans, however, did not give attention to other holy days, or saints' days, even Christmas, for these were lingering elements of the papal calendar. They did not kneel at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, for that suggested the bodily presence of Christ in the Communion elements. Nor did they hear confession or treat marriage as a sacrament.

Worship must be as simple at it is sincere. No priest or bishop should stand between the believer and his or her God; no altar should suggest that the sacrifice of Christ had to be repeated; no statues or pictures or stained-glass windows should distract the worshiper from concentrating upon God and the Sacred Word; no Book of Common Prayer should tell one what or how or when to pray.

Above all, no one should suggest that salvation could be earned: it was a gift of God’s grace, wholly unmerited and freely given to those whom God elected to save. In that, as in all other dimensions of life, the Almighty Creator, not the fickle objects of that creation, was in charge. This doctrine of predestination, often misconstrued as a mindless fatalism, was to the Puritans a comforting trust in the sovereignty of a loving God.

Christian Harvard

Literacy in New England was high (though many could not write, writing and ”doing sums” being a more advanced stage of education). For Puritans, who put so much stake on the Bible, reading was fundamental to Christian education. Mothers were initially the chief teachers of reading and writing in the home. Soon every New England town had its grammar school for boys, while less formal ”dame schools” watched over the education of the girls.

In an astonishing act of daring, the Puritans, even in the first decade of their colony, founded a college, which would soon take the name of Harvard. Patterned after Cambridge University, from which most Puritan ministers had graduated, Harvard College faithfully reflected the Puritan community. The ”rules and precepts” of 1646 stipulated that every student ”shall consider the main end of his life and studies to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life.” The Bible was to be read twice a day, with all students expected to be ”ready to give an account of their proficiency therein.”

Harvard, though designed for the training of ministers, also offered education in the classics of antiquity, Renaissance languages, Aristotelian physics, and natural and moral philosophy. When a site for the infant college was selected across the Charles River from Boston, the town was called Cambridge, in memory of the Puritans' English past and with large hopes for their American future.

The Puritans had left England to escape bishops and cleanse themselves of an impure worship. In Massachusetts Bay, the Puritans intended to recreate the New Testament church, to fashion what they had hoped the Church of England would turn out to be. They came not for freedom of religion in the abstract but for their freedom of religion in particular. They never intended to found a colony where all religious dissidents of whatever persuasion, or none, would flock.

Far from it, they did their best to keep ”the New England Way” consistent, pure, undefiled. To do this, education was not enough; they sometimes had to purge, sometimes persecute, sometimes even hang.

Dangerous Dissent

Orthodoxy was never as complete as the clergy and the magistrates would have wished. From the beginning Baptists and Quakers lived in and around the colony. Banishments and hangings only slowed their growth.

In addition, many Puritans, like all Europeans of the time, practiced magic, followed astrological charts, and kept ancient superstitions alive—much as people do today. Such popular religion did not reject Puritan orthodoxy; it merely supplemented it. The supernatural world could not be confined to the prayers of the clergy or the explicit promises of Scripture. Signs and portents, visions and wonders, fortunes told and illnesses strangely cured, private rituals to ensure the fertility of fields and marriage—these lived side-by-side with Puritan orthodoxy.

Most troublesome were people who directly challenged Puritan orthodoxy. One such challenger, Roger Williams, argued that (1) the Puritan churches could not claim to be part of the Church of England while trying all the while to transform it; (2) the civil government had no business enforcing church rules or punishing its detractors; (3) all Puritan settlers were trespassers because they had not purchased the land from Indians.

Williams presented a bill of indictment so threatening that the General Court of Massachusetts determined in October 1635 that ”the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks. ”

Winter Refugee

But where to go, with winter approaching, with a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter? Williams eventually struck out on foot, walking south through January’s bitter cold, until he crossed the Bay Colony’s boundaries. For fourteen weeks, he wrote, ”I knew not what neither bed nor bread did mean.” He accepted meager fare from the Narragansett Indians, whose language he had learned and whose confidence he had won.

At last, Williams came to Narragansett Bay, where he bought some land from the natives and named his settlement Providence, ”in a sense of God’s merciful Providence unto me in my distress.” And so the colony of Rhode Island was born, one open to those of any religious persuasion or none.

Another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, posed an even greater threat to Massachusetts Puritanism. A midwife and member of Boston’s congregation, Hutchinson wanted to take orthodoxy farther than it was willing to go. Salvation was by faith, not works, all agreed. But orthodoxy declared that after salvation, good works gave evidence of that salvation. Hutchinson challenged that assumption.

In doing so, Puritan leaders felt she broke the essential bond between morality and religion, thereby threatening to undermine the very foundation of Puritan society. She was branded an ”antinomian,” literally one who is against the law.

Worse, during her trial, Hutchinson admitted to having heard ”voices,” private revelations beyond the public revelation of the Bible. For Puritans, this was the ultimate presumption to be so arrogant as to claim that God spoke directly to her. She was denounced as an enthusiast—literally, one filled with God, or at least proudly pretending to be.

In 1637 the General Court brought Hutchinson to trial. John Winthrop, speaking for the Court, noted that she had ”spoken diverse things very prejudicial to the honor of the churches and the ministers thereof.” Moreover, she had ”maintained a meeting and an assembly that has been condemned by the General Assembly.” Furthermore, she had said things and done things not ”comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.” The Court concluded, ”She shall be banished out of our liberties and imprisoned till she be sent away.”

With her family and a significant number of supporters, Hutchinson fled to Rhode Island, where they continued to worry the authorities in Massachusetts. In 1643, after she and her family moved to Long Island, a marauding band of Mohawks abruptly ended her life.

Waning Zeal

As the decades passed, the Puritans' original zeal began to wane. Ministers began preaching a type of sermon, the ”jeremiad,” in which they lamented the loss of original fervor and exhorted people to amend their ways.

The issue of declining religious fervor came to a head in the 1660s over the issue of church membership. Initially, church membership in Massachusetts was limited to those who had a direct experience of the saving grace of God and who appeared before the church to tell of their wondrous conversion. By the 1660s, however, many of these converts' children, who had been baptized as infants, failed to tell of such conversions. Thus they could not be full members allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

Then, these people, though not full members themselves, brought their children to be baptized. To accept such a third-generation child for baptism was to relax the rigid rules of membership; on the other hand, to reject such an infant would reduce the scope and influence of the church over a growing society.

After much harsh debate, many churches adopted the so-called ”Half-Way Covenant,” broadening the parameters of the church to include these children, but at cost to their pure principles.

By 1679, Massachusetts ministers were so concerned about declining faith, they felt that God had a controversy with his people, that he no longer looked with favor upon New England. They petitioned the General Court to call a ”Reforming Synod.” There the ministers testified to Sabbath breaking, ”Sinful Heats and Hatreds,” and most of all ”A public spirit greatly wanting in most of men.”

William Bradford’s compact and John Winthrop’s sermon seemed, if not forgotten, certainly forsaken.

When in 1691 the witchcraft episode at Salem erupted, it seemed to provide further evidence that Satan’s dominion was enlarging as the face of God turned away from New England.

A generation later, a wave of revivalism gave hope that the decline of Puritanism had been arrested or even reversed. This Great Awakening of the 1740s, recalling the vision and zeal of the 1630s, inspired many to confession of sin and godly repentance. But it was not enough.

Indeed, the Awakening, by dividing the friends of the revival from its foes, shattered the unity of the clergy and of the churches. The New England Way, which had held for more than a century, would henceforth be a personal option, but no longer a pervading social norm.

By Dr. Edwin S. Gaustad

Anguished Conversion

IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Thomas Shepard (1605–1649), pastor in Newtown, Massachusetts, described the anxieties leading to his conversion. Brief excerpts:

The first two years I spent in Cambridge was in studying and in much neglect of God and private prayer I fell from God to loose and lewd company to lust and pride and gaming and bowling and drinking.

I drank so much one day that I was dead drunk. And when I awakened I went out into the fields and there spent that Sabbath lying hid in the cornfields where the Lord who might justly have cut me off in the midst of my sin did meet me with much sadness of heart and trou bled my soul for this and other my sins.

Three main wounds

I did see my atheism, I questioned whether there were a God, and my unbelief, whether Christ was the Messiah, whether the Scriptures were God’s word or no I felt all manner of temptations to all kind of religions, not knowing which I should choose, whether if I had been educated up among the Papists I should not have been as verily persuaded that Popery is the truth.

After many prayers, meditations, duties, the Lord let me see three main wounds in my soul:(1) I could not feel sin as my greatest evil; (2)I could do nothing but I did seek myself in it and was imprisoned there, and though I desired to be a preacher, yet it was honor I did look to like a vile wretch; (3)I felt a depth of atheism and unbelief.

Because I did question whether Christ did cast out devils from Beelzebub, etc., I did think and fear I had [committed the unpardonable sin), and now the terrors of God began to break in like floods of fire into my soul. For three quarters of a year this temptation did last, and I had some strong temptations to run my head against walls and brain and kill myself.

And I did see God like a consuming fire and an everlasting burning, and myself like a poor prisoner leading to that fire, and the thought of eternal reprobation and torment did amaze my spirits.

Slow assurance

Whereupon walking in the fields the Lord dropped this meditation into me: Be not discouraged therefore because thou art so vile, but make this double use of it: (1) loathe thyself the more; (2) feel a greater need and put a greater price upon Jesus Christ who only can redeem thee from all sin—and this I found of wonderful use to me. I began to forsake my loose company wholly. But yet I had no assurance Christ was mine.

The Lord therefore brought Dr. Preston to preach upon 1 Corinthians 1:30: Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. And when he had opened how all the good I had, all the redemption I had, it was from Jesus Christ, I did then begin to prize Him, and He became very sweet unto me. But yet after this I had many fears and doubts.

The Lord also letting me see my own constant vileness in everything put me to this question: Why did the Lord Jesus keep the law, had no guile in his heart, had no unbrokenness but holiness there? Was it not for them that did want it? And here I saw Christ Jesus’ righteousness for a poor sinner’s ungodliness, but yet questioning whether ever the Lord would apply this and give this unto me.

The Lord made me see that so many as receive him, he gives power to be the sons of God (John 1:12), and I saw the Lord gave me a heart to receive Christ with a naked hand, even naked Christ, and so the Lord gave me peace.

By Thomas Shepard

Ordering Their Private World

ALONE IN THE DARK, Roger Clap lay lost in meditation. Barely 21, and already a member of the Dorchester Church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he now felt a wave of uncertainty and insecurity rush over him.

“In my saddest Troubles for want of a clear Evidence of my good Estate,” he wrote years later in his Memoirs, “I did . . . Examine my self upon my Bed in the Night, concerning my spiritual Estate.”

Why did these doubts persist?

An immigrant from England just that spring of 1630, Clap was acutely aware that his way of coming to Christ was not so dramatic as the conversion experiences others professed: “I could not find as others did, the Time when God wrought the Work of Conversion in my Soul, nor in many respects the Manner thereof. It caused in me much Sadness of Heart, and Doubtings how it was with me, Whether the Work of Grace were ever savingly wrought in my Heart or no?”

In his anguish, Clap turned inward, meditating on his sinfulness. Following established methods of self-examination, he put the question “to my very Heart and Soul” whether he would willingly commit a certain secret sin again.

Suddenly, he found the resolution welling up within not to commit that sin again. “At that Time my conscience did witness to me that my State was good: And God’s holy Spirit did witness (I do believe) together with my Spirit, that I was a Child of God; and did fill my Heart and Soul with such a full Assurance that Christ was mine, that it did so transport me as to make me cry out upon my Bed with a loud Voice, ‘He is come, He is come.’ And God did melt my Heart.”

The inner life of the soul—this was the beating heart of Puritanism in seventeenth-century America. While the Puritans produced volumes of theology, formulated doctrines on civil government, founded Harvard College, and established a publishing industry, the whole enterprise was geared toward one end: the conversion of sinners and their growth in piety and holiness.

Private Practice

Puritans sought a living relationship with Jesus Christ. They practiced the spiritual life both in public worship and in “private devotion” (meaning all worship and devotional activity outside the walls of the church). Private devotion took place in secret exercises, private conference, family devotions, and private meetings.

"Secret” or “closet” exercises. Alone, Puritans meditated and prayed just before sleep at night, upon rising in the morning, on Saturday in preparation for the Sabbath, and on the Sabbath between services. At night they reviewed the day’s behavior, gave thanks for blessings, repented of sin, submitted anew to the will of God, and embraced mortality and judgment. Upon waking, believers thanked God for life and salvation.

Special sessions for meditative “self-examination” could be prompted by a birthday, New Year’s Day (March 25 in colonial America), or some “remarkable providence” in one’s life.

Prayer was the culminating act of secret devotion. Merchant Roger Clap urged his children, “Pray in Secret. Think with yourself, assuredly God is present tho’ none else; I will confess my Sins, and I will beg with God by Faith and Prayer. And you may every one of you prevail, if you Pray sincerely, and persevere in it.” Cotton Mather once described his prayer life: “This Morning, my heart was melted, in secret Prayer before the Lord.”

Private conference. Believers were specifically instructed to seek out “much conference, especially with Ministers and other experienced Christians.” These spiritual counseling sessions were used to guide individuals through the conversion experience, screen church members and lead them to public profession of faith, enable parents to bring their children and servants to the experience of grace, and encourage saints to help one another grow

Cotton Mather records in his diary that at the end of one such private conference with his daughter Katy, “I thereupon made the Child kneel down by mee; and I poured out my Cries unto the Lord, that Hee would lay His Hands upon her, and bless her and save her, and make her a Temple of His Glory. It will be so; It will be so!”

Family devotions. This third private exercise ideally occurred in the morning before work, briefly before meals, and in the evening. The Bible was read “in course” (chapter by chapter in sequence), a psalm was sung from the locally published Bay Psalm Book, and prayers were offered—inspired or guided by devotional manuals such as John Cotton’s Milke for Babes.

The prayers reflected a cycle of death and rebirth, evening and morning. In the evening, families confessed their sins, praying “O let us feel the Power of Christ’s Death killing sin in our mortal Bodies.” In the morning, they gave thanks for God’s grace that “renews all thy mercies upon us” and praised God because he had “elected, created, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified” the saints.

Neighborhood prayer meeting. Congregations formed groups for women, young men, girls, blacks, tradesmen, and ministers. Meetings were held in homes weekly, biweekly, or monthly. “We pray, and sing, and repeat sermons, and confer together about the things of God,” explained John Eliot, one of the founding pastors and “Apostle to the Indians.” Cotton Mather boasted “thirteen or fourteen” neighborhood fellowships under his pastoral care.

If believers engaged in this full range of devotion, Eliot preached, “When thou diest, heaven will be no strange place to thee; no, thou hast been there a thousand times before.”

Devout Diaries

New Englanders recorded their spiritual experiences in diaries. While many early diaries were lost, those that survive open a window to the spiritual ecstasy known by at least some Puritans.

Cambridge pastor Thomas Shepard says that as a young man, “I so found [God] in meditation that I was constrained to carry my book into the fields to write down what God poured in.” This “little book” did not survive, but in his later journals, Shepard recorded that often in meditating on Scripture, “my heart was sweetly ravished.”

Anne Bradstreet, whose husband, Simon, became governor of Massachusetts Bay, often wrote poems to express and preserve her prayers.

I sought him whom my Soul did love,

With tears I sought him earnestly;

He bow’d his ear down from Above,

In vain I did not seek or cry.

When she asked God “For Deliverance from a Feaver,” she discovered her deeper need to pray, “O, heal my Soul.” Reflecting on her experience, she penned,

In my distresse I sought the Lord,

When nought on Earth could comfort give;

And when my Soul these things abhor’d,

Then, Lord, thou said’st unto me, Live.

Letter U, for example, was remembered by “Uriah’s beauteous wife Made David seek his Life.” The primer was so popular, Benjamin Franklin was printing it nearly a century later.

Best-Selling Sermons

New Englanders were highly literate and considered reading a means of grace. “God has blessed not only the Preaching of Sermons,” ministers advised, “but the Writing of Books, for the Conversion as well as the Edification of many Readers.”

Religious publications—sermons, tracts, catechisms, and devotional manuals—were best-sellers. Boston minister John Cotton, thinking of religious books as a mother’s breast or a piece of fruit, counseled, “Labour so to read, as that you may suck life from it.”

Children learned to read using The New England Primer with its theological ABCs, from A, “In Adam’s Fall We sinned all,” to Z, “Zacheus he Did climb the Tree His Lord to see.”

Some devotional favorites were read over and over. In his youth, Boston merchant Robert Keayne hand-copied a Communion manual, “a little thin pocket book bound in leather . . . which I have read over I think 100 and 100 times.”

Books sometimes influenced the experience of conversion. John Brock, in his spiritual autobiography, tells how as a child “By Reading, through admonitions of Parents, in a Book called The Practice of Piety I found some Description, of the Misery of Men in Hell and of Happiness of the Godly which somewhat stirred me.” At age 16 he received further “Encouragement and Light” toward conversion by reading Thomas Hooker’s The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ.

Surprisingly, Puritan piety, while rooted firmly in the Calvinist movement, drew from Catholic and Lutheran devotionalism. When Puritans felt the need for manuals on meditation and prayer, sometimes they unashamedly copied the format, techniques, and even the contents and titles of Catholic books.

Public Worship

With two three-hour services every Sabbath, midweek “lectures,” and an occasional fast or thanksgiving service, New Englanders spent a lot of time in the meeting house. In a typical service, psalm singing, long prayers, and Scripture readings culminated in a sixty- to ninety-minute sermon.

Puritan “plain style” preaching, as one New Englander put it, aimed at “bringing me to know my sin and the wrath of God against me...humbling me yet more and then raising me up out of this estate” through the “plain and powerful” presentation of Jesus as Savior.

Thomas Shepard’s adult catechism, First Principles of the Oracles of God, set forth the “order of redemption,” or plan of salvation. Baptism, which was bestowed upon the children of believers, was the sacrament of “our new birth, and ingrafting into Christ.” After believers joined the church covenant, they could receive the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of “our growth in Christ . . . given to nourish and strengthen believers, renewing their faith unto eternall life.”

When believers joined the church covenant, they presented a “relation” or narrative of their conversion. While some testified to a single conversion moment, most spoke of an ongoing journey from sin to salvation: “by degrees the Lord hath let [them] see” they belonged to Christ. A servant told of receiving “more and more light to see into my lost estate” until finally “the Lord broke my heart in the consideration of my own vileness and so I saw a necessity of Christ.” This self-emptying in preparation for rebirth did not end with church membership; it continued as Puritans prepared for glory.

Nowhere is the Christian spirit of Puritan piety more evident than in the meditative poetry of minister Edward Taylor. In meditation and in prayer on Saturday night, preparing for preaching and administering the Lord’s Supper the next morning, Taylor sometimes would express his sense of awe before God in verse:

What Love is this of thing that Cannot bee

In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,

Sinless it in thy very Person see,

Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn’d?

One can imagine the pastor on his knees before the embers in the fireplace, confessing his sinfulness—"my Lifeless Sparke! My Fireless Flame!"—and then beseeching God, "Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.”

By Dr. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe

Theology On Fire

AN ENGLISH PURITAN preacher once exhorted his people about their neglect of the Bible. One hearer reported how the preacher “personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies . . . covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’

“And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’

“And then he personates God again to the people: ‘Say you so? Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more . . . observe it more . . . practice it more, and live more according to it.’ ”

In response, the people broke down and were “deluged with their own tears.”

This anecdote takes us to the very heart of Puritanism—a passionate movement, and above all else, a Bible movement.

Guide to Holiness

America’s Puritans were English Puritans who had moved to “New England” in hope of achieving the corporate holiness in church and community that seemed unattainable in old England. For half a century, English Puritanism had sought further purging of England’s national church, plus spiritual renewal for all Englishmen. The Puritans desired that every person, activity, and relationship might become “holiness to the Lord.”

In this quest the Bible was both charter and chart.

Puritans, in their Christ-centered reading of Scripture, stressed the unity of the two testaments. They placed special significance on the Old Testament as giving God’s blueprint (apart from changes of detail) for a godly church-state. Christians were to order every part of their lives according to biblical principles.

The Bible was the Creator’s personal instruction to every reader, the recorded speech of the Holy Spirit. So all preaching had to be expository, with teaching and application. All sermons were to be memorized, with note-taking if necessary; “repeated” (gone over) at home; and meditated on thereafter.

Also, Christians should brood on Scripture constantly, applying all it says about relations between God and man. “I never yet observed any part of a Scripture . . . ” wrote John Cotton, that could not “be applied both with power and profit and delight to an honest heart.”

Most Puritans saw the sufficiency of Scripture as applying to church order. Typically, the New England clergyman had gotten into trouble in old England for requiring that all ceremonies in public worship have scriptural sanction, and for refusing to conform to some Prayer Book ceremonies because they lacked it. The New England congregations were thought of as Anglican at first, but this “regulative principle”—limiting church order to what Scripture directly sanctioned—changed things. The Prayer Book was not imposed, there were no bishops, and congregational church government became the pattern.

Good and Severe God

Puritans saw God scripturally as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished . . . ” (Ex. 34:6–7). Puritans found this combination of goodness and severity, love and holiness, judgment and mercy, both awesome and adorable.

Thomas Hooker compared the believer’s relationship to God to “a childe that travels to a Faire with his father.” Even in a crowd, Hooker explained, “the child’s eye is alwayes upon his father: . . . the childe is carefull to keepe his father within sight and view, and then if hee bee weake and weary, his father can take him by the hand, and lead him, or take him into his armes and carry him; or if there be any thing hee wants, or would have, his father can buy it for him, bestow it upon him.”

“But if the childe bee carelesse and gazeth about this thing and that thing, and never lookes after his father, hee is gone one way, and his father another, he cannot tell where to finde him: whose fault is it now? it is not because his father would not be within his sight, or because hee could not keepe within the view of him, but because hee out of carelessnesse lost the sight of his father.”

Given this view of divine fatherhood, honoring, serving, loving, glorifying, and enjoying God was to the Puritans the noblest and most joyous life possible. Cotton Mather wrote in his diary of his deep desire “to love that which God loves, and hate that which God hates; to bee holy as God is holy, and like Him, a great Forgiver; and bee His Child, as much as may bee like the just at the Resurrection from the Dead. This will I seek, as the noblest Crown, that ever I can wear.”

Vital Focus

The focus of Puritan preaching was the regeneration and conversion of people.

Salvation began with regeneration—the supernatural re-creating of a person’s motivational core. Out of this came conversion—a turning from sin to trust the promise of justification through the Cross, and to bow to the living Christ as Lord.

Regeneration-conversion was a single sequential process, a work of grace the Holy Spirit wrought through the message of law and gospel; it was named “effectual calling.”

Without it, sincere commitment to God was impossible, because the unrenewed heart was ruled by the anti-God syndrome called sin. Thomas Hooker explained, “There was never any saved that was not a rebel first; nor any received to mercy, that first opposed not the mercies of God, and his grace in Christ.”

The means of this grace were the Word (preached and heard, read and meditated on) plus prayer. When sought by these means, God would be found, though he remains sovereign over the when and how of the finding process. Regeneration-conversion brings believers into a covenant relationship: God becomes theirs forever, guaranteeing to keep them in faith and obedience here and to glorify them hereafter.


American Puritan teaching on salvation has been misconceived in three ways at least.

1. Covenant is not a contract. The Puritans are said to have thought of God’s covenant of grace as a contract; sinners must fulfill its conditions by making a commitment that precedes regeneration and is not entirely God’s work in them.

Not so! The Puritans saw the covenant as unilaterally established by God. He alone induces conversion as he works in the heart to give the faith and repentance he requires.

In Thomas Hooker’s apt words, “This is all the Lord requires of us, namely, to see our sins, to be weary of them, to be content that the Lord Jesus shall reveal to us what is amiss, and seal a pardon for it, and take it away; and further give us his grace to take down the old building, and to set up a new one in us after his image.”

2. Preparation is not legalism. Puritan teaching on preparation for conversion has been misrepresented as a legalistic requirement; the sinner must undergo so much self-abasement and bewailing of sins before being permitted to believe on the Lord Jesus.

Puritans did make much of the preparatory “law-work” of conviction, compunction, and humiliation for sin. But that was simply because through this work God frees us from our natural love of sinning to embrace Christ. For Puritans, preparation deals not with the terms of the gospel, but with the method of grace in the human heart.

3. Changed life reveals a true conversion. Puritans saw that an unconverted “gospel hypocrite” might go far in his religiosity and be nearly indistinguishable from someone regenerate. Some have urged that this made it impossible for anyone to be assured of salvation, for whose heart and life are thoroughly changed?

But the Puritans insisted that desiring to please, glorify, and enjoy God above everything else—and being willing to endure any loss or pain to this end—argues a regenerate heart. Their definition is clear, and the formalist’s failure to match up to it is clear too. Increase Mather pointed out that “When a man’s heart within him is turned and set against sin, then he has truly experienced that conversion which the Word of God requireth.”

In sum, for the Puritans, the Christian life was a hungry living out of God’s grace—gift of salvation. As Thomas Shepard put it, “True grace, as it comforts, so it never fills, but puts an edge on the appetite; more of that grace, Lord!”

Faithfulness in All Things

To practice faithfulness to God as an individual, a citizen, a worker, a family member, and a unit in the local church—this was Puritan religion in its essence.

The Puritans believed that unfaithfulness to God would bring judgment. Old England, having proved unfaithful to its calling, was now facing the barrenness and disruption of divine judgment. New England, please God, would do better.

The divinely established solidarity of the community was such that if judgment fell, all would be engulfed together. So neighbor—love and natural self-love, as well as love of God, should lead all to watch over each other so as to encourage and help each other toward godliness at all times.

The Puritans valued and intensely strove to live:

• a personal life of disciplined law-keeping and self-scrutiny, humble faith and hope, patience, penitence and prayer;

• a public life of doing good and practicing philanthropy wherever possible, while honoring God in one’s family;

• a church life of worship and learning from a faithful preacher.

The Puritans held that these actions, done faithfully, would please God. And when all is said and done, if we are to judge by biblical standards, it is really impossible to doubt that they were right. CH


By J. I. Packer

Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2023, 8:04 AM