John Owen penned maybe the most well-known working on fighting sin, On the Mortification of Sin, and also maybe the greatest work on spiritual communion or fellowship with God—On Communion with God. As his life came to a close he wrote The Glory of Christ. What’s interesting about that is in this final work he believed the most important thought (and practice) for the believer’s growth and transformation in Christ was provided. More than fighting sin, more than spiritual-mindedness, and more than all other things, beholding the glory of Jesus Christ was not only our greatest reward but our greatest need. Seeing the glory of Jesus infuses all other disciplines and practices and it is the greatest thing to bring backsliders back, to create worship, to promote holiness and mortification, and to lead to our joy in God. Here are a few thoughts from the last three pages of the final discourse he wrote on the glory of Christ.
As you might be able to tell from past posts, two of my interests are Church History and American History. This summer I get the chance to do combine the two through an Independent Study on the first generation of American Puritans. Doing independent studies are in my world the ideal situation. It allows me study something I want and go more in-depth than classes often allow. In the picture above are some of the books awaiting me at my desk, although I’ve been able to recently download most of the primary works via Google Play Books. I’ll hopefully be able to post a number of blogs on my subject matter this summer so for those interested (echo) here’s why I chose this topic and some of what I’ll be doing.
Why study this?
Since the early 20th century there has been a resurgence in studying the religious landscape of America in the 17th-18th centuries, particularly in New England. However, the overwhelming majority of that research has began with Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakening onwards. This is especially true in evangelicalism and the theological and practical works of those pre-Edwards has been largely neglected. My hope is to do two Independent Studies over the next year. The first covering roughly 1630-1670 and the second spanning from 1670-1710. I believe, and hope to demonstrate, that the first generation of American Puritans in New England was an especially rich group of pastors and theologians (not to mention politicians). They pre-date the height of English Puritanism and despite living in the “wilderness” of America they greatly influenced old and new England. They importance and richness of this first generation in my opinion has also been downplayed in part because of their Congregationalism, which has left them largely without a clear lineage among evangelicals and led to many Presbyterians downplaying their value.
As a whole I find the first generation fascinating in part because it ties in to the starting of the nation I’m a citizen of, the dangerous wilderness they were seeking to survive and cultivate interests the boy in my heart, there are neat connections tying to later figures (such as Edwards), and in recent years I’ve had a growing interest in New England as a whole.
Areas of Study
My study of the first generation of American Puritanism will include a general overview of the historical context in America, the most influential Puritan figures, and the key theological issues at that time. While leaving room for discovery made along the way, my main interests are the important figures: John Winthrop, John Cotton, Richard Mather, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and even John Davenport. The theological issues include: the Antinomian controversy, church polity (Congregationalism), conformity vs non-conformity, the place of Harvard and other centers of training, relationship with and differences from Puritans in England, primary Puritan influences on American Puritanism, preparationism, and devotional practices.
Winthrop heads up Massachusetts and Edmund Morgan calls him the first great American. John Cotton was especially influential on John Owen and other Independents and Congregationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. Hooker took on Rutherford’s Presbyterianism and was considered by some the best pastor and preacher among the group (and Ames says the greatest mind he met). Not to mention he founds Hartford and is the father of Connecticut, and has been called “the father of democracy”, although that label might be unwarranted. Shepard greatly influences Edwards, and Mather leaves a spiritual legacy that greatly shapes the next 60 years of American religious history (for good or bad). Davenport seems to go a little off course but is worth studying because of his early influence, his founding New Haven, and he was invited to the Westminster Assembly.
Although there are some written assignments the study is primarily reading as much on the subject as I can. In order to submerge myself in the context I’m trying to read on 3 levels: what they were reading, what they were writing/preaching, and what people say about them. The first level involves trying to read who they were reading and listening too. Clearly the influence and context could stretch back endlessly and become an overwhelming task, so I’m focusing on the immediate influences. Theologically this includes especially William Perkins and William Ames, but it also includes reading the Geneva Bible and its notes (not the KJV), the Bay Psalm Book, and devotional manuals they were using for personal piety (Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety). The second level is the most important and most enjoyable, primary sources. For my purposes and interests I’m focusing on the sermons and works written by the men mentioned above (Hooker, Winthrop, Shepard, Cotton, Mather) as well as the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (mainly because I really like it). The third level consists of secondary sources writing about, explaining, and arguing about the Puritans. Here’s a list of some of what I’ll be reading or consulting.
- John Cotton. The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Power thereof, According to the Word of God.
- Thomas Hooker. The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ.
- Thomas Hooker. The Application of Redemption
- The Cambridge Platform
- John Cotton. “God’s Promise to His Plantation”
- John Cotton. Christ the Fountain of Life (I John).
- Thomas Shepard. The Sound Believer and The Sincere Convert
- Thomas Shepard. The Parable of the Ten Virgins
- Ed. Perry Miller. The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry.
- Letter from New England.
- John Cotton. The Way of the Churches in New England (1645); The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (1648);
- The Journal of Richard Mather
- David D. Hall. The Antinomian Controversy: 1636-38.
• Perry Miller. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century
Perry Miller. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province
C.E. Hambrick-Stowe. The Practice of Piety.
• Robert Middlekauff. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals
• Francis J. Bremer. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards.
George Leon Walker. Thomas Hooker: Preacher, Founder, Democrat
Other Literature to Consult
• Geoffrey F. Nuttall. Visible Saints: The Congregational Way 1640-1660.
• Joel Beeke. Meet the Puritans.
• Ed. John Coffey and Paul Lim. Cambridge Companion to Puritans.
• Edwin Gaustad. The Religious History of America.
• Michael McGiffert. God’s Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge.
• Francis J. Bremer. John Winthrop: Biography as History.
• David Hall. A Reforming People.
• Harry S. Stout. The New England Soul.
Contributions of Puritanism
• A God-centered life; all of life is sacred because all of live is lived to God
• God can be seen in small things and big things, ordinary and extraordinary
• Be active and expectant of God working
• The Christian life is practical and must be lived.
• A focus on inner realities and not just external appearances; root issues
• Able to balance things often polarized; head & heart, activism & caution
• Simplicity. A simplicity that exalts, not diminishes
Weaknesses of Puritanism
• An inadequate view of recreation
• Could lead to too many rules or strictness in exactness
• Verbose, too wordy
• Partisan spirit; lack of sensitivity to other groups
This also isn’t comprehensive, but here’s a list of what I see as a few of the reasons why I love the Puritans and what their legacy has been.
Legacy of Puritanism
• Pious evangelical theology.
o Bible governs all of life and leads to communion with God and growing in holiness.
o Spiritual heirs: Isaac Watts, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones
o Westminster Confession & Catechisms, Savoy Declaration, Cambridge Declaration
o Christianity as a religion touching head (knowledge), heart (affections), and hands (practice)
• Its reforming emphasis helped lead to Great Awakening and other revivals.
• The family dynamic in the West.
• In some ways, the formation of the United States—republicanism and democracy.
• America’s early institutions: Harvard, Yale, Princeton.
• Banner of Truth and Puritan literature.
Why I Appreciate the Puritans
• A perspective different than 21st century
• No separation between academy and church; the leading theologians and influencers were pastors
• They thought deeply and felt deeply
• They sit on a doctrine or thought and press out its conclusions
• All theology is practical and all practice is theological
• They wrote amidst hard circumstances; persecution, plague, hiding, sickness, war
• They hold up both the glory of God and communion with God
This Sunday night I’ll be giving a short presentation on English Puritanism at my church. I’d like to whet the appetite by beginning with a few Puritan quotes. Here are some I grabbed off my notes from Evernote but I’d love for you to leave any great (short) English Puritan quotes you might have.
“The winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions sanctified prepare the soul for glory.” Richard Sibbes
“Conceal not your wounds; open all before him.” Richard Sibbes
“There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” Richard Sibbes
“Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” John Owen
“He who prays as he ought will endeavour to live as he prays.” John Owen
“Christ is the most bountiful physician. Other patients do enrich their physicians, but here the physician enriches the patient. Christ elevates all his patients: he not only cures them but crowns them (Rev. 2:10). Christ not only raises them from the bed, but to the throne; he gives the sick man not only health but also heaven.” Thomas Watson
“Let this revive you; shortly you will enjoy God, and then you shall have more than you can ask or think, glory without intermission or expiration. We will never be ourselves fully until we enjoy God eternally.” Thomas Watson.
“In the Word preached the saints hear Christ’s voice; in the sacrament they have his kiss.” Thomas Watson
“We are justified & saved by the very righteousness of Christ, and no other. He wrought it, though we wear it.” John Flavel
“Here is encouragement to persevere. Jesus, our head, is already in heaven; and if the head be above water the body cannot drown.” John Flavel
“In our first paradise in Eden there was a way to go out but no way to go in again. But as for the heavenly paradise, there is a way to go in, but not way to go out.” Richard Baxter
“God’s presence makes a crowd a church.” Richard Baxter
What is the relationship between knowledge, experience, affections, love, and joy? It’s a complicated question with a number of answers. To put it simply, as we grow in understanding of something true or beautiful we experience it in greater ways, and as we experience it and understand it more we love it all the more. This is true when it comes to food, relationships, and especially when it comes to worship. One of the things I appreciate most about the Puritans is the strong emphasis upon experience, and yet it’s experience rooted in actual understanding (knowledge) that sinks in by producing joy in our affections (emotions & desires).
Consider these words from Paul in Philippians. “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ…” (Phil. 19-10) Paul himself has a beautiful vision of an ever-increasing love that has two feet firmly planted in knowledge and discernment. The love, knowledge, and discernment help us to approve, to rightly see, and to have proper affections and joy in the things that are most excellent. This knowledge, love, and approving leads to us being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:11). Here we see a cycle of love rooted in knowledge that leads to rightly experiencing and approving what is excellent, which leads to a life of more love and knowledge.
Puritan theologian and politician Francis Rous (1579-1659) beautifully captures something similar to what Paul says by appealing to the image of honey (no Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first or the last to do it). What a beautiful vision for us to be people constantly spinning in the cycle of tasting, loving, and knowing.
“In one place we are told, that Christ’s love is more pleasant than wine; and in another, that the laws of God are more pleasant than honey…By tasting the things themselves, God teaches us to know what the things are; and the more we know them; the more we shall love them; and the more we love them, the more we shall taste them, and the more we taste them, the more we shall know them. And thus shall we run on in an endless circle of tasting, loving, and knowing, which grows still greater, the more we round it.” 
Cited in Geoffrey Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 40.