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Trade Paperback
318 pages
Oct 2004
InterVarsity Press

The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics

by Kelly M. Kapic & Randall C. Gleason

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Randall C. Gleason and Kelly M. Kapic

APART FROM NOSTALGIC PORTRAITS OF NEW ENGLAND PILGRIMS feasting with American Indians, the word Puritan typically conjures up images representing the worst sort of religious hypocrite. C. S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape claims credit for this modern caricature in his correspondence to Wormwood, “The value we have given to that word [Puritanism] is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years.”1 Yet history indicates that since the time of Shakespeare, Puritans were viewed as sexually repressed killjoys. In his comedy Twelfth Night, which first played in 1602, the playwright used the term to poke fun at Malvolio who squelched the mirth and merriment of others:

    Maria: Sir, sometimes his is a kind of Puritan.

    Sir Andrew: Oh! If I thought that, I’d beat him like a dog.

    Maria: The devil a Puritan that he is, . . . so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.2

Two decades later the public image of Puritans had changed little when James I warned his son Charles:

    Take heed of these Puritans, the very pests (or plagues) of the Church and Commonwealth, whom no deserts can oblige, nor oaths, or promises bind; one that breathes nothing but sedition and calumnies. . . . He is a fanatic spirit; with whom you may find greater ingratitude, more lies, and viler perjuries, than amongst the most infamous thieves.

Many readers in the twenty-first century will fairly wonder why they should care about the Puritans. Were not the Puritans just some fanatical group that forced public religiosity without concern for authentic spirituality? Although an inaccurate stereotype, this misconception has had enduring power that is not easily set aside. In this book we hope to introduce readers to real Puritans, a wide variety of them, and to present them by looking at what they really said. This means becoming acquainted with some of their key writings. Our belief is that if readers develop a familiarity with a sampling of significant Puritan literature they will begin to have a much healthier and more accurate view of the Puritans, and this discovery could positively influence and challenge contemporary understandings of the Christian life. That does not mean we are arguing for an uncritical view of the Puritans; rather, we are hoping to cultivate an informed appreciation for this important, although often neglected, movement in the history of Christianity.

Before moving to the later chapters on particular Puritan classics some background is necessary. In this chapter we will begin by exploring the history of the name Puritan, since this title can mean so many different things to different people. From there we will give a brief history of Puritanism, covering roughly the period from the 1550s to 1700. This overview aims to help readers appreciate the historical and political soil from which Puritanism grew. We will next turn our attention to the idea of Puritan spirituality, arguing that amid the countless differences between the various Puritans there are some unifying features: we shall argue for a cluster of characteristics to fairly describe the Puritans in general. Once readers are familiar with this basic material, we believe they will be equipped to interact thoughtfully with some Puritan classics.


Taking into consideration the comments noted above of Lewis, Shakespeare, and Charles I, we now turn to a fuller consideration of the word Puritan. Since some applied this term to those considered notorious separatists like the Anabaptists and Brownists,4 Henry Parker in 1641 warned that “if the confused misapplication of this foul word Puritan be not reformed in England, . . . we can expect nothing but a sudden universal downfall of all goodness.”5 Historian Patrick Collinson clarifies that the “hotter sort of Protestants” who were called Puritans in the Elizabethan tabloids preferred to call themselves “the godly,” “the faithful” or “God’s elect.”6 Some wished to abolish the term Puritan altogether because of its pejorative connotations. Once the English revolution was underway others attempted to redefine the term as a worthy title for those patriotic nonconformists seeking to reform the church.7

In spite of the fact that few individuals ever boasted of being a Puritan, modern historians agree that Puritanism was a genuine movement that wielded considerable force within seventeenth-century England and New England. However, because the name Puritan had a variety of historical meanings, agreement on a definition of Puritanism has continued to be elusive.8 As Basil Hall demonstrates with examples from Thomas Fuller (1508-1561) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691), prior to the English Civil War (1642-1648) the term Puritan applied to “restlessly critical and occasionally rebellious members of the Church of England who desired some modifications in church government and worship, but not . . . those who deliberately removed themselves from that Church.”9 However, this narrow definition technically excludes the New England-bound Separatists who settled Plymouth colony, along with other early Puritan sympathizers who chose exile in the Netherlands rather than compromise their religious convictions.10

Here we offer a more inclusive definition that fits a growing scholarly consensus. Puritans should not be limited strictly to radical Protestant nonconformists, but rather to a much broader movement of individuals distinguished by a cluster of characteristics that transcends their political, ecclesiastical, and religious differences. Some who we include as Puritans in this collection of essays (e.g., Thomas Boston and Jonathan Edwards) lived long after the age of Puritan dissent had ended with the Act of Toleration in 1689. Yet they exhibited in their lives and ministries the same distinctive mindset, vibrant spirituality, and dynamic religious culture of their Puritan forebears. Similarly, although Richard Baxter and John Owen could have significant theological differences on how best to understand the atonement and justification, there is no debate that both men are rightly considered leading Puritans. Any proposed definition must also be flexible enough to affirm real differences that existed among those who are in some way represented by this name. For our purposes John Spurr comes closest to defining the “essence of Puritanism.”

    It grows out of the individual’s conviction that they have been personally saved by God, elected to salvation by a merciful God for no merit of their own; and that, as a consequence of this election, they must lead a life of visible piety, must be a member of a church modeled on the pattern of the New Testament, and must work to make their community and nation a model Christian society.12

Though these marks are primarily theological, and we will return to such common characteristics later, we cannot neglect the historical narrative from which they arose. Although Puritanism sprung from a matrix of religious, social and political events in sixteenth-century Europe, we will begin with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation in England.


Protestant ideas from Wittenberg spread rapidly throughout Europe, reaching England during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547).13 The English monarch used the pretense of religious reform as an opportunity to break with the Catholic Church so he could legally divorce, remarry and hopefully produce a male heir. During the short reign of his sickly son Edward VI (1547-1553), the theology of Luther and Calvin was introduced into the English Church by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) through his book of Homilies (1547), his Book of Common Prayer (1552), and his Forty-Two Articles of Religion (1553). However, these reforms were quickly reversed during the “bloody” reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558). She reinstated the Latin mass and enforced English allegiance to the Roman pope at the cost of 270 Protestant martyrs, including Thomas Cranmer.

When Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) came to the throne in 1558, many who had fled to Europe in order to escape persecution under Mary returned to England with hopes of continuing the reforms begun under Edward VI. Though the Queen appointed some of the “Marian exiles” to positions of influence (including six bishops), many felt that her Acts of Uniformity (1659-1662) left the Church only “half reformed,” since she failed to rid England of the clerical vestments and ceremonies remaining from Catholicism. Her demand for strict observance of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and Articles of Religion did little to satisfy their longing for the sort of biblical preaching they had experienced in the great Reformed churches on the continent. Horrified by the immoral and incompetent clergy tolerated by the English episcopacy, Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) convinced many through his Cambridge lectures in 1570 that the road to reform required the more disciplined Presbyterian model practiced in Geneva. By 1586 a Book of Discipline began to circulate quietly among concerned ministers; it outlined new patterns for public worship that insured the preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments.

Once the Queen overcame the international threat of Catholicism by defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, she turned her attention again to reinforce conformity within the English Church. Her new Court of High Commission under Archbishop John Whitgift (1530-1604) suspended hundreds of clergy, accusing them of sedition and disloyalty in her Act Against Puritans issued in 1593.14 Some of the ejected ministers continued preaching in lectureships sponsored by sympathetic Puritan gentry while a few began to gather congregations in private homes. Although Elizabeth successfully ended any organized efforts to reform the Church, a “spiritual brotherhood” of reform-minded moderates continued to flourish. Collinson explains that this was especially true in Cambridge where students flocked to hear the sermons of William Perkins (1558-1602), the “prince of Puritan theologians.” During his ministry at Great St. Andrews Church, Perkins kept the university press busy printing his books on Reformed theology and practical divinity that were eagerly read throughout England. Equally influential was Laurence Chaderton (1538-1640), the “pope of Cambridge Puritanism,” who for nearly forty years as master of Emmanuel College trained many of the most talented Puritan preachers of the next generation.15

Since James I (1566-1625) was a Calvinist, his accession to the throne in 1603 revived Puritan hopes for further reforms. Denying accusations that they were “schismatics aiming at the dissolution” of the English Church, the Puritan brotherhood presented their requests to the new king in The Millenary Petition (1603), which was signed by a thousand ministers. They appealed for changes in the administration of baptism and use of vestments, the need for self-examination before Communion, the replacement of absent bishops with clergy able to preach and greater restraint by the ecclesiastical courts in excommunicating laypersons and suspending ministers.16

In 1604 James I held a conference at Hampton Court to consider their requests. However, recognizing that his royal supremacy was tied to the English episcopacy, James openly declared his fears: “No bishop, no king.” Although he agreed to produce a fresh translation of the Bible to assist English preachers (the King James Version), he demanded that all clergy conform to the liturgy and government of the Church of England. To insure this, the king began a new campaign to impose ceremonial conformity through his bishops. From 1604 to 1609 nearly ninety ministers were suspended from office, including John Robinson (1575-1625), who migrated to the Netherlands with fellow separatist William Bradford (1589-1657), the future governor of Plymouth colony. In 1609 William Ames (1576-1633) was also ejected from Cambridge University and fled to the Netherlands where he became one of the greatest Puritan theologians.

After these initial suspensions, James I grew more tolerant toward Puritan pastors due to pressure from sympathetic members of Parliament.17 Tensions were further eased by the king’s support of Calvinism at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and by a growing number of moderate Puritans who found ways to compromise in order to continue their service within the English Church. They were led by Laurence Chaderton, who continued as master of Emmanuel College until 1622, and Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), who served as preacher at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge and later at Gray’s Inn in London. Sibbes’s moderate stance on ecclesiastical matters allowed his popularity as a preacher to grow even during the contentious reign of King Charles I (1625-1640).18

Charles’s marriage in 1625 to Henrietta Maria, a devout Catholic, sparked immediate fears among Puritan ministers and Parliament that the new king intended to lead England back to Rome. Suspicions grew when Charles appointed his trusted adviser, William Laud (1573-1645), as the bishop of London in 1628. Although Laud opposed the authority of the pope, his reintroduction of many Catholic forms of worship and support of Arminian theology distressed the Puritan clergy. After Charles dissolved Parliament and assumed personal rule in 1629, Bishop Laud unleashed a bitter persecution of Puritans. He prohibited the preaching of predestination, required all clergy to use the prayer book and clerical dress, and made the laity kneel while receiving Communion. After his appointment as archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, Laud opposed the Puritan observance of the sabbath by demanding that the Book of Sports be read from every pulpit upon threat of suspension.19

Hounded by Laud’s agents, many Puritans chose to emigrate either to the Netherlands or to New England. In 1630, John Winthrop (1588-1649) led the first great Puritan exodus to Massachusetts aboard the Arbella (with Simon and Anne Bradstreet) as part of a seven-ship flotilla. During the next decade, some of the most esteemed preachers in England, including John Cotton, Thomas Hooker and Thomas Shepard joined more than thirteen thousand emigrants who sailed to New England.20

The escalation of Laud’s repressive tactics in 1637 proved disastrous for King Charles. His barbaric treatment of Puritan nonconformists like William Prynne (1600-1669), whose ears were cut off and face branded with hot irons, brought back memories of the brutal persecutions against Protestants under Queen Mary.21 Laud’s attempt to enforce Anglican liturgy on the Scottish Presbyterians galvanized their national resistance leading to their adoption in 1638 of the National Covenant that affirmed the Reformed faith and freedom of the Church in Scotland. The king’s failed war against the Scottish “Covenanters” and his refusal to work with Parliament incited more opposition, ultimately forcing Charles to flee London in May 1642. In league with the Scottish Presbyterians and with the support of the Puritan clergy, the Long Parliament rejected Charles’s claim of the divine right of kings, plunging the country into civil war. Charles and his cavalier army proved no match for the brilliant leadership of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his New Model Army of Puritan soldiers. Parliament arrested Archbishop Laud and executed him for treason in 1645. After the defeat of the Royalists, Charles negotiated from prison a secret treaty with the Scots that led to further hostilities. For his role in prolonging the civil war, the king was tried and executed on January 30, 1649.

Throughout the English Civil War (1642-1648), under the direction of Parliament, over one hundred Puritan leaders assembled at Westminster Abbey to draft a new confession of faith for the national Church. Although they generally agreed on Calvinistic theology, differences arose between the majority who advocated a national Presbyterian Church, and a small but vocal minority of Independents, led by Thomas Goodwin, who argued for the right of congregations to govern themselves. They finally reached a compromise that advocated the voluntary formation of congregational presbyteries throughout the country. The Church of Scotland immediately approved the Westminster Confession upon its completion in 1647, followed by Congregationalists in New England in 1648. A decade later, English Congregationalists meeting in London adopted the Westminster Confession in their Savoy Declaration (1658) with only minor modifications on church government. 22 Thus, the Westminster Confession became the doctrinal standard for Puritan theology.

In spite of the great achievement at Westminster, any semblance of solidarity among nonconformists quickly disappeared with the end of the monarchy. After the creation of a new Commonwealth, the political tensions between Presbyterians and Independents in Parliament continued to escalate. To avoid political gridlock Cromwell dissolved Parliament in 1653 and ruled the country as Lord Protector until his death in 1658. Cromwell’s guarantee of religious freedoms allowed unprecedented growth among nearly all religious sects. Independents were promoted to positions of great power within the Puritan Commonwealth. John Owen, for example, was appointed vice chancellor of Oxford, a former royalist stronghold. Unfortunately the new religious freedoms were short lived. Richard Cromwell’s failed attempt to succeed his father created a complex political crisis that precipitously led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. In spite of promises by Charles II to preserve liberty of conscience, Anglican loyalists driven by revenge pressured the king to restore religious conformity through a series of acts known as the Clarendon Code (named after Lord Chancellor Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon).

Thus began the period of dissent that resulted in the persecution and imprisonment of many famous Puritan pastors, including John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity required Puritan ministers to repudiate their denominational ordinations, renounce their oath to the Solemn League and Covenant, and be reordained under the bishops.23 Nearly two thousand ministers (a fifth of all the clergy) refused to conform and were ejected from their parishes on St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, 1662. The Conventicle Act in 1664 banning nonconformists from preaching in the fields or conducting services in homes was followed in 1665 by the Five Mile Act, which prohibited ejected ministers from coming within five miles of their former parishes or any city or town.

Although Puritans were barred from the pulpits and universities, the repressive measures could not silence their pens. After 1662, under the shadow of persecution, they produced some of their most cherished devotional and theological works (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress). Although the hopes of a Puritan commonwealth continued to flicker in New England, the strength of Puritanism was quickly fading in old England. Sadly, most of the leading Puritans died before the lifting of persecution in 1689 by the Toleration Act under William and Mary. Banned from English churchyards even after their death, many Puritans, including John Bunyan, Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, were buried in a special nonconformist cemetery in Bunhill Fields, London. By the end of the century, much of the Puritan passion to reform the Church of England was redirected into the forming of various dissenting denominations then lawfully permitted by the English government.