Skip to comments.Too Glad to Be True: Puritan Culture (my note: what they were REALLY like)
Posted on 11/23/2001 3:09:03 PM PST by rwfromkansas
Too Glad to Be True: Puritan Culture
David P. Henreckson
A vast and untamed wilderness surrounded the first Puritans who landed in New England. Civilization was unknown in this land of dense forests and deadly natives. Yet, miraculously, these same Puritans were able to carve out of this wilderness an oasis for cultured learning, the poetic arts, and theological training. As one Puritan recorded, After God had carried us safe to New England, and wee had builded our houses, provided necessities for our livelihood, reard convenient places for Gods worship, and settled the Civill Government; One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to have an illiterate Ministry to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.[i] Based on this desire Harvard University was founded - just one example of many Puritan cultural achievements.
Os Guinness has written that evangelicals are often surprised that one of the greatest examples of a Christian mind [or worldview] was at the beginning of the American story when conditions were most precarious and least settled the Puritan movement. For Christians, no past age is ever a Golden Age, but in this case the first is - thus far - the best.[ii] The evangelical mind is immediately stunned by this peculiar notion. Havent we always been told that the New England of Puritanism was the home of witch-burning and religious intolerance? And isnt it true that anyone who wears black, buckled shoes is anti-sex, anti-woman, and a bigot? Yet before we go any further, it must first be acknowledged that the Puritans were by no means intellectual light-weights. If they believed in something, they had a reason for that belief. And if we are to challenge them, we had better have done our homework. No modernistic, knee-jerk reaction will suffice when you are dealing with the likes of Owen, Edwards, and Ames.
An aspect of Puritan culture which needs to be defended is its intolerance. Yes, defended. No, tolerance is not always a virtue. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, Tolerance is the virtue of those who dont believe anything. The Bible teaches us what is to be tolerated and what is not, and we must conform our own standards of toleration to Gods. So when we look at the Puritans toleration standard, we should not compare it to the modern evangelicals, but to Moses and Pauls. However, it must be noted that the modern image of the bigoted Puritan is far from accurate. Modernism slanders anything which is contrary to its own set of beliefs, and Puritanism certainly fits that bill.
Many view the Puritans as depressing, schoolmarmish legalists. Like Chesterton, many view this Calvinist race as a people being forced to wear their blacks in a sort of endless funeral on an eternal Sabbath. The image is one of cruel eyes peering out at hopelessly lost souls, blazing with hell-fire and damnation. Is this our cultural paragon? By no means! While prejudiced individuals may believe the myth that Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy, we should look to a far better, and truer, Puritanism. This race of Calvinists believes in what C.S. Lewis called a religion too glad to be true. This race dances through the eternal Sabbath and proclaims the news of our Lords sovereignty and grace to a lost people. This race radiates the light of the redemptive message so magnificently that the world will turn, look, and wonder.
Unfortunately, this brief essay cannot go to Puritan-like lengths to defend the subjects in question. Many wild myths have arisen to mar the character of the early Puritans. Therefore, our allusions to the Puritans will refer to their cultural ideology and accomplishments, not to their supposed quirks and sadistic evils. These slanders have been effectively debunked by others.[iii]
Sadly, even many today who claim to be the spiritual descendants of Puritanism are only living in the shadow of the mythological caricature of the dour Puritan. As we have emphasized before in this journal, a joyous and passionate life should be the result of a sound theology.
The Puritans themselves were founded in biblical, Reformation doctrine which readied them to build their great civilization on American shores. Their doctrine was not confined to abstract towers of ivory, or even to the four plain white walls of their churches. Rather, the foundational ideals and dogmas of Puritanism made possible the establishment of what are todays most prestigious universities. They laid the cornerstone of covenantal theory which would be built into the American system of government. They were fertile soil for the growth of Jonathan Edwards philosophical and theological genius. In short, the doctrines of Puritanism gave early America its very character.
What system of doctrine made Puritanism so effective in cultural transformation? We could typify the whole of Puritan doctrine as theocentric, that is, as revolving around God and His glory. As the Westminster Assembly put it, Mans chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whereas todays successful churches and movements stress mans felt-needs rather than obedience to God, the Puritans saw everything good, meaningful, and beautiful as deriving from the goodness, plan, and image of God. It was a matter of attitude. The whole creature is resigned... to the obedience and glory of its maker,[iv] said one Puritan.
When a man resigns himself to God, he is freed to live his whole life to Gods glory. No aspect of his life is untouched by his faith in his Savior: The Puritan was determined to make earthly things divine, not by forbidding them, but by infusing them with holiness.[v] This is a distinguishing mark of Puritan culture. In contrast to their Quaker neighbors in Pennsylvania, the Puritans purposefully endeavored to bring every aspect of earthly existence under submission to Christ. If God be God over us, we must yield Him universal obedience in all things. He must not be over us in one thing and under us in another, but He must be over us in every thing.[vi] This includes art, politics, and literature, as well as prayer and holy living.
The Puritans greatness rested foundationally in their theocentric theology and, as a result, their comprehensive worldview was tuned to transform the world: Previous theologians had explained the world: for the Puritans the point was to change it.[vii] For this reason, Puritanism shaped colonial America more than any other sect or philosophy. Whether you look at early American political theory, theology, or moral standards, you will see the deeply etched mark of our spiritual forbears.
The reign of Puritanism, however, did not last forever. The colonies at the beginning of the 18th century sadly lapsed into a materialism brought on by great prosperity. Some have argued that if this materialism had continued to spread in colonial society, there would have been no independent United States of America, for the covenantal principles of Puritanism would have been abandoned and the economically prosperous alliance with England would have continued indefinitely.
Thankfully, God sent the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield, and other great men of the faith to revive America once more, and the First Great Awakening was born. Unlike the revivals of Finney, this first spiritual awakening was characterized by the theocentric preaching of the Puritans. Emphasis was placed on Gods grace and Christs redemptive atonement; man was called to repent and submit himself to the authority of the sovereign God.
With this spiritual revival as the backdrop, the socio-political stage was set for seismic change. The English parliament was continually overstepping its constitutional bounds, and King George III was continually ignoring the colonists protests over the parliaments actions. The Puritan idea of covenantal government once again began to be preached in the town halls as the tyranny increased. The King was bound to abide by his covenants with the colonies, and if he did not
Thus was born the United States. While many have tried to prove the influence of deism and Lockean thought in the foundation of America (which was certainly present to an extent), no sane scholar can ignore the great impact that Calvinistic, Puritan theology and political theory had in the New Worlds American revolt. In England, many epithets for the war - such as The Presbyterian Rebellion - reflected this influence.
Today we endure much more civil tyranny and theological thoughtlessness than did the colonial Americans; yet since we do not confess the theology or possess the vision of the Puritans, we have no way to deal with the Leviathan or the great Babylon. That ownership of sound doctrine must always precede social action and the resulting societal fruit is a lesson we could all learn from our fathers in the faith. Perhaps the day may come again when Reformational Christians are known by their love as well as their doctrine - by their belief in a religion too glad to be true.
[i] Quoted in Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, vol. 1 (Garden City: Image, 1975), 198.
[ii] Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 22.
[iii] See especially Leland Rykens Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were, published by Zondervan.
[iv] As quoted in Horton Davies, Worship of the English Puritans (Westminster: Dacre, 1948), 9-10.
[v] Richard Schlatter, The Social Ideas of Religious Leaders, 1660-1688 (New York: Octagon, 1971), 11.
[vi] Michael McGiffert, Puritanism and the American Experience (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1969), 35.
[vii] Christopher Hill, Gods Englishman (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 222-3.
I was surprised to find that it sounds like the Presbyterian Layman (PCUSA) might be a recon group...they had a link on their site to an article about the subject, anyway.
I have lots of Puritan ancestry, and am always trying to defend their way of life at the time they lived it. I see the absolute joy for life and belief in God/Jesus and their hope for life eternal in the 17th and 18th century wills I read and transcribe. Fascinating material.
You mentioned Christian Recon - what is that? I am a member of PCUSA, and read the Presby Layman religiously . It's a bit radical for the national church leadership - always quoting scripture, objecting to "tolerance" and "inclusivity," insisting on adherence to Reform principles, etc.
When news of the Revolution of 1776 reached England, Prime Minister Horace Walpole said in Parliament, "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson" 8^]