Pastors, Read the Puritans

If you’re in pastoral ministry, then you ought to read works by the Puritans. If you’re not in pastoral ministry, then you should read them too. But pastors especially should read them. These books will benefit you and will end up benefiting those you serve.

Who were the Puritans?

‘Puritanism’ wasn’t really a clearly defined movement. Basically the term refers to a particular kind of English Protestant from early in the reign of Elizabeth I (1559 onwards) to near the end of the 1600s: a period of a little under 150 years. A lot happened in that time, so ‘Puritan’ refers to a diverse range of Christians dealing with many different challenges. What united them as a group is that they all believed that the process of reforming the English church was incomplete. They wanted to keep reforming Christian conduct and belief according to the Bible. English Puritanism was Stage 2 of the English Reformation.

Different issues came to the fore at different times: clergy vestments, liturgy, church governance, church discipline, evangelical piety. The Puritans thought through every issue rigorously and promoted change in line with what they found in the Bible. Unfortunately for them, the English church was the state-church and all the English monarchs of the period (who held the office of ‘supreme-governor’ of the church) opposed the Puritans in various ways. But puritans were found both inside and outside the established churches. They included some of the best Anglican clergymen of their day as well as many of the best non-conforming ministers, many of whom were responsible for beginning new denominations: Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists.

In sum, Puritans were enthusiastic, Bible-believing Christians who wanted to live all of life under God’s word and wanted to see their entire society transformed by knowing Christ.

In sum, Puritans were enthusiastic, Bible-believing Christians who wanted to live all of life under God’s word and wanted to see their entire society transformed by knowing Christ. All evangelicals worthy of the name want that. But the Puritans worked at figuring out how to do that with a kind of enthusiasm, joy, hard work, and sheer tenacity that is almost unique in church history.

Why read the Puritans?

One of the challenges in ministry is finding good models to imitate and good teaching to benefit from. Preachers of the word aren’t often themselves the recipients of preaching that challenges them. Puritan writings will stretch you theologically and will challenge you personally. They will engage in application of the Bible in ways that you haven’t considered before. Whilst you mustn’t imitate their style of preaching today (2-hour sermons are a bit much for most modern congregations), they will make you a better preacher. So if you struggle to find older Christians to be mentored by, consider some of your much-older brothers and sisters in Christ. They are now with Jesus, but they have left a treasure-trove of material behind for us to continue to benefit from.

Like everything else in life, theology moves in phases. There are topics and ways of doing theology today that are ‘cool’. But learning from the Puritans is a great way to avoid being driven by what is new and popular

When I started my current Puritan reading group a few years ago, my reasons were not just that I knew the Puritans would be worth reading. It was also because I was tired of ‘trendy’ theology. Like everything else, in life theology moves in phases. There are topics and ways of doing theology today that are ‘cool’. There are theologians who are very ‘now’ and are basically the cool kid in class that everyone talks about. But in 20 years it will be different approaches, different theologians, and different topics that occupy that place in evangelical culture. These patterns indicate some level of spiritual immaturity among Christians, including Christian leaders. Part of spiritual maturity is that we don’t fluctuate like the waves of the sea (Ephesians 4:14). That isn’t to say that there aren’t new insights to gain or that we should avoid contemporary topics. But learning from the Puritans is a great way to avoid being driven by what is new and popular and to instead focus on what is timeless and important.

Of course, the Puritans themselves are not perfect. They have flaws and I don’t agree with everything I read in them. But they exhibit maturity in doctrine and piety that is in short supply today. We have much to learn from them.

Where should I start?

First, it is crucial to work out how you’ll exercise the motivation and discipline to get through a book and reflect on it well. A great way to achieve this is to join or start a Puritan reading group. Find a couple of other people who are willing to sit down and reflect on half a book once a month. I have found this to be a very beneficial practice. As you reflect together on this rich material you’ll find yourself having deeply worthwhile conversations about personal, theological, and pastoral issues in no time.

As for choosing what to read there are guidebooks to Puritan literature that can provide helpful places to start.[1] There are also a surprisingly large number of publishers making Puritan classics available today.[1] In particular, Banner of Truth’s ‘Puritan Paperbacks’ series is an affordable and accessible way to begin reading the Puritans.[3] My reading group has progressed through Thomas Watson’s Christian Man’s Picture, Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and William Perkins’ Art of Prophesying and Golden Chain. I have a long list of others I’m looking forward to getting into.

So choose something and get reading!


 Photo: wikipedia

[1] For a nearly comprehensive (but very accessible) guide to Puritans and their books see: Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012). For a ‘greatest hits’ approach to good Puritan books: Kelly M. Kapic & Randall C. Gleason (eds.) The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[2] E.g. Banner of Truth (https://banneroftruth.org), Reformed Heritage Books (https://www.heritagebooks.org/). For eBooks see: Puritan Library (http://www.puritanlibrary.com), Post-Reformation Digital Library (http://www.prdl.org/), A Puritan’s Mind (https://www.apuritansmind.com), Still Waters Revival Books (http://www.puritandownloads.com/). 

[3] http://puritanpaperbacks.com/

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