In what ways can they do this? Let me suggest some specifics. First, there are lessons for us in the integration of their daily lives. As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece. Nowadays we would call their lifestyle holistic: all awareness, activity, and enjoyment, all ‘use of the creatures’ and development of personal powers and creativity, was integrated in the single purpose of honoring God by appreciating all his gifts and making everything ‘holiness to the Lord’. There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God. So, in their heavenly-minded ardour, the Puritans became men and women of order, matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, prayerful, purposeful, practical. Seeing life whole, they integrated contemplation with action, worship with work, labour with rest, love of God with love of neighbour and of self, personal with social rest, love of God with love of neighbour and of self, personal with social identity, and the wide spectrum of relational responsibilities with each other, in a thoroughly conscientious and thought-out way. In this thoroughness they were extreme, that is to say far more thorough than we are, but in their blending of the whole wide range of Christian duties set forth in Scripture they were eminently balanced. They lived by ‘method’ (we would say, by a rule of life), planning and proportioning their time with care, not so much to keep bad things out as to make sure that they got all good and important things in – necessary wisdom, then as now, for busy people! We today, who tend to live unplanned lives at random in a series of non-communicating compartments and who hence feel swamped and distracted most of the time, could learn much from the Puritans at this point.
Second, there are lessons for us in the quality of their spiritual experience. In the Puritans’ communion with God, as Jesus Christ was central, so Holy Scripture was supreme. By Scripture, as God’s word of instruction about divine-human relationships, they sought to live, and here, too, they were conscientiously methodical. Knowing themselves to be creatures of thought, affection, and will, and knowing that God’s way to the human heart (the will) is via the human head (the mind), the Puritans practised meditation, discursive and systematic, on the whole range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to themselves. Puritan meditation on Scripture was modeled on the Puritan sermon; in meditation the Puritan would seek to search and challenge his heart, stir his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and encourage himself with God’s promises, just as Puritan preachers would do from the pulpit. This rational, resolute, passionate piety was conscientious without becoming obsessive, law-oriented without lapsing into legalism, and expressive of Christian liberty without any shameful lurches into license. The Puritans knew that Scripture is the unalterable rule of holiness, and never allowed themselves to forget it. Knowing also the dishonesty and deceitfulness of fallen human hearts, they cultivated humility and self-suspicion as abiding attitudes, and examined themselves regularly for spiritual blind spots and lurking inward evils. They may not be called morbid or introspective on this account, however; on the contrary, they found the discipline of self-examination by Scripture (not the same thing as introspection, let us note), followed by the discipline of confessing and forsaking sin and renewing one’s gratitude to Christ for his pardoning mercy, to be a source of great inner peace and joy. We today, who know to our cost that we have unclear minds, uncontrolled affections, and unstable wills when it comes to serving God, and who again and again find ourselves being imposed on by irrational, emotional romanticism disguised as super-spirituality, could profit much from the Puritans’ example at this point too.
Third, there are lessons for us in their passion for effective action. Though the Puritans, like the rest of the human race, had their dreams of what could and should be, they were decidedly not the kind of people that we could call ‘dreamy’! They had no time for the idleness of the lazy or passive person who leaves it to others to change the world! They were men of action in he pure Reformed mould – crusading activists without a jot of self-reliance; workers for God who depended utterly on God to work in and through them, and who always gave God the praise for anything they did that in retrospect seemed to them to have been right; gifted men who prayed earnestly that God would enable them to use their powers, not for self-display, but for his praise. None of them wanted to be revolutionaries in church or state, though some of them reluctantly became such; all of them, however, longed to be effective change agents for God wherever shifts from sin to sanctity were called for. So Cromwell and his army made long, strong prayers before each battle, and preachers made long, strong prayers privately before ever venturing into the pulpit, and laymen made long, strong prayers before tackling any matter of importance (marriage, business deals, major purchases, or whatever). Today, however, Christians in the West are found to be on the whole passionless, passive, and, one fears, prayerless; cultivating an ethos which encloses personal piety in a pietistic cocoon, they leave public affairs to go their own way and neither expect nor for the most part seek influence beyond their own Christian circle. Where the Puritans prayed and laboured for a holy England and New England, sensing that where privilege is neglected and unfaithfulness reigns national judgement threatens, modern Christians gladly settle for conventional social respectability and, having done so, look no further. Surely it is obvious that at this point also the Puritans have a great deal to teach us.
Fourth, there are lessons for us in their program for family stability. It is hardly too much to say that the Puritans created the Christian family in the English-speaking world. The Puritan ethic of marriage was to look not for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment, but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life, and then to proceed with God’s help to do just that. The Puritan ethic of nurture was to train up children in the way they should go, to care for their bodies and souls together, and to educate them for sober, godly, socially useful adult living. The Puritan ethic of home life was based on maintaining order, courtesy, and family worship. Goodwill, patience, consistency, and an encouraging attitude were seen as the essential domestic virtues. In an age of routine discomforts, rudimentary medicine without pain-killers, frequent bereavements (most families lost at least as many children as they reared), an average life expectancy of just under thirty years, and economic hardship for almost all save merchant princes and landed gentry, family life was a school for character in every sense, and the fortitude with which Puritans resisted the all-too-familiar temptation to relieve pressure from the world by brutality at home, and laboured to honor God in their families despite all, merits supreme praise. At home the Puritans showed themselves (to use my overworked term) mature, accepting hardships and disappointments realistically as from God and refusing to be daunted or soured by any of them. Also, it was at home in the first instance that the Puritan layman practised evangelism and ministry. ‘His family he endeavoured to make a Church,’ wrote Geree, ‘…labouring that those that were born in it, might be born again to God.’ In an era in which family life has become brittle even among Christians, with chicken-hearted spouses taking the easy course of separation rather than working at their relationship, and narcissistic parents spoiling their children materially while neglecting them spiritually, there is once more much to be learned from the Puritans’ very different ways.
Fifth, there are lessons to be learned from their sense of human worth. Through believing in a great God (the God of Scripture, undiminished and undomesticated), they gained a vivid awareness of the greatness of moral issues, of eternity, and of the human soul. Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is man!’ is a very Puritan sentiment; the wonder of human individuality was something that they felt keenly. Though, under the influence of their medieval heritage, which told them that error has no rights, they did not in every case manage to respect those who differed publicly from them, their appreciation of man’s dignity as the creature made to be God’s friend was strong, and so in particular was their sense of the beauty and nobility of human holiness. In the collectivised urban anthill where most of us live nowadays the sense of each individual’s eternal significance is much eroded, and the Puritan spirit is at this point a corrective from which we can profit greatly.
Sixth, there are lessons to be learned from the Puritans’ ideal of church renewal. To be sure, ‘renewal’ was not a word that they used; they spoke only of ‘reformation’ and ‘reform’, which words suggest to our twentieth-century minds a concern that is limited to the externals of the church’s orthodoxy, order, worship forms and disciplinary code. But when the Puritans preached, published, and prayed for ‘reformation’ they had in mind, not indeed less than this, but far more. On the title page of the original edition of Richard Baxter’s ‘The Reformed Pastor’, the word ‘reformed’ was printed in much larger type than any other, and one does not have to read far before discovering that for Baxter a ‘reformed’ pastor was not one who campaigned for Calvinism but one whose ministry to his people as preacher, teacher, catechist and role-model showed him to be, as we would say, ‘revived’ or ‘renewed’. The essence of this kind of ‘reformation’ was enrichment of understanding of God’s truth, arousal of affections God-ward, increase of ardour in one’s devotions, and more love, joy, and firmness of Christian purpose in one’s calling and personal life. In line with this, the ideal for the church was that through ‘reformed’ clergy all the members of each congregation should be ‘reformed’ – brought, that is, by God’s grace without disorder into a state of what we would call revival, so as to be truly and thoroughly converted, theologically orthodox and sound, spiritually alert and expectant, in character terms wise and steady, ethically enterprising and obedient, and humbly but joyously sure of their salvation. This was the goal at which Puritan pastoral ministry aimed throughout, both in English parishes and in the ‘gathered’ churches of congregational type that multiplied in the mid-seventeenth century.
The Puritans’ concern for spiritual awakening in communities is to some extent hidden from us by their institutionalism; recalling the upheavals of English Methodism and the Great Awakening, we think of revival ardour as always putting a strain on established order, whereas the Puritans envisaged ‘reform’ at congregational level coming in disciplined style through faithful preaching, catechising, and spiritual service on the pastor’s part. Clericalism, with its damming up of lay initiative, was doubtless a Puritan limitation, and one which boomeranged when lay zeal finally boiled over in Cromwell’s army, in Quakerism, and in the vast sectarian underworld of Commonwealth times; but the other side of that coin was the nobility of the pastor’s profile that the Puritans evolved – gospel preacher and Bible teacher, shepherd and physician of souls, catechist and counselor, trainer and disciplinarian, all in one. From the Puritans’ ideals and goals for church life, which were unquestionably and abidingly right, and from their standards for clergy, which were challengingly and searchingly high, there is yet again a great deal that modern Christians can and should take to heart.
These are just a few of the most obvious areas in which the Puritans can help us in these days.