Richard Baxter and the English Puritans: Did You Know?

The Name No One Wanted

The surest way to conjure up images of repression, joylessness, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy is to call something or someone “Puritan.” Twentieth-century poet Kenneth Hare wrote, “The Puritan through Life’s sweet garden goes/To pluck the thorn and cast away the rose.” The Puritans themselves were used to such scorn. From its very first use in early 1560s, “Puritan” was a term of abuse, implying a “holier than thou” attitude on the part of those who were so called—a claim to superior saintliness. The Puritans, at least at first, detested the title. Richard Baxter said, “I am neither as good nor as happy” as the name suggested. They preferred to call themselves “the godly,” “the faithful,” or “God’s elect.” But in the sense that this was a movement of people who wanted to purify the church in accordance with Scripture, it was an apt nickname.

Home Is Where the Art Is

Though the Puritans have gained an unaesthetic reputation for banishing paintings and musical instruments from churches, closing theaters, etc., they were not—contrary to popular opinion—hostile to the arts themselves. Puritans associated art in churches with Catholicism, but they bought art for their homes. They objected to theaters, which had become centers of prostitution and dissipation in their day, but they did not necessarily object to dramatic art—John Milton wrote a masque,Comus, for private performance. Oliver Cromwell owned an organ, and he hired an orchestra and held dancing at his daughter’s wedding.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Anglican treatises on marriage listed procreation as the primary purpose of marriage, followed by restraint and remedy of sin, and finally companionship. The Puritans reversed the order, putting mutual society, help, and comfort in first place.

Daniel Rogers wrote, “Husbands and wives should be as two sweet friends, bred under one constellation, tempered by an influence from heaven whereof neither can give any reason, save mercy and providence first made them so, and then made their match; saying, see, God hath determined us out of this vast world for each other.” In direct contrast to the medieval Catholic glorification of celibacy, the Puritans placed a very high value on marriage, sex, and family—as long as they occurred in that order!

Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? Neither One

When Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, he canceled Christmas—prompting modern naysayers to cry, “Humbug!” But it wasn’t a Scrooge—like hatred of joyous festivities that prompted the Puritans to distrust carols, mistletoe, and decorated trees. Christmas, like the rest of the saints’ days and festivals in the Catholic/Anglican calendar, was in their view not only unnecessary and unbiblical, it also diminished the specialness of the one day of every week Scripture did set apart for Christians to celebrate God’s work in Christ: the Sabbath. As Richard Greenham explained, “Our Easter day, our Ascension day, our Whitsuntide is every Lord’s Day.”

The Puritans were not averse to devoting certain days to spiritual activities on occasion. They were fond of calling their own private thanksgiving days, to which they invited family members, neighbors, and the local pastor. According to his diary, Puritan pastor Thomas Heywood attended several dozen such thanksgiving days per year.

Faith in a Nutshell

The Puritans perfected the art of pithy definitions and aphorisms. Here are a few examples:

“Theology is the science of living blessedly forever” (William Perkins).

“Theology is the doctrine of living for God” (William Ames).

Faith is “a persuasion of my heart that God hath given his son for me, and that he is mine, and I his” (Thomas Cartwright).

“In the Word preached the saints hear Christ’s voice; in the sacrament they have his kiss” (Thomas Watson).

“Christ dying for us, is our Redemption; Christ dwelling and living in us, is our Reformation” (William Dell).

“The soul of religion is the practical part” (John Bunyan).

Forget Superbowl Sunday

The Puritans took Sabbath observance very seriously. When King James I threw down the gauntlet by publishing the Book of Sports—a list of the sports and games one could lawfully engage in after church—the controversy that followed was so volatile that a 17th-century historian cited it as one of the leading causes of the English Civil War.

The Puritans did value recreation—just not on Sunday. On other days of the week, they enjoyed hunting, a form of football, fishing, bowling, swimming, skating, archery, and any other amusement they did not deem immoral (such as gambling or horseracing). In fact, some Puritan leaders urged employers to give their workers time for play and exercise during the week, so that Sunday could truly be a day of rest for both spirit and body.

“Purified” Worship

The Puritan critique of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was well established by the time the Westminster Assembly began its deliberations in 1643. In addition to offensive requirements for clerical dress, the Prayer Book service was considered too Roman Catholic in its ceremonies, too long to allow sufficient time for preaching, too earthly-minded in its prayers, and too rigid in its structure. When they finally had a chance to reform the Prayer Book, the Puritans crafted a set of guidelines, known as “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God,” rather than a set form of service. Although it was never officially approved in England, many Puritan pastors followed its guidelines voluntarily (see p. 21 for an example of an order of service). —Contributed by Michael Lawrence

A Peek Inside a Puritan’s Palm Pilot

Someone once said to the Puritan preacher Richard Rogers, “Mr. Rogers, I like you and your company very well, but you are so precise.” He replied, “O Sir, I serve a precise God.” With strict self-discipline, the Puritans sought to regulate their daily lives so that every thought and action served and glorified God. One young Puritan woman was said to “order her soul first, and then all other things were set in the exactest order.” Here is what a Puritan’s typical day might have looked like:

  • Rise at 5 a.m. for private prayer, Bible study, and meditation, followed by family worship 

  • Family worship, including prayer, Bible reading, and the singing of a Psalm

  • Throughout the day, hours were set aside for secular employment, reading books, periods of private prayer, instruction of children and servants, conversation with Christians and nonbelievers, and acts of charity 

  • Mealtimes were occasions for spiritual conversation and godly conduct; Puritans asked themselves, “Did I eat, drink, for the glory of God?” 

  • Family worship again in the evening, this time with discussion and questioning

  • self-examination and prayer before bed
By Compiled by Jennifer Trafton and Leland Ryken

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #89 in 2006]

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