The “Puritans” as the name suggests were an incomparably godly and influential group of minority leaders who emerged during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in England. Their spiritual deportment
progressed across the continent with phenomenon religious impact. Though the term itself was first used with scorn, malice and mockery against them by their opponents and the ignorant, those who love the Lord Jesus are compelled to remember with utter respect that “genuine purity is never to be despised; and the Puritans, in church life as in individual deportment, in private prayers as in scholarly achievement, stand amongst the grandest exemplars of biblical purity.”14 As ardent students of the Puritans today, we too should emulate them by becoming exemplars to our own people, society and generation.
Puritanism as a movement has its roots and foundation in the Protestant Reformation movement as pioneered by the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). They embraced the “Five Solas” which articulate the distinctive doctrinal tenets of the Protestant Reformation as a whole. These beliefs can be summarised as follows: (i) Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), (ii) Sola Fide (faith alone), (iii) Sola gratia (grace alone), (iv) Solus Christus (Christ alone), and (v) Soli Deo Gloria (for the glory of God alone). Errol Hulse expands on the scope of Puritanism when he writes that “Puritans grew increasingly as a distinct brotherhood of pastors who emphasised the great centralities of Christianity: faithfulness to Scripture, expository preaching, pastoral care, personal holiness and practical godliness applied to every area of life.”15 This is what we are to emulate in order to purse further reformation under our quest for Puritanism.
The term “Puritan” as described above came to have a political as well as an ecclesiastical significance in history. For instance, while in the sixteenth
century it was descriptive of the men bent on carrying on the Protestant Reformation and advancing it, in the seventeenth century however it became the recognised name of that party in the nation which contended for the constitutional rights and liberties of the people as against the encroachments of the crown under the Tudor and the Stuart monarchy. Still, while the name thus varied in its applications with time and persons and the course of events, we discern at once a common element of characteristic running through all the variations. The historian John Brown identifies it as follows:
The fundamental idea of Puritanism in all its manifestations was the supreme authority of Scripture brought to bear upon the conscience as opposed to an unenlightened reliance on the priesthood and the outward ordinances of the church. The Puritan, whether narrow or broad, mistaken or enlightened, seemed, to himself at least, to be aiming, not at singularity, but at obedience to that higher spiritual order prevailing in the universe, which he recognised as being the expression of the mind of God, and therefore of more commanding authority than the mere arrangements and requirements of man. Under all its forms, reverence for Scripture, and for the sovereign majesty of God, a severe morality, popular sympathies and a fervent attachment to the cause of civil freedom have been the signs and tokens of the Puritan spirit. These as students of the Holy Scriptures we ought to observe and apply in our own spiritual deportment and in our society as well.
Two major lessons
There are two major lessons we are to embrace if at all we are to continue with further reformation in our own day. Firstly, we must identify the all-time common enemy of the reformation. Secondly, we must foster alliances of unity within the reformed fraternal. These essential lessons we can wholeheartedly embrace from our own forbearers, the Puritans.
In the Reformed or Puritan doctrine, there is but one identifiable common enemy and it is the papacy and Roman Catholicism in all its varied colours. The Protestant Reformation itself was born when the indomitable Martin Luther attacked the authority of the papacy over secular and ecclesiastical rulers. He denied that the Pope was the final interpreter of Scripture, assailed the corruption of the Roman Curia (or organisation), enunciated his important doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, and called for a drastic reform of the church.18 Luther strongly described the papacy
as the Antichrist, the Man of Sin prophesied by the apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 2).19 He was later fond of repeating the Italian proverb, “If there is a hell, Rome is built over it.”20 The Puritans, whom we have described as the embodiment of the Protestant Reformation incorporated this same truth in their confessions and so we read, for instance, in the Baptist Confession of Faith (of 1689), “The Pope of Rome cannot in any sense be head of the church, but he is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, who exalts himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God, who the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of His coming” (article 26:4).21 It means that the modern true Puritans must continue with further reformation by being at war with the embodiment of the antichrist under the papacy. There should be no ecumenicism whatsoever with Roman Catholicism or else the subject of Puritanism may turn out to be a mere academic exercise, if not a mockery!
When we identify thus the common enemy, we who are eager at embracing Puritanism should endeavour to foster union with fellow believers within our churches, denominations and the world at large. This we must do by applying religiously the words of Jesus Christ, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20–21). At this point we should see and emulate the way our Baptist Puritans applied such Scripture to the utmost in their own time.
In 1643, the Long Parliament22 (having abolished the hierarchy of the Church of England) called the Westminster Assembly of Divines to draw up the government, worship and doctrines of the church. That assembly of about 60 to 80 outstanding Puritans began to work on their Confession of Faith which came to be known as the Westminster Confession of faith (Presbyterian) and was completed in April 1647. The Congregationalists (at the Savoy Conference, 1658) took the Westminster Confession as their basis of faith after making modifications. Then, in 1677, the Particular Baptists also took the Westminster Confession as the basis of a new confession of their own. They made changes to the articles covering the church, the ordinances and the civil magistrate (sometimes following the Savoy declaration), also slightly altering and extending some other passages. This was accomplished and published in 1689.
Why did the Independents or Congregationalists and the Baptists adopt the
Westminster Confession in their own articles of faith? They did this “to
demonstrate their essential unity with their Reformed brethren on all the major issues of theology. Westminster therefore became an exercise in Reformed ecumenism” (emphasis mine).23 One Orthodox Lutheran theologian by the name of Rupertus Meldenius (1582-1651)24 in 1627, anxious for peace of the church and zealous for practical scriptural piety in his own time, formulated this wonderful and eye catching phrase: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
These words were later to find a hearty welcome among moderate divines in England and have been used ever since for establishing unity. For instance, the Puritan pacificator, Richard Baxter, referred to this same sentence on November 15, 1679, in the preface to the article he wrote entitled “The True and Only Way of Concord of All the Christian Churches in London.” used the Meldenius captioned sentence to advocate unity. In this one example we are given a relevant scenario on how Reformation is supposed to be embraced and balanced even as part of fulfilling the ideals of Puritanism.
In conclusion, we can immensely profit as individuals, church and as a society from the Puritans largely in the deportment of their practical examples and their unique balance of doctrine, experience and practice. After all, this is what the Scriptures enjoin us to do as in 2 Timothy 2:14–16. Amen!
Brown, John. The English Puritans.Cambridge: University Press, 1910. WEB.
Luther, Martin, edited by Harold J. Grinm. A Treatise on Christian Liberty.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957. Print.
Carson, D. A. The Puritans: What they have that the Moderns have not – WEB.
Hulse, Erroll. The Story of the Puritans. Durham: Evangelical Press, 2000.
Needham, Nick. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, vol.3. London: Grace
Publications Trust, 2004. Print.
Perisho, Steve. – 25TH
May 2019.WEB
Spurgeon, C.H. The Baptist Confession of Faith: Metropolitan Tabernacle.
London: The Wakeman Trust, 1981. Print