Bring the Books 5
Note: Today's post was written by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, a church he started over twenty years ago. We have known each other a long time. He has a depth to his ministry rare to find in this day and age. I am pleased to offer you his thoughts on the wisdom of reading the Puritans.
In 1558, Elizabeth I became queen, and with her reign came the Golden Age of England which saw such history-altering events as the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the unsurpassed literary contributions of William Shakespeare. Elizabeth also continued the Protestant-leaning political reforms that her father Henry VIII had begun.
But for many Englishmen, the reforms didn’t go far enough – more work had to be done, more of the pope’s cobwebs needed pulling down from the corners of English churches. A new group, known as the Puritans, sought to purge all remnants of Roman worship from the English Church.
These Puritans were men whose spiritual convictions were descended from flint-faced martyrs like Wycliffe, Ridley, Latimer, Cranmer, Tyndale, and others. The Puritans, like their spiritual mentors before them, had faced such challenges as death, plague, war, imprisonment and banishment. The persecution they endured was not a Twitter maelstrom in cyberspace, but real death, real imprisonment, and real torture at the hands of real enemies.
But like any religious movement, the Puritans came in different flavors. Some favored a Presbyterian form of government while others championed congregationalism (the Independents). Many wanted to remain in the Church of England, but another similar group known as the Separatists sought for complete separation of church and state. The Puritans didn’t always agree with one another, they weren’t infallible in their opinions, and some of them retained the spirit of persecution - the state church goblin of the Old World that haunted English life even in the American colonies. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the Puritans’ writings are a cut-above anything the English language has to offer in the area of theology and spirituality.
For the sake of simplicity, I won’t distinguish between Separatists, Puritans, Independents, etc. in the remainder of this essay. Although it isn’t as technically precise as some would require, I will use the term “Puritan” to refer to any author who was sympathetic to the core principles of Puritanism and wrote from the early 17th to mid 18th centuries - whether he be the Baptist John Bunyan or the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards.
The purpose of this article is to answer the question “why should I read the Puritans?”
But answering that question begins by addressing the reverse: why aren’t more people (especially pastors and preachers) reading the Puritans today? It seems to me, from my conversations with others about this matter, that there are two reasons the Puritans go unread.
The first reason that the Puritans are largely ignored today is that many people simply are unaware of them. Most folks have never heard of John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, John Flavel, et al. When folks look for Christian books to read, often their first stop is the Christian bookstore. Other than a modernized version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Puritan pickings are slim at best – at times completely nonexistent. Self-help drivel, B-list celebrity Christian bios, and Amish fiction fill the shelves, but nary a copy of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ or The Privy Key of Heaven is to be found. Christian book stores are retail businesses, so they are servants to the master of supply-and-demand. The average American Christian would rather read Tim Tebow than Thomas Brooks. Christian retailers know this, and the typical inventory of a Christian bookstore is proof. So the Puritans will remain hidden from the view of the average Joe Schmoe Christian whose reading list is mostly dictated by popular culture.
The second reason the fruit of the Puritan field goes ungleaned is that, frankly, they are hard to understand. The modern-day reader struggles with 17th century English. The Puritans used more words than we do – and sometimes the same words differently. Even the updated versions of Puritan works can leave modern readers flummoxed. We are a hyper-distracted, over-stimulated, entertainment-saturated society – and one sentence by a Puritan writer feels like The Tale of Two Cities for many who can’t even sit still for a 2 minute cat video. For some, sitting down and reading Jonathan Edwards evokes the legal torture they endured in the Shakespeare unit of their 8th grade English class.
So, understandably, the Puritans go largely ignored. And I believe this is a tragic course that needs reversing. Why?
Because if we forget where we came from, we will make the same mistakes of the past. George Santayana, in his book Reason in Common Sense, famously put it this way: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And whatever your view of Baptist history may be, we can agree on this truth: modern Baptists, fundamentalists, and evangelicals are downstream of the Puritans. The same theological controversies we find ourselves embroiled in today have probably been addressed by the Puritans in some fashion, whether specifically and in detail or in generalities and raw principle. But we are forgetting our past, and so we are tragically condemned to repeat it. The great pendulum swing of this generation is to jump from the frying pan of their parents’ legalism and into the fire of liberal antinomianism. I can’t help but wonder if this gaping wound of the American Christian conscience, which seems to drain holiness from our pulpits and pews, could not be stymied if more preachers, pastors, and Bible college
students were familiar with Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity; or if maybe (just maybe!) this idolatry of church growth and this prevalent seeker-sensitive hogwash that has saturated nearly every denomination, Bible college, and seminary might be checked if Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor was more popular than Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church.
The second reason we must read the Puritans is because the Puritans experienced life in a way we have not. They suffered, they fought, they bled, and they died. They pioneered, they risked, they stood their ground, and they faced man’s worst fears. They knew what convictions were because they were tested in a way we have never been, and probably never will be tested. If you must read the biography of the latest B-list celebrity who made a profession of faith while living in the lap of relative luxury, at least supplement it with John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. If you absolutely must read the latest Amish princess romance novel then please, oh please, read The Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Bunyan spent 12 years in Bedford jail for his beliefs, during which time he wrote the aforementioned The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the time of his arrest, his wife Elizabeth was pregnant. The child would later be still-born. Elizabeth was tasked with raising their 4 children (one of whom was blind) without the family bread winner. Meanwhile Bunyan languished in a cell, his freedom offered at the price of his convictions. Can you imagine the torment of mind and body as a man worries for his wife and family knowing that the only barrier to his liberation and his family’s welfare is his willingness to compromise? Such rock-ribbed passion for truth is as rare today as a flip phone.
The list could go on, but understand that because of the church-state turmoil that ravaged England (and the American colonies) in the 16th and 17th century, and because of the plain hardship of life back then, the Puritans knew well the taste of the dregs in the cup of suffering. They did not write from ivory palaces and beds of ease. They wrote from prisons, sick beds, and horseback. They wrote on scraps of paper by dim candle light. They wrote for the Truth’s sake, not for book deals, personal marketing, and publishing revenue.
The third reason we should read the Puritans is because the Puritans were deeply spiritual and intellectual. I do not mean that they were spooky academic elitists, I mean they lived deeply spiritual lives and were themselves well read and studied in Scripture and literature. Their archaic grammar, though considered a deterrent to their popularity, should be considered an advantage. Reading the Puritans will stretch the modern American English mind beyond the brain-atrophying tweets, texts, and YouTube videos that dominate our communications. Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 30,000 words. Today, an educated English-speaking person probably has an inventory of about 15,000 words. (1) Simply put, reading the Puritans will not only edify the spirit, it will educate the mind.
The pap and piffle called “books” that many modern preachers write today is appallingly shallow at best and moon-bat crazy at worst. I have in my library a certain book written by a fundamental Baptist, whom I will leave unnamed, that states that the prophecies of Nostradamus, an asteroid hurling towards earth, and the Mayan calendar are three of eight prophetic “clocks a tickin’” that all point to some prophetic “event” in 2012. This is some of the nonsense called “theology” that is becoming more and more common in our own fundamental Baptist churches. Not long ago, another famous IFB celeb preacher wrote (and preached) that the Lord’s Supper was akin to having sex with Jesus. What outrageous blasphemy! Perhaps if more fundamental Baptists had swum in the depths of the refreshing waters of Puritan literature they would have recognized the tepid, festering scum puddles offered up on book tables and in pulpits.
Although nothing will ever surpass the sanctifying power of God’s Word, I am convinced that if we would sharpen our discernment with the wetting stone of Puritan writing then there would be less of a market for these dull, vapid, and blasphemous volumes foisted on God’s people in stores, websites, and periodicals, both in wider evangelicalism and in our own independent fundamental Baptist circles.
1. Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English, in Donald L. Brake, A Visual History of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) 37