An Introduction to Puritan Beliefs & Practices
Summary: Puritanism was a religious movement born in the English Reformation in the mid 16th century, but heavily influenced by the Continental Reformers, that emphasized the great doctrines of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia. The Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its remaining Roman Catholic forms in worship, doctrine, and polity. They emphasized preaching, sound doctrine, personal piety, a personal salvation experience, and the impact of the Gospel on society as a unified whole.
- John Wycliffe and the Lollards of the 14th century started a pattern of theological dissent in England that the Puritans built upon and perfected.
- William Tyndale’s emphasis on the importance of having the Scriptures in the language of the people and interpreting them for the literal sense was the basis for the Puritans’ emphasis on the Word of God, sola scriptura. Tyndale himself was influenced by the translation work and writings of Erasmus and Luther.
- From John Hooper (d.1555) the Puritans received a conviction that the Bible should determine how the church worships, not tradition. Hooper contributed to the development of the Regulative Principle of Worship which sought to include only things commanded in the Scriptures for worship. The Vestments Controversy during the reign of young Edward VI in 1550 began this principle that would be a key ingredient of Puritanism.
- The persecutions under Bloody Mary (1553-58) purified the early English Protestants just as the early church was purified by the Roman persecutions. As hundreds of these ministers fled to Europe they were trained by the Continental Reformers like Calvin and Theodore Beza. They returned to England under Queen Elizabeth with Reformed/Calvinistic doctrines- sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide– the core of Puritan theology. Thus, Puritanism was greatly influenced and molded by the Continental Reformers and not a purely English phenomenon.
- From the Scottish preacher John Knox the Puritans developed a passion for thoroughly reforming the church and standing up to the political powers fearlessly. The Puritan desire for reforming the state and society begins here.
- Sola Scriptura, the Scriptures alone are the rule of faith. Thomas Vincent (1634-78) writing in The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, p.17, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? Ans. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.”
- Total Depravity- All people are born sinners, totally depraved, unable and unwilling to obey God. William Ames (1576-1633) writes in The Marrow of Theology, p.121, “Because of the original corruption, the will of man in the state of sin (though free in the actions it performs) is captive and servile in its way of performing them. The will is deprived of the power of willing well and takes the form of willing amiss even when the object of the willing is good.”
- Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. The Puritans taught that we are justified by God’s grace alone through faith alone. Vincent writes, ibid. p.93, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
- Covenant Theology- Thomas Watson (1620-86) writes in A Body of Divinity, p.154, “Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery? No! He entered into a covenant of grace to deliver the elect out of that state, and to bring them into a state of grace by a Redeemer.”
- Predestination, unconditional election, the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit upon the lost sinner are all doctrines the Puritans held placing God at the center of salvation, not man.
- A Christocentric theology permeated Puritan thought emphasizing Christ as the only mediator of the covenant of grace. The three-fold offices of Christ are Prophet, Priest and King.
- Puritan journals and sermons demonstrate the emphasis on personal conversion, the struggle for assurance and personal holiness.
Practices and Culture:
- Worship- Puritans spoke out against the worship practices of the Roman Church. Thomas Watson writes, The Ten Commandments (1692) “The Church of Rome is reproved and condemned, which, from the Alpha of its religion to the Omega, is wholly idolatrous. Romanists make images of God the Father, painting him in their church windows as an old man; and an image of Christ on the crucifix.”
- Scripture Alone was the rule for worship- William Bradshaw (1605) “the word of God contained in the writings of the Prophets and Apostles, is of absolute perfection, given by Christ the Head of the Church, to be unto the same, the sole Canon and rule of all matters of Religion, and the worship and service of God”.
- Preaching- Richard Baxter wrote (1656) “In the name of God, brethren, labour to awaken your own hearts, before you go to the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners. Remember they must be awakened or damned, and that a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners.”
- Prayers, Sermons and Homilies- The Puritans objected to the set forms of prayers used by the Catholics and Anglicans as well as the Homilies. They relied on the Spirit to lead them in their prayers and they undertook to carefully exegete the Scriptures in their sermons that tended to be verse by verse expositions of books of the Bible or even of single passages. Thomas Manton (1620-77) preached three sermons a week from Psalm 119 until he had accumulated three volumes of sermons totaling over 1700 pages and 190 sermons.
- True Marks of the Church- Preaching the Word, the administration of the Sacraments (Lord’s Supper and baptism only), and Church discipline.
- Cultural Impact- William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, (1623) “There is no precept of universal truth relevant to living well in domestic economy, morality, political life, or lawmaking which does not rightly pertain to theology.” (p.78).
- The Puritans’ emphasis on personal religious experience and practical piety was a clear difference with most other Reformed groups on the Continent.