Numerous times in my pastoral ministry I have been asked questions about the Puritans and Puritan theology. Many aspects of the Western world were influenced by the Puritans and their theology. Therefore, it is important to understand the development and impact of Puritan theology.
What is Puritan theology? Puritan theology are the beliefs originally promoted by the Puritans in hopes of purifying the Anglican Church of its Roman Catholic practices. There are specific components of theology that they emphasized in hopes of correcting and reforming the Anglican church in the 16th century.
In this blog, we’ll unpack Puritan theology, the definition of that term, the background, the Puritans’ theological views, and the various ramifications of Puritan theology. Lord willing, this blog will help you understand why the Puritans desired reformation in a historical context. Additionally, it will provide you with various examples, prominent figures, and explanations.
Definition and Background
The Anglican Church had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. The Puritans started as a group of Christian clergymen in England that sought to purify the Anglican church. The Anglican Church had many flaws, both in its theology and practice. The Puritans were focused on correcting those flaws.
The Protestant Reformation was well underway, and Protestant ideas were spreading across Europe. Many of the early Puritans were influenced by key Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva. The primary goal of the early Puritans was to rid the Anglican Church of anything Roman Catholic. Many of them were very effective. The Puritan movement greatly impacted both the religious climate of England and the politics of England. The Puritans would also play a vital role in early American life.
Today we can look back and see that much of the radical worldwide changes in the 17th and 18th centuries—religious and political—have their roots in those earlier years of the Puritan movement.
Whenever I’m asked, “What’s Puritan theology?” I give the simple answer: The theology embraced by the Puritans, of course. The follow-up question is obvious: “What did they embrace?” Most Puritans were avidly committed to four primary theological ideas: Calvinism, postmillennialism, theonomy, and congregationalism.
Most Puritans embraced Calvinism. They promoted and heavily emphasized the doctrines of unconditional election and predestination. Their theology and practice was greatly informed by a high view of both the glory and sovereignty of God. This was core to all of their teaching. They believed that ultimately the Gospel could not be thoroughly understood through any other theological framework.
Additionally, many Puritans promoted Postmillennialism. This is the idea that the world is triumphantly progressing towards a “golden age” (also known as the “millennium” as described in Revelation 2o). During this golden age the world will be mostly Christianized and Christ will reign over this time period from heaven, through his people. During the millennium most of the world will profess to be Christians and all societies will function in line with the ideals of the Bible.
Proponents of Postmillennialism assert that the world will get better and better throughout time until we reach that golden age, and then, after that golden age, Christ shall return to earth. This is in sharp contrast with Premillennialism, which believes that the world is getting worse and worse over time and that Christ will return to establish His reign on earth, which then inaugurates that golden age (the millennium). Postmillennialism asserts that Christ will return after the millennium. Premillennialism asserts that Christ will return to earth before the millennium. Premillennialism began to grow in popularity in the later years of the 19th century and has become the most popular eschatology embraced by North American evangelicals.
Postmillennialism places primary responsibility on believers to bring the gospel in every area and to help promote the good of all. The Puritans believed that it was their job to Christianize the world and to help usher in the millennium.
Furthermore, there is theonomy. This is the idea that ultimately the laws of the Old Testament should be the laws that govern society. Theonomy states that Christians should set up a theocracy in every society. Every nation and culture should officially be a Christian nation where the Bible is used as the foundation for all of the laws. Eventually, this leads to most of the Old Testament law.
Disagreements among Puritans question how to implement the Old Testament law into contemporary society. Generally, all Puritans agree on theonomy because they believe the Old Testament laws should at least by the foundation and guide for how we make our laws.
Moreover, they believed that the government should sanction one religion, that being Christianity. Pastors should be paid by the state. Tax dollars should fund churches. While this became a reality in Britain in the 16th, it manifested in New England between the 16th-17th centuries. Puritans were in charge of all of the politicians of the colonies. They were the ones creating state churches and passing laws.
The government was to be subjected by the church. This was essential. Most Christians coming to New England from other European countries were seeking to set up a nation that would be a fully Calvinist, Post-Millennialism, theonomy, and congregationalism region. This was to be done for the glory of God. By the 16th, the Puritans were mostly successful in doing this.
Congregationalism is the idea is that local congregations should govern themselves. They vote for their own Pastors. The affairs of the local church would be governed ultimately by the congregation. The church would be funded and subsidized by the tax dollars of that region. Each congregation within each region had the authority to govern itself in a democratic and pluralistic manner.
They believed in a staunch understanding of covenant theology. In essence, they believed that God interacts with people based on which covenant they are part of. There are two covenants of which every person fits into. There is the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
When a person believes in God, they enter into the covenant of grace. This guarantees certain blessings and provisions that also extends to their children. Therefore, they believed that if you were born into a family of Christians, you then had transferred blessings and provisions. They would then baptize their child as a symbol that the child was also a part of the covenant.
Overall Religious Impact
All theology outside of theirs was outlawed. In fact, you were breaking the law if you did not follow the Puritans. Roger Williams was the most famous decenter. He left Massachusets after being arrested and persecuted. He went south and was able to get a charter from the King of England to take over a piece of land from which he paid the native Americans to found what is now the state of Rhode Island.
Roger Williams was a prominent Puritan who did not believe in infant baptism. Instead, he believed we should only baptize people who had made a profession of faith. Rhode Island was founded as the first place where there was a separation between church and state.
The idea of people having the freedom to choose their religion originated in Rhode Island. This was unheard of throughout church history after the year of 400 AD. It wasn’t until the 1630s when Roger Williams established the opportunity of religious choice. Eventually, this was written into the Constitution of Rhode Island. That language greatly informed and made its way into the United States Constitution. In many ways, the Puritans of Rhode Island were the founders of religious liberty that would impact the United States and the world.
The Puritans believed you should not be able to teach theology outside of the church. If you were a heretic you could be imprisoned. The practice of witchcraft would lead to execution. Thus, leading to the Salem Witch trials. The Puritans offered much to the Christian world. However, this is a major black eye on their resume. They put to death many people of whom they believed were practicing witchcraft.
Puritans both in England and New England became known for incredible theological works. They were pious. They placed a high priority on learning and theological education. Puritans are the founders of Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmiss University as well as seminary because they believed that pastors should be the most educated people in society. For them, a pastor was not merely charged to pastor his particular flock in his community and church. He was to be the public theologian. The pastor was to protect the entire community from outside thought that would be detrimental.
Therefore, the pastor needed to be extremely educated. For example, at Harvard, young men were required to be fluent in Greek and Latin before they could even be admitted. The idea of starting a college with extremely high academic rigor and standards was popular because they wanted to train young men to be pastors in the Puritan way.
Additionally, Puritans became famous for poetry, theological writing, fiction stories, hymns, commentaries, and liturgy. Due to the prolific writing, their writings were published and sent across the Western world. In all of church history, they have become one of the most influential groups. Puritans trained people to be government officials and members of the arts. Therefore, the arts of the 1600-1800s in the United States was influenced by the Puritans.
Famous Literature and Their Effects
Some of the most influential commentaries were written by Matthew Henry, Cotten Mather, Solomon Sauter, Richard Backster, and Richard Sibs. These books influenced many people, including pastors. Additionally, John Owen’s thoughts on sin are the most influential understanding that Evangelicals and Protestants embrace.
John Bunyan wrote Pilgrims Progress. This altered how Christians viewed themselves and their Christian lives. William Wilberforce was the greatest abolitionist in the world. He was influential in stopping the African slave trade, in 1800 partly because he was influenced by Puritan theology.
Jonothan Edwards is famous for the First Great Awakening, a series of revivals. This swept through New England. As a result, there were salvations, flocking to churches, and righteous pious living. After the First Great Awakening, thought from New England stated that the only way to set up the Colonies as a Christian nation was the break free from England. Eventually, New Englanders supported the American Revolution for theological reasons.
Impact On Modern Society
Because of the incredible amount of writing, many modern denominations are impacted by them. The Presbyterian church is greatly influenced by Puritan theology, as well as the Anglican Church of England. Oliver Cromwell was a British general who promoted Puritan theology. He led the revolution in England in the 1640s. Thus, resulting in the Cromwell republic.
During that period of time, England shifted from a staunch monarchy to a nation that would allow the people to speak into the affairs of the government. While that would take another 200 years to become prominent, the Cromwell republic was the foundation for a democratic and citizen lead opportunities. This would not have happened without the Puritans having a political impact.
Additionally, in the 1600s, the Puritans realized that purifying the Anglican Church was a lost cause. They separated themselves from the church and are known as the English Separatists. The English Separatists are the ones that founded churches in England and the Netherlands. They were the forerunners to modern Baptist churches. They wrote the London Baptist Confession, which became one of the most influential documents in church history.
Moreover, this impacted the baptists in the United States in the 1700s in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Eventually, they launched the modern missions movement. By the 1800s, the mission board was established. It became the catalyst for world missions. Much of those missions movements have their roots in the Separatist movements, that were greatly influenced by Puritan theology and practice.