Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006. 935 pp. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-60178-000-3.
Why bother with the lives and writings of a group of pastor-theologians who lived some four hundred years ago? Why should evangelical Christians be concerned with the Puritans and their writings? After all, we are living in the twenty first century with our own peculiar concerns which are far removed from the issues faced by the Puritans in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Who were the Puritans anyway?
If you are searching for answers to any of the above questions, then rejoice! Reformation Heritage Books has produced an excellent introductory guide to the lives and writings of the Puritans. Amounting to slightly over nine hundred pages, Meet the Puritans is an intimidating book at first glance. Looks can, however, be deceiving. Although mammoth in size, it is arguably one of the most accessible introductions to the lives and writings of the Puritans currently available in print. Unlike some introductory texts, accessibility is not pursued to the detriment of serious content. There is something of worth for both the uninitiated and well-informed on the subject. Let me expand on what I mean.
Readers who have no clue as to who the Puritans were will appreciate the following features of the book. The Preface contains brief discussions on the meaning of the term “Puritan”, the characteristics of Puritan writing, and advice on which piece of Puritan writing to read for starters. This is followed by a fair and succinct summary of the history of English Puritanism, all within the span of seven pages (3-9). The major bulk of the book consists of brief biographies of 123 English Puritans arranged in alphabetical order, and short reviews of their selected works which are available in modern reprints (11-625). An extensive glossary of terms and historical events is available for consultation should one encounter difficulties in the course of reading (841-859). It is quite apparent that the authors have labored hard to make things easy for first-timers.
Readers who are already familiar with the Puritans and their writings will also find the book helpful for a variety of reasons. I will highlight only two. First, the lists of primary and secondary works in Appendixes 1 and 4 are quite extensive and therefore useful starting points for more serious reading. Second, there is a self-conscious attempt by the authors to avoid presenting Puritanism as a reforming movement that is confined strictly to English soil. The inclusion of the Scottish and Dutch divines invites readers to conceive of Puritanism as a movement that shares similar characteristics with and is informed by parallel movements (645-823). Locating Puritanism within this wider European context provides the necessary platform for needed correctives to an older approach to the subject. Theologically, for instance, it avoids the unhelpful fixation on Calvin and the employment of his teaching as the primary or sole arbiter of the Reformed character of Puritan theology. The Scottish and Dutch divines were significant players too.
Finally, let me return to the question of relevance which I began. Why should evangelical Christians bother with the Puritans and their writings? Those who are familiar with the history of evangelicalism will know that Puritan writings were the staple diet of evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. They were, for instance, strongly recommended by both George Whitefield and John Wesley, men whose theological persuasions were by no means similar on every point of doctrine. Although Whitefield was Reformed, and Wesley evangelical Arminian, nevertheless, Puritan writings nourished the life and piety of both men. It is undeniable that Puritanism forms an integral part of evangelical identity and piety. This historical fact should be reason enough to take Puritanism seriously.
However, just in case there are readers of BTW for whom the voices of familiar evangelical veterans matter in book endorsements, here are some words from Dr James Packer from Appendix 5 of Meet the Puritans: “The truth is that evangelicalism, so-called, yesterday and today, should be seen as Puritanism continuing, but constantly narrowed…by secularizing pressures and perspectives in the Protestant world, so that increasingly it produces pygmies rather than giants. It is by Puritan standards that our stature should be measured, and our short-comings detected, for those are the standards of the Bible. The pioneers of the Evangelical Revival in Britain and the Great Awakening in New England knew this well, and read, thought, prayed, spoke, and acted accordingly. The fact that today’s evangelicals are so largely out of touch with their own history, and so cannot discern how small and dry and lightweight and superficial and childish they are compared with those for whom they take their name, is one of the more glaring of our current shortcomings, all the more so for going constantly unnoticed.” (838-839) Why not borrow the book from BGST library and begin the journey of meeting the Puritans?
Note : Meet the Puritans is available in BGST’s Library at LC 285.9 BEE.