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Marriage and Family in Puritan Thought

This chapter regarding marriage and family in Puritan thought was one that I looked forward to very much from the moment I scanned the table of contents of A Quest for Godliness.  I have a degree in history, and of all the areas of history that I studied in school, social history was my favourite.  Marriage and family are part of social history.  When I took a history that focused on Canadian women specifically, and therefore family and marriage, I really enjoyed it, the feministic bent notwithstanding.  I enjoy very much hearing about families  throughout history.  While this chapter was shorter than I would have wished, I enjoyed it nonetheless.

When people think of Puritans in conjunction with marriage and family, it is often assumed that they had very harsh, utilitarian ideas about marriage and family.  That may have been true for some, but it was certainly not by design.  The Puritan views on marriage and family were in harmony with the Reformers, who reacted to the rather negative view of marriage that was held by the Medieval church.  Thomas Aquinas was reputed to have believed that a female child was the result of an embryo gone wrong;  the only use a woman was to a man was for procreation.  Aquinas believed that women were mentally and physically inferior to men and was not alone in is views.  Chrysostom did not believe that Adam and Eve could have had sexual relations before the Fall.  Augustine had no problem with the process of procreating, but held that the passions  accompanying the marital act were sinful.  Knowing a little bit of Augustine's past, i.e. his own tendency toward passion as a young man, makes this conclusion not so surprising.  The shame he had regarding his own sordid past obviously shaped his thinking in this area.  The Reformers, and the Puritans after them, held a different view of women and marriage.  The Puritans celebrated marriage as a biblical ordinance.  Thomas Goodwin said, "There is no such fountain of comfort on earth as marriage." 

Wholehearted, mutual love between husband and wife was assumed to be the model.  It was not a fleeting, momentary feeling.  The Puritans believed that one must marry someone he or she would be able to love for a lifetime.  Puritans clearly endorsed the teaching that love is a choice, and not just an emotion.  While a feeling such as affection or attraction can motivate the choice to love, the feeling on its own is often not enough to sustain a marriage.  The Puritans would have supported the belief that we must choose to love.  However, they did recognize the necessary attraction that brings couples together such that they choose to place their love with a certain individual.  The Puritan John Rogers said this:

Marriage love is oftime a secret work of God, pitching the heart of one party upon another for no known cause; and therefore when this strong lodestone attracts to each other, no further questions need to be made but such a man and such a woman's match were made in heaven, and God had brought them together.

The picture of love being like the drawing of a lodestone was great, I thought.

The Puritans were also thoroughly practical in the choice of spouses, looking at crucial issues such as character, values, and reputation.  There was a period of espousal, akin to our modern engagement, a publication of banns, the actual wedding, celebration and consummation.  The couples were instructed from Scripture at all stages leading up to the celebration of the marriage.

Society at the time was patriarchial and male leadership in the marriage relationship was the standard, based upon creation, ie. man was created first, the consequences of the Fall, and Paul's comments in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5.  There was also a cultural aspect apart from biblical injunctions.  Despite this belief in male leadership, there was the understanding, according to Galatians 5, that men and women were equal before God.  The leadership structure was carried over into the entire family.  It was the father's responsibility to ensure spiritual instruction through public worship, private worship, and in the catechising of the children and all members of the household, including servants.

We are so fortunate to have been left quite a body of literature regarding what the Puritans taught, specifically through their sermons.  The Puritans wrote their sermons down, thus giving us a window into their theological thought.  As regards the family life from the perspective of the wife, there is always an imbalance in the volume of available writings for the simple fact that a wife didn't really have time to write much.  I would like to know more about what the Puritan wives thought and did.  How deep was their theological understanding?  What did they think about God?  How did they transmit this to their children and other people?  I'm sure there is a volume out there somewhere, but of course, that involves purchasing and reading another book!


The love of Story

I had a conversation with my pastor a few years ago and the subject of story-telling came up, specifically the use of stories in sermons.  He shared how he noticed that when he used personal stories to make his points, all eyes would be looking up at him, whereas at other times, as he explains the text, it was not as noticeable. 

We all love stories.  That is a known fact.  And yes, Jesus used stories to teach. 

Sometime last year, I saw the The Thirsty Theologian was sharing excerpts from Leland Ryken's book How to Read the Bible as Literatature.  It sounded good, and I decided I wanted to read it.  Furthermore, I have a daughter who is working toward being an English professor, and I wanted to read it and then give it to her.

I am just a few pages into the book, an I found something quite interesting, as I expected I would.  Ryken talks about the experiential aspect of literature and how it contributes to our understanding of Scripture:

The stories and poems of the Bible achieve their devotional purpose whenever they reinforce a reader's general sense of the reality of God, or produce an awareness of what is moral and immoral, or influence a person's estimate of what is valuable and worthless.  We are affected by more than ideas when we read literature, though, of course, ideas are part of the total experience.  We read literature not primarily to acquire information but to contemplate experience and reality as a way of understanding them better.  One of the rewards of reading literature, including the Bible, is that our own experiences and beliefs are given shape and expresssion.

I have confronted evangelical believers who have been quite offended when I have referred to the Bible as literature.  It is as if they assume that the Bible cannot be literature and revelation at the same time.  That, however, is the most unique thing about Scripture, I think.  It is literature, but it is the only one of its kind.


The Beautiful Prayers

Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments on Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

With respect to the sentiment of praying so that others might see us, Lloyd-Jones says this:

Another form which this takes is the terrible sin of praying in public in a manner which suggests a desire to have an effect upon the people present rather than to approach God with a reverence and godly fear.  I am not sure, for I have frequently debated this matter with myself, and therefore speak with some hesitancy, whether all this does not apply to the so-called 'beautiful prayers' that people are said to offer.  I would question myself whether prayers should ever be beautiful.  I mean that I am not happy about anyone who pays attention to the form of the prayer.  I admit it is a higly debatable question.  I commend it to your consideration.  There are people who say that anything that is offered to God should be beautiful, and that therefore you should be careful about the phrasing and the diction and the cadence of your sentences.  Nothing, they say, can be too beautiful to offer to God.  I admit there is a certain force in that argument.  But it does seem to me that it is entirely negatived by the consideration that prayer is ultimately a talk, a conversation, a communion with my Father, and one does not address one whom one loves in this perfect polished manner, paying attention to the phrases and the words and all the rest.  There is surely something essentially spontaneous about true communion and fellowship.

I think there is something to be said for balance in prayer.  There is nothing more irritating to me than hearing someone pray in a service and it is completely apparent that he is not prepared.  The prayer is full of stuttering and "ummm" and  "Lord God," or "Father" is uttered every fourth word.  At the same time, I agree with Lloyd-Jones here about the prayers that seem to be designed to "wow" others.

There was a young man who was part of our youth group who seemed to me arrogant and potentially rebellious.  He often had an attitude which was superior and condescending.  However, he was very charming and outgoing, and some of the leaders thought quite well of him.  I never really trusted him.  I was told, however, that he was a "beautiful prayer" and that made up for everything. His beautiful prayers were always said in a small group time with leaders present.  While they may have been beautiful, often his life demonstrated something else.  Time bore out my conclusions about this young man.


Enjoying what we don't look forward to

One of the things that the pastoral staff at my church does very well is work with the nursing homes in our community.  Two of the team, our associate pastor and our pastoral assistant both visit nursing homes not only for one on one visitation, but to conduct worship services.  From time to time, I accompany one of them to play the piano for the hymn singing.

Some of the places I have played at have residents who are quite healthy.  Some of the facilities are more like retirement villages than places for those who are chronically ill.  Today, I was scheduled to go to the nursing home ward at our local hospital.  The patients here are actually quite sick.  On previous occasions, it has felt like I have been playing music for people who aren't really all there.  It is always quite sobering to be there.  But I go because these gentlemen need my help for the work they are doing, and sometimes, I think the most attentive listeners there are not the residents, but the nurses and staff working with them.  Who knows if some of them are believers or not.  At every occasion, the gospel is presented.

Today was no different.  Today, there was one gentlemen there who is a regular attender at my church.  I knew he was on that ward, but I had not heard how he was.  He was very altered from the last time I saw him at church, which was really only a few months ago.  I was able to chat with his wife afterward.  I think it's nice for them to see familiar faces.

The thing about playing music for these people is that they don't care how good or bad you sound.  They just appreciate the fact that you are willing to play music for them.  Some of these people are life-long church attenders, and believe me, you can tell the ones who are, because their aging voices are lifted high when I play songs like "Amazing Grace," which I played today.  The same went for "Fairest Lord Jesus."  They just love to hear the music, and I like knowing that my very average playing abilities can be used for some good.

It's also a good thing to do because it is a reminder about one's own impending aging process.  I am reminded regularly of my own mortality through various things, but sometimes we forget that we may spend a good deal of time as very old person before we actually die.  Old people are often very sick.   I think that if I ever find myself in a wheelchair, frail and fading, I will be blessed by a church service such as I participated in today.

Before every visit to a nursing home, I don't necessarily look forward to it, because I do find it hard being in nursing homes.  But I know I need to do this.  I always leave blessed and refreshed.  I was reminded today that service is good for us.


The Puritan Approach to Worship

At the time of the Puritans, there were controversies surrounding the practice of worship.  Among Anglicans, there was division about what constituted proper worship.  There were three major questions that were dealt with.  The first was how Scripture was authoritative for worship, the second was how public worship was to be regulated, and the third what was to provide the discipline for public worship.  For Anglicans, worship was guided by The Book of Common Prayer.  As the Puritans sought to make worship more biblical, there was naturally a challenge to this book despite the fact that some saw some positive elements in it.

Luther had held the view of worship that allowed for traditions which were not explicity against Scripture.  Calvin would not allow anything that was not specifically in Scripture; and then there were various views in between these two extemes.  One thing was common to all views, and that was that Scripture was to be the guiding principle.

For the Puritans, worship was "heart-work."  It was communion; an approach to God in response to His revelation to His people.  They valued the Scriptural basis of worship, and they valued simplicity in worship.  Uniformity in worship came from the Holy Spirit.  John Owen said this:

Here lies the uniformity of gospel worship, that though the gifts bestowed on men for the public performance of it be various ... yet it is one Spirit that bestows them all among them ... one and the same Spirit discovers the will and worship of God to them all.

Uniformity was not found simply in a prayer book, but through the Holy Spirit and the use of the gifts of the people involved.  Furthermore, the Puritans saw that only the regenerate man can truly worship. 

The constituent parts of Puritan worship were praise, prayer, the sacraments, catechising, exercise of church discipline (can you imagine the reaction one would receive if he said that was part of worship today?), and above all preaching.  Preaching, Packer said was:  "the most solemn and exalted action."  Those who went to public worship services went with the expectation of being taught

Packer concludes this chapter by once again highlighting what it is that we can learn from the Puritans.  In this case, he discusses the fact that Puritan worship was characterized by being something that an individual was readily prepared for:

Here, perhaps, is our own chief weakness.  The Puritans inculcated specific preparation for worship - not merely for the Lord's Supper, but for all services - as a regular part of the Christian's inner discipline of prayer and communion with God ... But we neglect to prepare our hearts; for, as the Puritans would have been the first to tell us, thirty seconds of private prayer upon taking our seat in the church building is not time enough in which to do it.  It is here that we need to take ourselves in hand.  What we need at the present time to deepen our worship is not new liturgical forms or formulae, nor new hmns and tunes, but more preparatory 'heart-work' before we use the old ones.

I was thinking about these thoughts of Packer, and then of what is often a common thing on Sunday mornings:  ten or fifteen minutes of noise and announcements and then a brief eight or ten bars of quiet music as heart prepration.  I wonder what the Puritans would think of that.