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Entries in The Puritans (9)


Learning from the Puritans

Well, I'm alive; feeling the congestion from my head move south into my chest, but I'll live.  Sinus congestion is the worst.  I had surgery to correct a deviated septum years ago, so when I get a head cold, it migrates.  But I don't need to provide a litany of my minor ailments. 

I am preparing my post for next monday about studying the parables of Jesus.  I had it almost ready on the weekend, but once this cold set in, my mental faculties were clunking along clunkier than normal.   I will have that post next week.  I'd like to combine the post with actually going through an example of how to study a parable.

I've been reading about the attitude the Puritans had toward social action.  To the Puritans, Christians were responsible for the poor.  The new birth resulted in concern for others, and they took seriously their role in making the community better.  It was personal rather than an institutional matter.   Whereas today we have (in Canada, especially) social safety nets like unemployment insurance and child tax credits, the Purtains, as individuals, ministered to those in need.  Their idea of helping others was not to adopt a program for them to receive handouts.  They wanted to help the person for the long term.  The Puritan Richard Greehan said this:

Surely if men were careful to reform themselves first, and then their own families, they should see God's manifold blessings in our land and upon church and commonwealth.  For of particular persons come families; of families, towns; of towns, provinces; of provinces, whole realms.

The Puritans wanted to help those most in need, so if there was a way to help those who could contribute to helping themseleves, they saw that as the better deed.  I think that principle is ideally at work in social programs, but in practice it doesn't work all the time, at least not here in Canada, where things like unemployment insurance is used and abused by those who don't truly need it.

Ryken says with regard to Greenham's comment:  "Such a statement is an implicit rejection of the modern liberal position that the way to combat social ills is to multiply social agencies."  

We all know that government agencies, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot legislate morality or change people.  With the plethora of social agencies here in Canada, one might think society was much better, but it has created a serious entitlement mentality.

I've grown up with social agencies being a very present element in the economy.  I've benefitted from them.  But I don't think they are entirely what the Puritans had in mind.  They are big issues, and once a social agency gets installed and people begin depending on it, it's rather difficult to see it go or be changed in any way.

I love how the Puritans' attitudes spoke to so many areas that we can benefit from today.  It was a reminder to me that as an individual, I can contribute help to those in need.


A generous education

The Puritans were known for many things.  In addition to being known for their bible-centered living and their passion for preaching, they were also known for their commitment to good education.  For the Puritans, a good education was a generous education that prepared the student for all aspects of life inside and outside the home.

Often when we think of education today, we think of a certain set of skills that is needed to get credentials to either get more education or to be given a paying job. Speak to a few university graduates, and they may have a cynical story to tell you about how their fine education has not ensured them a job, which seems to tell a rather odd story about this approach.  But that's another issue, and beyond the scope of what I'm writing today.

The primary purpose for education to the Puritan was for Christian nurture and growth.  The spiritual aspect of the education was central, and affected everything in a student's life.  Spiritual zeal without knowledge was not useful in the opinion of the Puritan.  The student needed to be instructed not only in Scripture but in other areas as well.  The Puritans had a great aversion for ignorance and inactivity.  Education was meant to contribute to preventing both of those things.  As someone who homeschooled and had children in public schools, I can tell you that the goal of public education here where I live in Ontario is not Christian nurture and growth.  At points, over the years, it has felt little more than indoctrination to a way of thinking about the world, a way which I don't agree with.  As an aside, if your children are in public school, find out what they are learning and combat it with a Christian worldview.

Puritan education promoted not only Scripture, but the liberal arts.  This has also changed somewhat.  Just ask my daughter; she's becoming an English professor.  She has a friend who majored in science; that friend repeatedly accused my daughter of having it "easier."  My youngest son is about to attend my husband's and my alma mater.  The school always was math, computer science and engineering dominant, but it is even more so now, as attested to the new math buildings they are putting up.  Today, a good education is seen as a technical education.   Not so for the Puritans.  They embraced all kinds of knowledge.  All truth was God's truth to them, so they did not embrace one avenue of learning because it was more "spiritual" than another.

Leland Ryken, in his book Worldly Saints, give a view into this:

We might expect that as the early American settlers struggled with the wilderness for their survival they would have been indifferent to the liberal arts, but the reverse is true.  Cotton Mather praised President Charles Chauncy of Harvard not only for "how constantly he expounded the Scriptures to them in the college hall" but also "how learnedly he ... cconveyed all the liberal arts unto those who sat as his feet."  The ministerial students at Harvard not only learned to read the Bible in its original languages and to expound theology, but also studied mathematics, astronomy, physics, botany, chemistry, philosophy, poetry, history, and medicine.  

My husband majored in math in university, but over the years we have been married, I have seen the great love for astronomy he has.  I think he should have majored in sciences, but at the time he was considering going to school, he was not encouraged not to pursue such things because they would make him lose his faith.  It seems to me that a Christian who appreciates the creative genius of God would have only found God more amazing as he studied astronomy.   However, in some evangelical circles, there is a mistrust of all that fancy book learnin'.  Not so for the Puritans.

It must be remembered that Puritanism grew out of the Renaissance, which saw a revival of learning.  The Puritans sought a study of knowledge of the world in all its dimensions, but firmly rooted in biblical truth.  It's when we get away from that biblical truth part that education for the Christian becomes less about equipping him for a life of service and more about giving him the ability to make money.

John Milton called for a generous education:

I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnamimously, all the offices both private and public, of peace and war.

This generous education had effects that went beyond the workplace.  It contributed to the entire life of an individual.  Leland Ryken describes the test of whether one is generously educated or not:

One of the best tests of whether a person is generously educated is what he or she does with his leisure time.  Many Puritans were not offended at the idea that knowledge was its own reward, even when it is not directly useful.

I think the utilitarian approach to education is alive and well in 21st Century North America.  If you are a young person getting ready to go to college, and some well-meaning person asks you what you are going to major in, and you say, "I'm going to be a nurse," the questioner will nod in understanding.  Of course, one can serve God as a nurse.  If you say, "I'm going to major in English," the questioner may nod politely, or as in the case of my daughter's past experience, the student may be asked, "What can you do with that?"  She should take heart, though; I think the reaction is worse if you say you're majoring in philosophy.

I think we can learn a lot from the Puritans.  I think high schools all over North America should refine their models of education and make it more generous, and by that, I don't mean the teaching about "alternative lifestyles," but rather expanded the knowledge of the world our kids live in.


Puritan Church and Worship

The motive behind what the Puritans did came from the need to reform the Church.  It all began with the desire to return to a biblical theology as opposed to the corrupt theology that existed before the Reformation.  This desire to reform the church is very evident in how they approached worship.  As with other aspects of their lives, it began with adhering to the Word of God.  They had a high view of Scripture, and it showed in all aspects of their lives, including their worship and church life.  Puritanism was not a denomination, but it grew among Anglicans, who had a worship style and practice that was very hierarchical and focused more on their rituals than on the Word.  The Puritans sought to "purify" the church from such things.

Puritan church and worship had some general principles.  First, it recognized that the church was a body of believers; it was a spiritual identity.  Church was not just a geographical building, but a spiritual kindship. This attitude would influence the actual constructions the Puritans met in for worship.

Secondly, the primacy of the Word was evident.  The practices they employed in their worship had to be biblically based.  They sought principles of Scripture as the guide for their activities.  This primacy of the word is seen in the predominance of the sermon in worship services.  There was singing, recitation, and prayer as well, but it all led to the climax of the sermon.

Thirdly, Puritans sought simplicity in their church life, from their meeting houses to the singing ofunaccompanied metrical psalms.  Roman Catholic services were conducted in Latin, with professionally paid musicians and singers, ornate buildings.   The Puritans rejected that entirely, right down to the rejection of vestments worn by ministers.  

The elevation of the laity was another thing which characterized Puritan worship.  This was seen in the participation in church government as well as in the participation in congregational worship.  With church services in Latin, and read directly from a book, the individual could sit in a church service and understand nothing of what was going on. By having worship services in English, the common people were given opportunity to be included in the worship.  Even the sermon involved an element of participation as the hearers would take notes and return home to discuss it with their families.

The Puritans looked upon the day of worship as a Sabbath rest.  Now, they did not try to impose a Jewish sabbath on the people, but they did see the importance of making the day of worship one set aside from regular activity.  This issue of observing Sunday was not just a Puritan ideal; the state church tried to impose a rest for church members, but much of that was for the purpose of having recreation.  The Puritans saw the sabbath rest as something to enable the people to find time for worship and for reflecting on God.  It was a day set aside for God.

Lastly, church life for the Puritans was about fellowship.  We don't often think of the Puritans in this way.  We may tend to think of them as harsh, dictatorial people, seeking to impose strict moral codes on one another.   Think of it, though:  they were a minority among a large group of people.  What happens when likeminded minorities get together?  They tend to bond more closely.  When we are in a sea of people and we happen to come across a few who claim the name of Christ, we recognize that spiritual kinship.  The church life for the Puritan was one of fellowship.  The Puritan, Richard Mather, described the church as:

a company of Christians called by the power and mercy of God to fellowship with Christ, and by his providence to live together, and by his grace to cleave together in the unity of faith and brotherly love, and ... bind themselves to the Lord and to one another, to walk together by the assistance of his Spirit, in all such ways of holy worship in him, and of edification one towards another.

Sometimes, relationships with other Christians can be filled with angst and conflict.  Sometimes, we are more united by the things we reject than the things we embrace; we think we're united with someone because we both forbid our children to read Harry Potter, or some such thing.  Fellowship comes from a common love of Christ and a desire to walk with Him.  Those who hold to the biblical gospel are a minority in this world.  Fellowship is important.  The Puritans are good at reminding me of such things.


Affective Preaching

Preaching was very important to the Puritans, and it was something which they excelled at.  Leland Ryken, in Worldly Saints, comments:

If we will look at the English Puritans for a moment through the eyes of their religious opponents, we find that what these antagonists feared most about the Puritans was their preaching.  It was through the pulpit that Puritanism made its mark on the English nation in the early seventeenth century.

Puritan preaching was expository in nature, organized, and focused on an end goal.  It appealed to the will through the intellect of the listener.  Puritan preachers stressed the importance of being learned as they preached.  Prescribed liturgies and homilies that were often used by Anglican ministers made it possible for a minister to actually be quite unlearned, and that was a problem.

The Puritan sermon, though organized and reasoned, was meant to appeal to the heart of the listener.  It was meant to affect those who heard.  The Puritans, when listening to a sermon,  typically employed three practices which were meant to focus his listening.  One was notetaking, another was meditation, and the third was to review it in a family setting.  Those preachers whose sermon outlines made it difficult for their hearers to remember it for later were not viewed as popularly as those whose outlines made remembering it easier.

My daughter, who is on the road to becoming an English professor, has a pet peeve with sermons that don't follow some kind of structure that takes the listener through the pastor's main arguments.  If a message contains much wandering or digression from the points, she finds it frustrating.  No doubt, that comes from her being used to professors who employ such a method, and her own experience of having to do such a thing in front of her students, and when she presents seminars.  Perhaps there is some latent Puritan in her.

I like the picture of the family going back and reviewing what went on in the sermon.  Our family does that when we're all home, but sometimes, it begins with the kids pointing out things they didn't like.  As they have become young adults, they have developed a desire to evaluate the sermon, and sometimes, it's not always the most charitable comment.  My husband has to remind everyone not to be overly critical.   I think what the Puritans had in mind was reviewing the truth taught so that it would pervade all of their life, not criticism for criticism's sake.

Ryken tells of one Puritan:

The practice of Theophilus Eaton was in every way typical of Puritan families.  He assembled the whole famly on Sunday evenings, "and in an obliging manner conferred with them about the things with which they had been entertained in the house of God, shutting up all with a prayer for the blessing of God upon them all."

I suppose our equivalent today might be asking a young person what he learned in Sunday school.  The older I get, the more of an advocate I am becoming of keeping kids in the sermon at an earlier age.  It makes it a lot easier to discuss spiritual truths learned at church when the parents have heard the same thing the child has.

The way the Christian behaved in his every day life was the acid test for whether or not he had learned something from a sermon.  The sermon was meant to affect him, to change him, to prick his conscience, and alter his future course.  Ryken sums it up well:

The purpose of preaching, in other words, was judged, not by what went on in the church, but by the effect of the sermon outside the church.


Parenting tips from the Puritans

Every now and then a young mother will ask me what parenting books I recommend.  I haven't read a lot of parenting books, actually.  Maybe I should have.  I didn't even read What to Expect When You're Expecting.  When my kids were younger, my husband and I fell under the teaching of a popular parenting guru, and it was disastrous.  The only time I will really speak up to a young parent is to warn them about this particular person's teaching.  Personally, I think there are two essentials for guidance for young parents:  the Word of God and the helpful assistance of other knowledgeable parents.  There was a day when a young family had many other families around to support them in the parenting task, but now with such a mobile society, a young mother may find herself rather alone at times.

That being said, I find that as long as one understands what lay at the heart of the Puritan way of life, the Puritans had very good parenting advice. The fact that the Puritans saw the family as good for all of society and was a gift from God lies at the heart of their views on family.  While they are reputed to be harsh and dictatorial, when we read what they actually said (as opposed to their critics) we can get very solid advice.

One of the things the Puritans believed was that parents teach more through their example than their words.  How many of us as parents  have repeated something over and over and again, frustrated that our child has ignored us, only to turn around and see him emulating our bad behaviour?  Of course, that can work in the positive, which is what the Puritans taught.  Our children may forget much of what we say, but our attitudes will manifest themselves in our kids, even when they don't like it.  I had to laugh the other morning.  I was up early, as I always am, and I was reading my Bible, when my daughter sent me a text message from school.  It was only 6:45.  She sent me the message just to tell me something random.  She knew I would be up.  She was up doing what I was doing, making most of the early morning hours when our minds are well-rested.  I never thought I would see the day.  When she was younger, she loved to sleep until noon if she could.  She has finally agreed with me that getting up early is better than staying up until 4:00 a.m.

From the Puritans' own words, here are some good reminders.  Benjamin Wadsworth:

Be sure to set good example before your children ... Other methods of instruction probably will not do much good if you don't teach them by a godly example.  Don't think your children will mind the good rules you give them if you act contrary to those rules yourselves... If your counsels are good, and your examples evil, your children will be more like to be hurt by the latter, than benefitted by the former.

Eleazar Mathar:

Precept without patterns will do little good; you must lead them to Christ by examples as well as counsel; you must set yourselves fist, and speak by lives as well as words; you must live religion, as well as talk religion

When we don't live out what we say, the danger is more than just the possibility that the child will not do the right thing; it can also create anger on the part of our kids, as they begin to see our hypocrisy. 

Ryken comments:

In short, parents earn the right to inculcate theory in their children.

If our kids don't see our good example, it's just as easy to ignore our words.