Many great things about America came through the Puritans. Below are a few of the torches they carried to their posterity. I share them not to idealize them (they were human) but to quicken our grip on a priceless legacy.
Dr. Harry S. Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University, said; “To understand the Puritans, you have to adopt their attitude that life is a great adventure.” They saw crossing the Atlantic (like the Red Sea) to settle in a new land as an adventurous pilgrimage for God.
Catholic or Anglican pressure to conform led many English Puritans to think in nonconformist ways. How American! A longing for religious liberty beckoned may to the “promised land” in America. They paid a high price for their spiritual independence.
The early Puritans suffered profound hardship in the new world. They lived in a “howling wilderness” in constant fear of raids, droughts, epidemics, floods and fires. One in two children perished before age five. The average life span was 40 years. The Puritan ideal was to live to give glory to God until God glorified them.
A WORK ETHIC:
In 1630, John Winthrop’s challenge to the colonials to be a “city on a hill” was a call for hard work, which they welcomed as God‘s calling. Dirty hands and a clean heart made an ideal Puritan.
EDUCATION AND LITERACY:
The Puritans were a people of the Book. Their love for the Bible sparked a unique passion for literacy. Harvard and Yale sprang into action in New England to maintain “a learned ministry” and a “literate laity.”
INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY:
The Puritans nurtured a rich body of hymnody, poetry and devotional literature. There was some resistance but Puritanism helped create a climate for a wonderful crop of musical and literary creativity. The magnificent Puritan scholar/composer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) did more to enrich Christian worship than perhaps any English speaker since.
“Waste not, want not” was a classic Puritan motto. Their spirituality was highly practical.
OPPOSITION TO SLAVERY:
Our earliest resistance to slavery rose from New England where Puritan and Quaker roots ran deep. The first anti-slavery pamphlet published in America came from the pen of a Puritan: Samuel Sewell (1652-1730) (see his profile here) . Harvard and Yale (Puritan institutions) became hotbeds of abolitionism. Puritan pulpits sounded off against slavery for generations.
THE RULE OF LAW:
The Puritans looked to Moses as a both a leader to national freedom and a deliverer of God’s laws–two legacies they saw as complimentary. Their conviction that liberty and law are joined at the hip enabled our forefathers to give us liberty without anarchy. The legendary lawmaker Benjamin Franklin tapped into his distant Puritan roots when he wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
The Puritans viewed conversion to Christianity as a personal encounter with God. They viewed saving faith as a covenantal relationship with God rather than a blessing imposed by the church. Each man and woman was responsible before God for their spiritual health and standing. That is a Puritan legacy.
The myth of the joyless Puritan began during Prohibition with a crank named H. L. Mencken who called Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” This cheap stereotype took hold due to our ignorance regarding their real legacy.
The Puritans endured daily hardship beyond our imagination today. But they knew that there are no blessings without struggles, no rights without responsibilities, no trip to paradise without a dry spell in the wilderness, no glory without sacrifice, no succor without service, no position without preparation, and no forgiveness without repentance. For Jesus, they knew there was no throne without a cross. The Puritans were not perfect but I don’t mind carrying a torch for them. I can’t think of a better way to brighten our future than to recover respect for the best parts of our Puritan heritage.