A Pocketful of Puritans

An illustration by A. F. Lydon for John Bunyan’s "Pilgrim’s Progress"
An illustration by A. F. Lydon for John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”

A rediscovery underway:

Puritans get a bad rap. When someone is casually referred to as a “puritan” these days the insinuation is not meant to be kind. And yet, the actual 16th and 17th century puritans were not pleasure-haters, but rather men and women of sincere faith, with much insight to offer to modern believers. And it seems many of us are waking up to this fact, rediscovering with pleasure writers that have been long out of print.


Seeking sincerity in devotion

The Puritan movement arose in England following the Protestant Reformation. England at that time was a tumultuous place, trying to hold together both Catholics and Reformers under one state church. Many were unhappy on all sides, especially those who were sincere in their devotion, and troubled when they did not see the same piety in the church.

Now, at the risk of ruffling feathers, I’ll say this. The nature of any state church is such that it can attract leaders who are drawn to prestige and power, rather than a humble desire to nurture the flock of Christ. (Though I have known many excellent, true shepherds in state churches as well). The Puritans perceived that there was a strong “establishment” strain in the Church of England in their day, and rejected it. And it should also be noted that the Puritans were not alone in this. Many others of both Catholic and Protestant persuasion longed to see a revival of personal devotion in that church. But for the moment, let us focus on the Puritans.

Raphael's painting of St. Michael, crushing the head of Satan.
St. Michael the Archangel is traditionally depicted defeating the devil. This is Raphael’s version, c. 1505.

Ongoing inspiration

The Puritans were serious about devotion. They wanted to see their communities of faith and the individual lives of believers transformed. They wanted to be faithful to the teaching of scripture and holy in every aspect of their lives. It is these qualities that have consistently inspired believers in the generations that came after them.

C. S. Lewis, a much beloved Christian writer of the 20th century, was clearly inspired by the Puritans. One of his lesser-known books is called The Pilgrim’s Regress, directly referencing the famous work Pilgrim’s Progress by Puritan writer John Bunyan. But Lewis also followed in the steps of the Puritans in taking spiritual warfare seriously. In his novel Screwtape Letters, he imagines what advice a “senior devil” might give to a “junior” one. Here’s a quick excerpt:

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (C. S. Lewis, “Screwtape Letters”)

Pointing us back to scripture

Though Screwtape finds a creative and sometimes humourous way of looking at the realm of angels and demons, the reality to which it points is a solemn one. Scripture tells us this:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:10-13, NASB)

English Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) took this spiritual struggle seriously. In his short but powerful book “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices” he outlines a number of specific “devices” used by the evil one to harm us, as well as the “remedies” that we find to these attacks in scripture. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Though Satan can never rob a believer of his crown, yet such is his malice and envy, that he will leave no stone unturned, no means unattempted, to rob them of their comfort and peace, to make their life a burden of a hell unto them, to cause them to spend their days in sorrow and mourning, in sighing and complaining.” (Thomas Brooks, “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices”)

Advice for any age

Brooks points out that sometimes Christians become obsessive about their sin to the neglect of their time with God. Though his language may be archaic, his insight into Christian living is timeless. And the remedies he prescribes are all centred on recalling the truth of the Gospel:

“Consider, that though Jesus Christ hath not freed you from the molesting and vexing power of sin, yet he hath freed you from the reign and dominion of sin… Look upon all your sins as charged upon the account of Christ, as debts which the Lord Jesus hath fully satisfied.”

So if you’ve never before seriously considered delving into the wisdom of the Puritan writers from the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s not too late. Join C. S. Lewis, Hannah Hurnard, Louisa May Alcott, and countless others in finding great insight and inspiration in their pages.

“The Valley of Vision:
A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions”
edited by Arthur Bennett

A Pocketful of Puritans