The Old English Puritan

One of the great academic questions surrounding British Reformed theology is the definition of “Puritan.” Some scholars have despaired of being able to define it and its use is highly problematic. It is so because it is so frequently used to describe such a wide variety of people, ideas, and movements.

Most of my research focuses on European Reformed theology so only recently I’ve become aware that there was an attempt by some who identified with Puritanism to define the movement themselves. Yesterday Hywel Jones walked into my office—always a cause for rejoicing!—to give me a couple of photocopied pages from an edition of the Banner of Truth. They contained a brief essay by John Geree, published in London in 1646, in which he characterizes the “old English Puritan.” The essay is no longer available on the Banner website but it is available at The Reformed Reader, a Reformed Baptist site (even though Geree mentions “the sacrament of baptism received in infancy”).

This essay is fascinating for a variety of reasons. First, it is brief. Those associated with the Puritan movment were not always noted for their brevity. Second, it seems to assume that the movement has already reached a certain stage of maturity—I would have expected such a piece perhaps a century later. Third, it strikes me as quite accurately describing many of the main features of what made English Puritanism what it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Surely there are aspects of Puritanism that are not mentioned but it seems to account, e.g., for the sort of men who made up the great majority of the Westminster Divines.

There is one technical caveat about this piece and that is that, on my browser at least, it did not appear to be well formatted. Nevertheless, it’s certain worth a read especially if one is not terribly familiar with English Puritanism and is looking for some entry point.

One final point. Virtually everything said there is true of European Reformed theology. I hope are (or soon will be) past the day of artificially separating European and British Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Reformed were Puritans and (by-and-large) the Puritans (at least those represented by the Westminster Divines and this survey) were Reformed.

Are there complications? Sure. Hooker was “Reformed” in some aspects of his theology but he was no Puritan. One of the fathers of English Puritanism, William Perkins represents the non-separating Puritans. On this see Mark Dever’s brilliant book on Sibbes and Paul Schaefer’s DPhil Thesis when it is published (some publisher should contact Paul at Grove City College and grab that thesis. It’s amazingly well written and needs hardly any revision for publication). Baxter is often included among “the Puritans” even though he fundamentally rejected or revised key Protestant doctrines (such as justification sola fide)! This is why it’s important, when using the adjectives “Reformed” and “Puritan” to consider three categories: Theology, piety, and practice. Too often writers simply find a common piety or a common practice and, on that basis alone, create an identity where there is none. This is why both Hooker and Baxter don’t belong. Neither, for different reasons, meets all three tests.

In many ways the term “Puritan” lends itself naturally to misunderstanding and almost inherently pushes us to think in terms of piety and practice, but as this essay by Geree demonstrates, there was much more to the movement than just one of the legs of the stool.

UPDATE: Here’s an old biographical entry on Geree. (HT: Andrew Myers)

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One comment

  1. J.I. Packer featured that essay in a course he taught at RTS a few years back on the “History and Theology of the English Puritans”. The entire course is available at iTunes U under RTS/Courses in Church History. It’s terrific!

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