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September 27, 2022 12:01 am


Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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September 27, 2022 12:01 am

Many people imagine that the Puritans were self-righteous hypocrites. But history tells us a different story. Today, Stephen Nichols sheds light on the true character of the American Puritans and their passion to spread the gospel far and wide.

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When you hear the word Puritan, what comes to mind?

We'll correct some of the stereotypes and misrepresentations next on Renewing Your Mind. When we study the history of Christianity in America, we can't miss the Puritans. Unfortunately, there are plenty of negative stereotypes attached to them, but since they are such a vital part of our history, we need to know what they believed.

Let's find out as Dr. Stephen Nichols continues his latest teaching series, Christianity in America. Well, we were talking about the roots of American Christianity, and one of those roots, of course, is the New England Puritans. So, I want to spend this time with you talking about the Puritans. Who were the Puritans? Now, as we get into this, we have to deal with first what are the perceptions of the Puritans, especially in American culture. Where we are right now, where we find ourselves, our understanding of the Puritans largely comes to us mediated through a few things. One of them, and you might recall reading this back in a high school literature class or in a college literature class, is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. And of course, as you read that story, you come across this notion that the Puritans are self-righteous hypocrites, right? The hero of the story is the one who is ostracized from the Puritan community, the one who's marginalized and doesn't fit in. And the Scarlet Letter A, which was a symbol of shame, ends up evolving into this almost trophy as Hawthorne unfolds his novel.

The other thing we learn about the Puritans is through a play written by Arthur Miller. And it came from a context. It came from a context of the McCarthy era purges. And so, he looked back to another moment in American history where the term witch hunt actually originated. And so, he takes us back to Salem, Salem and the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693.

And of course, same theme comes out of that. These are self-righteous hypocrites who actually burned people who were dissenters and didn't agree with them. So, much of what we understand of Puritans in popular American culture is mediated through these things. There was the famous H.L. Mencken, the reporter at the Baltimore Sun and just an American cultural commentator, very curmudgeonly Mencken. And Mencken had this great quote about the Puritans. He said that a Puritan is anyone who thinks that somewhere, someone might just be having a good time. That's a Puritan, right? And we even have this expression, puritanical, right?

That's not a compliment. That's someone who's stuffy and someone who's rigid and someone who has applied these strict rules to themselves. Well, can we just blow all those stereotypes out of the water? This is not true of Puritanism. So, let's first look at what Puritanism is, and then let's look at a few key Puritans just to get a handle on some of them and get to know some of them. Well, the first thing as we come into what Puritanism is, is a set of beliefs, but not just beliefs. These are really convictions.

You know, we're talking about confessional affirmation and conviction. These are convictions that get played out in how the Puritans lived. And at the top of the list is the Puritans were God-centered. It was a view of the sovereignty of God. It was a view of the holiness of God.

It was a view of the transcendence of God. These Puritans, we're going to see this in a little bit. They're not anti-education.

They're not anti-learning. The Puritans were all, many of them before they came to New England, were Cambridge trained and Oxford trained. And they were trained in classical education, and they were classical theists. They had at the center of their worldview a high view of who God is. And that also played out into their worship of God, which is very central for them. In fact, for the Puritans, all of life is to be lived in the worship of who God is. So, we start with God.

That takes us to worship. The other thing we find with the Puritans is they were people of the book. The Bible was very much a part of Puritan culture and the Puritan mind. You go back to the New England Primer, you know, the learning of the alphabet, and I don't know if you know what the B is, but the B is B, heaven to find, the Bible mind. In other words, this is to be your guide.

This is the authority for your life. The Puritans were people of the book. You see this even at the center of their worship, at the center of their church architecture. As you walk into some of these New England meeting houses, and sometimes, mostly they were rectangles, sometimes they were squares, but as you walked into the building, they were very plain, not like the Anglicans or not like the Lutherans. They were very plain, tend to have plain glass windows, plain pews, but immediately your eyes were drawn to the pulpit. It was always prominent.

It was always displayed off the ground. Sometimes you had to literally climb a ladder to get up into it, and if you've ever read Moby Dick, you know, there's that great story before they head out to sea, they go to church, and that church, the pulpit was the mast of a ship, and he climbed a rope ladder to get up into the pulpit. And then once he was in the pulpit, he brought the ladder up with him, right?

He was stuck there until he was done. But the idea of the pulpit was twofold. One was a practical reason. This is before microphones, and you had sound systems, and some of these churches are pretty large. And this is also an era before hearing aids, and some of these congregants were maybe on the elderly side and couldn't quite hear as well as they once did. And so, the pulpit being lifted up and the pastor being literally over the congregation would allow for the pastor's voice to carry out over the congregation.

It was an acoustic purpose, but that was only secondary. The main reason was the symbolism that we come to church to sit under the authority of the preached Word. The sermon was like a blood sport for the Puritans. It was the highlight of their week, the sermon.

And it was a tour de force, training in the Word of God, sitting under the authority of God. So, you begin to look at a Puritan worldview, it was God-centered. Because it was God-centered, it's going to focus on worship and not just the community worship on the Lord's day, but all of life as an act of worship. And of course, there are going to be people of the book. The other thing that you find about the Puritans is they were Calvinists. Of course, they were Calvinists because they have a high view of God. But they're going to follow through on all of these doctrines. They're going to affirm the doctrine of original sin.

Go back to the New England Primer. B is heaven to find, the Bible mind. You might have heard the one for A. And the jingle for A is, in Adam's fall, we sinned all. And so, they start off with this notion of total depravity, that we are unregenerate, that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. And if that's the case, then salvation, how we come to faith in Christ, is exclusively, only, solely the work of God. We call this, monergism.

And monergism literally means work of one. And here we're talking about the work of God. This is going to be very important because it's this Calvinism that is the theology that dominates and undergirds the first Great Awakening. And if that's the case, then that's going to make its way through the preaching, and it's going to make its way through, and the converted understanding of what is happening at conversion. As we move into the second Great Awakening, we're going to see a shift away from Calvinism.

In fact, on some of the major figures of the second Great Awakening, we're going to see a flat-out rejection of Calvinism. And so, the opposite of monergism is synergism, S-Y-N, or that's the Greek. We could go to the Latin, co-opera. Now, I always love this because this to me is the great definition of opera. It takes work to listen to an opera.

So, I know my buddy, Dr. Derek Thomas, is spinning around right now that I just said that, but opera means work and co- means together. So, our salvation is a cooperative endeavor between us and God. In fact, you'll even come to hear revival preachers say things like, God is waiting on you. God is waiting on you. What are you going to do? We'll fast forward a little bit because I just have to because I find it exciting.

But we'll fast forward a little bit. There was a tract that was put out by Billy Sunday, and it was like a ballot that you would vote. And it had three columns, God, the devil, and you.

And then it had two columns on the side, for and against. And God has voted. And do you know how God has voted?

He's voted for you. So, God's for you. But the devil voted. And guess what the devil voted? He's against you. So, God's for you. Satan is against you. That's a tie.

Then the final column with you, it's a question mark. It's now up to you. You cast the deciding vote. So, let's go back to Puritanism.

Let's think this through. This is not just an affirmation of doctrine. It impacts how we understand salvation and how we enter into the Christian life and has everything to do with how we live the Christian life, right? So, these were Calvinists. And because they were Calvinists, salvation is the work of God alone, right? Now, one last is, and I'm writing downhill now, but it is the covenant.

Now, this is very key. The covenant structures all of the relationships within the Puritan world. First, the covenant structures our relationship to God. This is what we see in the Old Testament. God enters into a covenant with His people.

In fact, we see it dramatically and vividly portrayed. And as you go through the Old Testament, what do the prophets do as they come on to the scene? They remind Israel that they are God's covenant people.

They remind Israel that God has been faithful to the covenant. He redeemed you from your slavery in Egypt. He brought you out of that land, and He brought you into the promised land. He's given you everything you need. He's brought you into this land of milk and honey. God has never, ever broken covenant or failed you.

But what have you done, right? Even an ox knows its owner. Even a donkey knows its owner.

But my people don't know my name, right? So, they've broken covenant. So, this is very important to the Puritans, this notion of covenant that governs first and foremost our relationship to God. But then that covenant moves out to the human relationships that we have. So, in the family, there is a covenant bond.

There is a covenant between father and children, and children and parents. There is a covenant between husband and wife, and they spoke of marriage as a marriage covenant that would be entered into. So, the covenant dominated the family, but moving out, the covenant also dominated the church.

And sometimes, Puritans would even use that language of church membership. They would speak of you signing a church covenant. And just as covenant relationships have blessings when there is obedience and curses or judgments when there is disobedience, so it is with this covenant in the church. So, the pastors of a church covenant to nurture you and to bring you up, right, in the admonition of the Lord and to provide for you nourishment of the sermon and the Lord's Supper. And what do you covenant with the church? You covenant obedience. And so, one of the things that the Puritans took very seriously, and they got this from John Knox and the Scottish Reformation branch, is church discipline.

And this is the scarlet letter. This becomes one of those things that is used to sort of pillory the Puritans and to make fun of them and to deride them. And we all think of the town stocks, right, as representative of the Puritan town. Well, not only does the covenant govern our relationship with God in the family, in the church, it also governs our relationship with one another in the society. And so, you see this in the pilgrims, right, even while they're still out on the boat before they land on New England soil, it's the Mayflower Compact. That was a covenant that they would obey the authorities, and the authorities would set up structures to protect them and provide for them.

And if they disobeyed the authorities, right, punishment would set in. They even spoke of themselves, and John Winthrop does this on board the Arbella, and we'll talk about Winthrop in a moment, but Winthrop was not a minister. He was actually a lawyer, ends up being a politician, ends up being the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But it is Winthrop that preaches the sermon on board the Arbella before they land. And it's in that sermon, titled A Model of Christian Charity, that he gives that phrase, a city upon a hill. But it's also in that sermon that Winthrop says, what we are establishing here is a Bible commonwealth. And that is a covenant that these colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which will evolve to become the colony of Massachusetts, it's a covenant with one another.

So, the covenant governs all relationships. And here's the thing about Puritanism. Puritanism functions best as a whole system. It's almost like an either-or thing. Puritanism is not really something that can sort of be halfway.

It sort of either is or it isn't. And what you see is, within a few generations, Puritanism becomes isn't, right? And Edwards is even feeling it in his own congregation in the 1720s, in the 1730s. He's feeling himself to be a Puritan.

All of this marks Jonathan Edwards. He's the God-centered theologian of God-centered theologians, Jonathan Edwards. But his congregation is no longer Puritan. They've moved away from this, and they moved away from these things governing their lives. But if we go back to that original generation and the second generation, we see this as marking Puritanism. Well, in addition to the covenant, I want to say one more thing, because we forget this sometimes. I think I've got room here, and that is they are people of two books. They are people of the Bible. They are people of the book.

But they are also people of the book of nature. They use that as a gateway to not hide from learning, but to run into learning. One of the first things they do in Massachusetts when they get here, after they have a governor, and after they, you know, build a home, and after they plant some corn, they found Harvard University. They were all about education. Most of the Puritan leaders who landed on the Arbella had degrees from Emmanuel College and Trinity College in Cambridge. And one of the things they made their students at Harvard do was write original poetry.

And if you wanted to write it in Latin, so be it. They loved learning. They loved exploring.

We're going to talk about Cotton Mather and Increase Mather. These were scientists in addition to being ministers. And so, we forget that sometimes about the Puritans, that these Puritans were not just about exploring God's Word, they were about exploring God's world.

And they loved learning, and they loved learning about God's world. So, let me just talk about a few of the key Puritans and just give you a little bit of texture to some of the Puritans. One of them is John Winthrop, the one we mentioned. Winthrop is the one who saw colonial New England as a Bible Commonwealth.

I'll give you his dates. He was born in 1588 in Old England, of course, and dies in 1649. I do find it interesting that he's not a minister, but he's the one preaching and giving the sermon to sort of launch this vision as they leave the Arbella and begin the settlement at New England. Another stalwart Puritan was Cotton Mather. Mather was born in 1663, and he died in 1728.

Mather is New England royalty. His maternal grandfather was John Cotton, who is one of those early Puritans, First Church Boston, and his father was Increase Mather. And Cotton Mather wrote one of the first, this is why I like to talk about him, he wrote the first church history, American church history book ever written.

It was called Magnalia Americana Christi, The Great Works of Christ in America. And it was his way of chronicling these events, of seeing that this was really the work of God and bringing the Puritans there and establishing them. But he went on to write on all subjects. He wrote on medicine, he wrote on science, he wrote on astronomy, he wrote on hermeneutics, he wrote on theology. He is, to me, that consummate Puritan whose mind just explores every nook and cranny, turns over every stone in the stream.

And honestly, I think it goes back to the focus on worship and the God-centered. Do you remember what Isaac Newton said, right? He studied science and studied how the world works so that he would have an even grander vision of the greatness of God and the creation that he gave us. And that was Cotton Mather. One of my favorite Puritans is the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. She was born in 1612, Old England, came to New England on board the Arbella in 1630. She dies in 1672. Both her father and her husband were governors of Massachusetts, but she was America's first poet.

Her book of poetry was published in 1650, The Tenth Muse. And what you find, and I totally commend to you the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, what you find in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet is applied Puritanism. She's writing poems on the death of her children. She's writing poems when her house burns down.

And in all of those, you see her resting in the sovereignty of God. It's beautiful applied Puritan theology, the poet Anne Bradstreet. And then one final Puritan to mention, this is the Apostle to the Indians, as he was called.

This is John Eliot. He was born in 1604. He died in 1690. He translated the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechism into Algonquin. And then in 1661, he translated the New Testament, and in 1663, he translated the Old Testament into Algonquin.

They were published together, and it was the first Bible published in America, the Algonquin Bible through the efforts of John Eliot. In fact, if you were to ask John Eliot, he would tell you that the Puritans were brought here all the way across the Atlantic. And if I remember right, I think the Arbella traveled at a whopping two miles per hour. So here you're going across the Atlantic Ocean at two miles per hour.

Hold on to your seatbelt, right? All of this to bring the gospel to the natives that were here in the Algonquins. So those are some of the Puritans. Next episode, sadly, we're going to look at the decline of Puritanism and what went wrong.

So we'll pick it up next time together. To study church history is to study God's unbending faithfulness. Men like John Eliot spent their lives bringing the gospel to others, and remembering church history helps us, as the psalmist said, to recount all of God's wonderful deeds. We've heard an encouraging message by Dr. Stephen Nichols today here on Renewing Your Mind as we continue his latest series, Christianity in America. In 12 messages, he takes us from the pilgrims all the way through the 20th century. As you study with him, you'll begin to understand why the American church stands where it does today. We'll be happy to send you this 2-DVD set for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can make your request and give your gift by phone at 800-435-4343 or online at Well when we think about the Puritans in America, their doctrinal integrity comes to mind. But by the mid-17th century, we begin to see some cracks in their foundation.

For example, they began to say this. You don't need to be regenerate. You don't need to be a member of the pure church, hence Puritanism, in order to have your child baptized. It is one step towards normalism, and it is a step away from a faithful church. Please make plans to join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-03 07:56:39 / 2023-01-03 08:05:51 / 9

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