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Meet the Puritans

William B. Kessler

Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints, by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2015, xxvi + 896 pages, $31.23.

A Puritan Theology Study Guide, by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2016, vi + 121 pages, $8.00, paper.

Impressive is the word that not only comes to mind but is felt in the soul when reading Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson’s book, Meet the Puritans. Similar to the scope of another big book of Puritan studies, A Puritan Theology by Beeke and Mark Jones, Meet the Puritans is a deep chest filled with pertinent information about the Puritans. It is a book primarily of biographical sketches, nearly 150 (146 to be exact). These brief biographies are divided into three categories: the English and American Puritans (with most material devoted to them), and then in Appendices 2 and 3, the Scottish Divines and the Dutch Second Reformation divines, respectively. Furthermore, and what gives the volume its depth, with each biography there are summaries and reviews of reprinted Puritan titles covering “books reprinted for half a century, from 1956 through 2005,” including comments “on close to 700 volumes from more than 75 publishers.” This is an impressive book!

But there is more. As with an old deep chest, there are various pockets and compartments that hold treasures. The preface is a gratifying and stimulating opening to the book which includes: a brief definition of Puritanism (no easy task); five major concerns the Puritans addressed; and then a succinct section on how to profit from reading the Puritans. I was very motivated to read through the volume after reading the preface.

When I explored the book, I found other sections that were informative. There is a brief history of English Puritanism, always a helpful reminder. In addition, there is Appendix 1 that contains fifteen pages recording various collections of Puritan writings. Appendix 4 contains secondary sources on the Puritans, with an extended bibliography coming later in the book. Appendix 5, a concluding excerpt by J. I. Packer, is followed by a useful feature, a glossary of terms and events. The book as a whole is encyclopedic, a virtual library, truly a guide through a vast country of Puritan literature.

The scope, range, and variety of subjects in the biographical review material is striking. As expected, there are expanded treatments of the better-known Puritans, such as William Ames, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Flavel, Cotton Mather, John Owen, William Perkins. The Puritan who receives the most attention is Jonathan Edwards, referred to as “the last Puritan.” In reading about Henry Airay (a Puritan of whom I knew nothing), I found that the authors included a book reprinted in 2001 of lectures on Philippians given by Airay. As I am presently preaching through Philippians, I would like to add his lectures to my list of resources.

There were various surprises in the list of biographies. I was delighted to read the entry on Anne Bradstreet, early Colonial poet. The authors mention two volumes of her poetry, The Completed Works of Anne Bradstreet, published by Belknap, 1981, and To My Husband and Other Poems, published by Dover, 2000.

To make good observations, you need to take into consideration the framework. At the beginning of the book, after the title page, I noticed that the book was published in 2006. Then I noticed that it had gone through five printings, the fifth published in August 2015. At the end of the book, after the fifth appendix, the authors include a prayer that the Holy Spirit may bless the book and give the readers discernment.

Let me include in this review the small workbook entitled A Puritan Theology Study Guide by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones. It is a workbook in which each chapter corresponds to the chapters in their 1060-page book, A Puritan Theology.[1] This is a helpful topical guide that makes a massive work more accessible. I especially appreciated questions in chapter 52 concerning a pilgrim’s attitude, questions on the subject of meditation in chapter 55, and in chapter 56 questions exploring metaphors that the Puritans used to describe the conscience.

Though I am grateful for the work and material presented by Beeke, Pederson and Jones, and though I am humbled, instructed, and richly edified when I read Puritan literature, I continue to have questions that arise out of the tensions felt when reading the Puritans, and especially when reading such strong advocates of Puritanism. One question is: How are we to commend, or imitate, Puritanism in a society that has vilified it? Surely, much ignorant prejudice and stereotyping are at play in our society when it comes to the Puritans. There are perceived Puritan social convictions and conventions that are strongly criticized, such as the hanging of witches, the banishing of dissenters, the attitudes of paternalism and ethnocentrism towards native Americans. These criticisms run deep in the American psyche. A similar question is: How does the church, representing and proclaiming Christ as Savior and Lord, address the bigotry towards our Puritan forefathers and the historical baggage that follows them? Should the emphasis on Puritanism remain a subject solely for the church?

There is so much good in studying the Puritans and learning from them. However, when declaring and defending the gospel in the American context, romantic attachment to the Puritans may create more confusion than clarity.

Endnote

[1] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012).

William B. Kessler serves as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Columbus, Ohio. Ordained Servant, November 2017.