If your historical understanding of Christianity is anything like mine, than the Puritans were nothing more than some grumpy, English-speaking Calvinists with nothing better to do than invent creative ways to shame the likes of Hester Prynne and others for not living up to their pietistic standards. And though I have little doubt that some Puritans could actually be described as such, I am sure that description would be more worthy of “Puritanism”, rather than many of the Puritans themselves. Thanks to J.I. Packer’s new book, “Puritan Portraits”, I certainly possess a more accurate picture of what it meant to be a Puritan, what they contributed to their local churches, and ultimately what their contributions have meant to the entire globe.
Packer focuses this work on the a few of the more well-known Puritans and helps his reader understand that these great thinkers were not in a historical vacuum, but were a significant part of the England’s overall development of late 16th Century through the mid-17th Century. These men shared the stage with Shakespeare and Milton, Cromwell and Locke, Newton and a host of other men that quite honestly made history wholesale. But holding down many of the pulpits in England during the same time these great men were changing history were John Owen, John Bunyan, Matthew Henry, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, Henry Scougal, Thomas Boston (in Scotland), William Perkins, and Richard Baxter. There were obviously many many others, but Packer has chosen to use his prose for these portraits.
From Packer we learn the historical context that created the need for these Puritan thinkers (a term many of them rejected) and what motivated them to not only leverage their great voices, but their even mightier pens. It is in fact on the works of these men that Packer devotes his energy, as most of these portraits have previously appeared as the introductions to stand alone works by the aforementioned authors. But, I appreciate the fact that Packer did not focus on the the more well known works that many of us would easily recognize, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary, Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, or John Owen’s Death of Death. Instead, the reader is made aware of other contributions these authors made, smaller in scale, but not necessarily in worth to the kingdom. I happened to be reading Boston’s ‘Crook in the Lot’ before I became aware of this work and feel now that as I finish ‘Crook’, I will have even more appreciation by better understanding where Boston was coming from.
If the word ‘Puritan’ for you has become synonymous with Christian Pharisaism, then I encourage you to pick up this book and get a fresh understanding of what the Puritan’s were about, how ‘pastoral’ they in fact were, and how serious each of them approached their relationship with a living Savior.
Finally, I was expecting much of the history motif of this book, but I was not expecting to be spiritually enriched by this book. And I must say, spiritually enriched is how I would describe myself after concluding ‘Puritan Portraits’. Of course, Packer warns this should happen in the beginning, but I was shocked to the degree of sensitivity this book brought to the surface.
The work can be purchased here.