Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Stephen Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway, 2007). This is part two of a series. Click here to go to part two.
Men in Black Part Two
“I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The Puritans realized that this life is not all there is. They acknowledged their frailty and longed for the day when they would have their resurrected bodies. There is a resurrection. There is eternity. This belief led them to view this life as the pilgrim life, as a journey from this world to the next, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, to use Bunyan’s words. This longing for the world to come was far from escapism for the Puritans. Contrary to public opinion, they enjoyed life and lived fully. As J. I. Packer and Leland Ryken, among others, have shown, they engaged the arts and not only longed for heaven but sought to make this world a better place as they traveled through it.6 This is mainly due to the fact that as they lived their lives, they were filled with hope. The hope of sins forgiven. The hope of the life to come. The hope of enjoying God unclogged by sin. Among the many Puritans who so well illustrate this, Jeremiah Burroughs stands as a good example.
A RARE JEWEL: THE EXAMPLE OF JEREMIAH BURROUGHS
Jeremiah Burroughs, born in 1599, was trained at Emmanuel College, receiving his B.A. and M.A. He began his ministry in the region of East Anglia, England, a Puritan stronghold. He sided with the Independents. Puritanism is a bit of an umbrella term, encompassing some Anglicans, Presbyterians, Independents or Congregationalists (this is the group that landed in New England), and Baptists. They all held to the Solas of the Reformation, Calvinism, and Reformed theology, but they differed over views of church government and over baptism, in the case of the Baptists. But Burroughs wore his Congregationalism lightly. When he died, it was said of him by Richard Baxter, “If all the Episcopalians had been like Archbishop Ussher, all the Presbyterians like Stephen Marshall, and all the Independents like Jeremiah Burroughs, then the breaches of the church would soon have been healed.”
Burroughs was getting along well in his ministry when the bishop in that region, Matthew Wren (the uncle of Britain’s famous architect Christopher Wren), turned up the heat on the Puritans, demanding among other things that ministers read the Book of Sports from the pulpit on Sunday. The Book of Sports (1618) was King James I’s attempt at a national physical fitness program, only with a distinct twist. When James was traveling one Sunday, he noticed a number of towns where the youth were just lulling around when they could have been engaged in the rigors of sport. When he inquired of his attendants why the boys weren’t on the athletic fields on such a fine day, they informed him that they were in Puritan territory. The Puritans, of course, frowned on such activity on the Sabbath. James responded by publishing the Book of Sports.
During Charles I’s reign, Archbishop Laud saw the Book of Sports as a convenient tool to irritate the Puritans. He had Charles I not only push the Book of Sports but require that ministers read it from the pulpit to inspire the youth and their parents to get out and get active on the Sabbath afternoon. It worked, sharply irritating Puritan ministers. Some of them consented. They would read from the Book of Sports only to add immediately upon finishing the reading the command from Exodus 20:8. They would say, having finished reading the Book of Sports, “Hear then the word of the king. Now, hear the word of our Lord, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’” Other ministers just couldn’t bring themselves to read it in the pulpit. So they stepped down and went into exile. Jeremiah Burroughs was among this latter group. He set sail for Rotterdam. While there, he served as pastor in an English-speaking church that had been founded by William Ames.
Burroughs’s exile only lasted from 1637–1641. Upon his return, he was invited to address Parliament, making quite the triumphal reentry. Here is what he said on that occasion:
Now we are come and find peace and mercy here, the voice of joy and gladness. We scarce thought that we should ever see our country again, but behold we are here with our honorable senators and worthies of our land and called by them to rejoice with them, and to praise our God in the great congregation.
From 1641 until his death in 1646, Burroughs was active in the work of the Westminster Assembly. He also pastored two congregations, one at St Giles Cripplegate, where John Milton lies buried in the churchyard, and one at Stepney in Northeast London. In October 1646, after being thrown from a horse, Burroughs contracted a fever and died on November 13, 1646. Soon after his death, his books came off the printing press. Owing to the Puritan sense of humility and modesty, it was common for the Puritans to have their books published after they died rather than while they lived. Burroughs’s posthumously published works include commentaries on Hosea and the Beatitudes, various books on the Christian life, and his classic work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, published in 1648. This book grew out of the need to learn the lesson of contentment during a season of want and suffering. Contentment, however, is also a lesson to be learned during times of abundance and prosperity. In fact, ironically, times of abundance can be the winter of discontent.
Burroughs defines contentment early on in his book, observing, “Christian Contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Contentment is not a rare jewel because it is a secret or some hidden knowledge. It’s a rare jewel because it is so hard to live out in one’s life. It’s an “art,” as Burroughs calls it, learned by practice and acquired skill. It’s hard because our natural tendency is toward “murmuring” or complaining. Among his many pointers for living a life of contentment against the grain of culture and human nature, Burroughs reminds us of the promises of God that are ours. “The saints of God,” he assures us, “have an interest in all the promises that ever were made to our forefathers . . . all the promises made in all the book of God.” While this doesn’t always solve all immediate problems and trials, it does offer a healthy perspective.7
Burroughs also reminds us of our future hope, but he does so in a way that forces us to see that hope as a present reality. He notes that the Christian can have “contentment by realizing the glorious things of heaven to him. He has the kingdom of Heaven as present, and the glory that is to come; by faith he makes it present.” Burroughs is but one of a whole cast of Puritans who have left a rich literary legacy for the church.
Thomas Macauley, England’s great historian from the nineteenth century, famously put it like this: “The Puritans hated bear-baiting”—a popular sport somewhat akin to cockfights—“not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” Not to be outdone by Macauley is the remark of America’s own curmudgeonly newspaperman and wordsmith H. L. Mencken, who said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might just be having a good time.” Hopefully by now we have seen that such remarks on the Puritans could not be further from the truth. If you want prudishness, look to the Victorians. If you want a model for a full-throttled life of glorifying and enjoying God, look to the Puritans.
There were many outstanding Puritan scholars and theologians, such as John Owen, William Ames, and William Perkins. There were many outstanding pastors such as Jeremiah Burroughs, Richard Sibbes, and Thomas Goodwin. There were outstanding writers and poets, such as John Milton, John Bunyan, and Anne Bradstreet.8 They were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Independents or Congregationalists, and Baptists. Some were imprisoned, some exiled, some martyred. Some enjoyed places of position in British society. They dominated all of life in New England for its first full century. They are more often misunderstood and overlooked than appreciated and taken seriously. They can be intimidating, even to their would-be friends. Nevertheless, they have left a significant legacy for the church.
Their unique contribution to the Reformation may be summed up by the estimates of two historians. First, A. G. Dickens notes that the Puritans weren’t looking for a national church but essentially formed a “religious club for athletes,” which is to say they took the church very seriously. More recently, Patrick Collinson has paid them the supreme compliment by noting, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that [Puritanism] was the real English Reformation.”9 They weren’t looking for a national church, and they weren’t interested in minor adjustments to the status quo. The Puritans knew that the church needed deep and wide reforms, and that’s exactly what they sought to do.
5. For an overview of some of the best Puritan texts, see Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason, eds., The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
6. See J. I. Packer, The Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994) and Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).
7. Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Commitment (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 19, 83.
8. For discussions of all the Puritans listed here, see Kapic and Gleason, eds., The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics.