What Happened to the Puritans

A pastor friend of mine up in Maine was visiting Boston at one point and he decided to go on one of these tours that led through the city. During the tour, someone asked the tour guide, “Whatever happened to the Puritans?” The tour guide thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m not sure. Maybe they all just got back into a boat and went somewhere else.”

Well, that’s not exactly what happened to the Puritans, so let’s think about this. What did happened to the New England Puritans? This was an incredible group. They were the roots of American religious history. They, of course, came from England and began settling heavily in the early decades of the 1600s. I think at one point I remember reading that in the 1630s it was as if a boat every week was landing at the docks at Boston with a new load of English Puritans ready to settle in the New World. And these are the folks who gave us the beginning and foundation of Christian thought in America. These are the folks who gave us so many great institutions—Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown—and these are the folks who also eventually gave us Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening. So, this is a crucial question: What happened to the Puritans?

E. Brooks Holifield wrote a book titled Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. In that book, Holifield gives us some insight into what happened to these folks. First of all, he wants us to fully understand who the Puritans were. He says they were a very creedal bunch of people, focused on their confession of faith. They were not entirely Presbyterians, so they had some modifications as far as church government to the Westminster Standards. But they were creedal folks who believed in logic; they believed in solid exegesis; they had mastered the Hebrew and the Greek texts; they had mastered Latin; they knew their history and they knew their theology. They had, as it were, all of their ducks in a row. But in addition to that, they also greatly emphasized the practical side of theology. One of these Puritans, named Thomas Hooker, represents what Holifield calls “the consensus of the Puritans.” What Holifield means is that Hooker defines theology as a discipline of godliness that not only produces insight into the nature of things and knowledge but also produces significantly practical wisdom.

So, that is what the Puritans were about. Theology that is an intellectual discipline but that is always very practical and leads us to living—sometimes we say the head and the heart. And the Puritans did not make some sort of bargain there but saw them together, and that was a crucial part of the Puritan emphasis.

So, when we begin to see what happened to the Puritans, one of the things we have to see is that this balance was not maintained. As we move into the 1700s, we see this. We see it in Jonathan Edwards’ own congregation, where he reminded them of what a genuine religious affection truly is. The people had lost some of that Puritan emphasis. But it was really in the late 1700s and early 1800s that we see the true drift. And one of the folks responsible for that is a person named William Ellery Channing. He was born in 1780 and he died in 1842, and his claim to fame is that he was the father of Unitarianism or the father of liberalism. And what we see in his theology was the demise both of that Puritan emphasis on theology and also of that practical side of theology.

So, what happened to the Puritans? The sad answer is that they did not maintain that crucial emphasis of loving God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

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