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Christian History Home > 2006 > Issue 89 > Physicians of the Soul

Physicians of the Soul
J. I. Packer discusses the English Puritans, their quest for holiness, and why they are still worth remembering.
posted 1/01/2006 12:00AM

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Though J. I. Packer has earned the nickname "The Last Puritan," his many decades of Puritan-focused scholarship, teaching, and writing have helped to create a new generation of Puritan protégées. His 1990 book, A Quest for Godliness, has been especially influential. As he recounts in his "Changed Lives" article in this issue (p. 50), Dr. Packer also owes a deep personal debt to the Puritans. Currently Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Dr. Packer spoke with Christian History & Biography recently about the nature of Puritanism and its continuing legacy.

What kind of movement was Puritanism?

Puritanism in England was a holiness movement—seeking holiness in church, family, and community, as well as in personal life. It started around 1564 when certain clergy began campaigning for more holiness in the Prayer Book liturgy of the Church of England. They complained that the Book of Common Prayer still contained "Romish rags" and offensive rituals. Other concerns soon surfaced, and it became clear that Puritanism was at heart a movement to raise standards of Christian life in England, with the conversion of England as the final goal.

It wasn't that the Puritan clergy or the members of Parliament who supported them set out to create a party. It was rather that a party of like-minded people emerged. Puritan clergy gathered laypeople around them. They found the most support in the towns, where there were godly people who were prepared to take seriously the fact that Bible religion was something they were not very good at and needed to become better at. And the movement swelled, developed, and became a constituency.

In the 1580s William Perkins began producing little books on personal religion that became the headwaters of a flood by 1640. Puritan pastors insisted that part of being a good Christian was to read Puritan devotional books, and so a common literature bound the constituency together.

What did the perfect church and the perfect society look like to the Puritans? What was their dream?

Their dream was holiness in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. The Puritans didn't talk about the "state"; they simply talked about conducting all of life in a way that honored God and respected other people. That was their idea of community. The perfect church was a church containing families that practiced holiness and worshipped with a purged liturgy under the leadership of a minister who was a powerful preacher of the Bible.

The Puritans hoped that England would one day be converted. As a Christian country, it would be the paragon of a truly godly nation that would become the envy of the rest of the world. People would line up and say, "Please tell us what your secret is, please tell us how we can become like you." The Puritan clergy and the lay-people who followed them were impressed by the fact that in England there had never been a war over religion—which was not the case anywhere else where the Reformation had gone. That was a marvelous gift of God to England. The sense that England had a unique mission was reinforced by the ruin of the Spanish Armada. God had fought for England. That meant that God had a special vocation for England.

This shaped the prayers of the Puritans from that time on. They believed that doing everything they could to advance the kingdom of God in England was tremendously important for the welfare of the world. When Oliver Cromwell invited the Jews to settle in England, it was because he believed that the day was coming when the world would be blessed through the conversion of the Jews. It would be part of the fulfillment of England's vocation. Looking back on the Cromwell era, Richard Baxter wrote that there never was a time in recorded memory when the word of God brought so many people to faith as during those years, and if the Commonwealth conditions had continued for a quarter of a century more, England would have become a kingdom of saints and a wonder of the world.

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