Ordering Their Private World
Alone in the dark, Roger Clap lay lost in meditation. Barely 21, and already a member of the Dorchester Church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he now felt a wave of uncertainty and insecurity rush over him.
“In my saddest Troubles for want of a clear Evidence of my good Estate,” he wrote years later in his Memoirs, “I did … Examine my self upon my Bed in the Night, concerning my spiritual Estate.”
Why did these doubts persist?
An immigrant from England just that spring of 1630, Clap was acutely aware that his way of coming to Christ was not so dramatic as the conversion experiences others professed: “I could not find as others did, the Time when God wrought the Work of Conversion in my Soul, nor in many respects the Manner thereof. It caused in me much Sadness of Heart, and Doubtings how it was with me, Whether the Work of Grace were ever savingly wrought in my Heart or no?”
In his anguish, Clap turned inward, meditating on his sinfulness. Following established methods of self-examination, he put the question “to my very Heart and Soul” whether he would willingly commit a certain secret sin again.
Suddenly, he found the resolution welling up within not to commit that sin again. “At that Time my conscience did witness to me that my State was good: And God’s holy Spirit did witness (I do believe) together with my Spirit, that I was a Child of God; and did fill my Heart and Soul with such a full Assurance that Christ was mine, that it did so transport me as to make me cry out upon my Bed with a loud Voice, ‘He is come, He is come.’ And God did melt my Heart.”
The inner life of the soul—this was the beating heart of Puritanism in seventeenth-century America. While the Puritans produced volumes of theology, formulated doctrines on civil government, founded Harvard College, and established a publishing industry, the whole enterprise was geared toward one end: the conversion of sinners and their growth in piety and holiness.
Puritans sought a living relationship with Jesus Christ. They practiced the spiritual life both in public worship and in “private devotion” (meaning all worship and devotional activity outside the walls of the church). Private devotion took place in secret exercises, private conference, family devotions, and private meetings.
“Secret” or “closet” exercises. Alone, Puritans meditated and prayed just before sleep at night, upon rising in the morning, on Saturday in preparation for the Sabbath, and on the Sabbath between services. At night they reviewed the day’s behavior, gave thanks for blessings, repented of sin, submitted anew to the will of God, and embraced mortality and judgment. Upon waking, believers thanked God for life and salvation.
Special sessions for meditative “self-examination” could be prompted by a birthday, New Year’s Day (March 25 in colonial America), or some “remarkable providence” in one’s life.
Prayer was the culminating act of secret devotion. Merchant Roger Clap urged his children, “Pray in Secret. Think with yourself, assuredly God is present tho’ none else; I will confess my Sins, and I will beg with God by Faith and Prayer. And you may every one of you prevail, if you Pray sincerely, and persevere in it.” Cotton Mather once described his prayer life: “This Morning, my heart was melted, in secret Prayer before the Lord.”
Private conference. Believers were specifically instructed to seek out “much conference, especially with Ministers and other experienced Christians.” These spiritual counseling sessions were used to guide individuals through the conversion experience, screen church members and lead them to public profession of faith, enable parents to bring their children and servants to the experience of grace, and encourage saints to help one another grow in grace.
Cotton Mather records in his diary that at the end of one such private conference with his daughter Katy, “I thereupon made the Child kneel down by mee; and I poured out my Cries unto the Lord, that Hee would lay His Hands upon her, and bless her and save her, and make her a Temple of His Glory. It will be so; It will be so!”
Family devotions. This third private exercise ideally occurred in the morning before work, briefly before meals, and in the evening. The Bible was read “in course” (chapter by chapter in sequence), a psalm was sung from the locally published Bay Psalm Book, and prayers were offered—inspired or guided by devotional manuals such as John Cotton’s Milke for Babes.
The prayers reflected a cycle of death and rebirth, evening and morning. In the evening, families confessed their sins, praying “O let us feel the Power of Christ’s Death killing sin in our mortal Bodies.” In the morning, they gave thanks for God’s grace that “renews all thy mercies upon us” and praised God because he had “elected, created, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified” the saints.
Neighborhood prayer meeting. Congregations formed groups for women, young men, girls, blacks, tradesmen, and ministers. Meetings were held in homes weekly, biweekly, or monthly. “We pray, and sing, and repeat sermons, and confer together about the things of God,” explained John Eliot, one of the founding pastors and “Apostle to the Indians.” Cotton Mather boasted “thirteen or fourteen” neighborhood fellowships under his pastoral care.
If believers engaged in this full range of devotion, Eliot preached, “When thou diest, heaven will be no strange place to thee; no, thou hast been there a thousand times before.”
New Englanders recorded their spiritual experiences in diaries. While many early diaries were lost, those that survive open a window to the spiritual ecstasy known by at least some Puritans.
Cambridge pastor Thomas Shepard says that as a young man, “I so found [God] in meditation that I was constrained to carry my book into the fields to write down what God poured in.” This “little book” did not survive, but in his later journals, Shepard recorded that often in meditating on Scripture, “my heart was sweetly ravished.”
Anne Bradstreet, whose husband, Simon, became governor of Massachusetts Bay, often wrote poems to express and preserve her prayers.
I sought him whom my Soul did love,
With tears I sought him earnestly;
He bow’d his ear down from Above,
In vain I did not seek or cry.
When she asked God “For Deliverance from a Feaver,” she discovered her deeper need to pray, “O, heal my Soul.” Reflecting on her experience, she penned,
In my distresse I sought the Lord,
When nought on Earth could comfort give;
And when my Soul these things abhor’d,
Then, Lord, thou said’st unto me, Live.
Puritan ABCs:The New England Primer (1683) taught both the alphabet and faith. the letter U, for example, was remembered by Uriah’s beauteous wife Made David seek his Life. The primer was so popular, Benjamin Franklin was printing it nearly a century later.
New Englanders were highly literate and considered reading a means of grace. “God has blessed not only the Preaching of Sermons,” ministers advised, “but the Writing of Books, for the Conversion as well as the Edification of many Readers.”
Religious publications—sermons, tracts, catechisms, and devotional manuals—were best-sellers. Boston minister John Cotton, thinking of religious books as a mother’s breast or a piece of fruit, counseled, “Labour so to read, as that you may suck life from it.”
Children learned to read using The New England Primer with its theological ABCs, from A, “In Adam’s Fall We sinned all,” to Z, “Zacheus he Did climb the Tree His Lord to see.”
Some devotional favorites were read over and over. In his youth, Boston merchant Robert Keayne hand-copied a Communion manual, “a little thin pocket book bound in leather … which I have read over I think 100 and 100 times.”
Books sometimes influenced the experience of conversion. John Brock, in his spiritual autobiography, tells how as a child “By Reading, through admonitions of Parents, in a Book called The Practice of Piety I found some Description, of the Misery of Men in Hell and of Happiness of the Godly which somewhat stirred me.” At age 16 he received further “Encouragement and Light” toward conversion by reading Thomas Hooker’s The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ.
Surprisingly, Puritan piety, while rooted firmly in the Calvinist movement, drew from Catholic and Lutheran devotionalism. When Puritans felt the need for manuals on meditation and prayer, sometimes they unashamedly copied the format, techniques, and even the contents and titles of Catholic books.
With two three-hour services every Sabbath, midweek “lectures,” and an occasional fast or thanksgiving service, New Englanders spent a lot of time in the meeting house. In a typical service, psalm singing, long prayers, and Scripture readings culminated in a sixty- to ninety-minute sermon.
Puritan “plain style” preaching, as one New Englander put it, aimed at “bringing me to know my sin and the wrath of God against me … humbling me yet more and then raising me up out of this estate” through the “plain and powerful” presentation of Jesus as Savior.
Thomas Shepard’s adult catechism, First Principles of the Oracles of God, set forth the “order of redemption,” or plan of salvation. Baptism, which was bestowed upon the children of believers, was the sacrament of “our new birth, and ingrafting into Christ.” After believers joined the church covenant, they could receive the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of “our growth in Christ … given to nourish and strengthen believers, renewing their faith unto eternall life.”
When believers joined the church covenant, they presented a “relation” or narrative of their conversion. While some testified to a single conversion moment, most spoke of an ongoing journey from sin to salvation: “by degrees the Lord hath let [them] see” they belonged to Christ. A servant told of receiving “more and more light to see into my lost estate” until finally “the Lord broke my heart in the consideration of my own vileness and so I saw a necessity of Christ.” This self-emptying in preparation for rebirth did not end with church membership; it continued as Puritans prepared for glory.
Nowhere is the Christian spirit of Puritan piety more evident than in the meditative poetry of minister Edward Taylor. In meditation and in prayer on Saturday night, preparing for preaching and administering the Lord’s Supper the next morning, Taylor sometimes would express his sense of awe before God in verse:
What Love is this of thing that Cannot bee
In thine Infinity, O Lord, Confinde,
Sinless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and Finity Conjoyn’d?
One can imagine the pastor on his knees before the embers in the fireplace, confessing his sinfulness—“my Lifeless Sparke! My Fireless Flame!”—and then beseeching God, “Lord blow the Coal: Thy Love Enflame in mee.”
Dr. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of Church of the Apostles (United Church of Christ) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and adjunct professor of church history at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is author of The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (North Carolina, 1982), from which portions of this article have been adapted.
Copyright © 1994 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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