Thursday, August 18, 2011

Puritan Culture in Early America

In the olden days there existed a group, who lived out their faith. The reason they came to America was to escape persecution from the established church of England. These people are the puritans and they have left a legacy that is to be studied. Without them, our country as we know it would not have existed and much of the theological thought in Reformed church today would not have developed. Because the puritans have laid the foundation for much in America today, it is important to study their life and culture.

To start off, there is a foundation on which men build their beliefs on. Cornelius Van Til, Westminster Theological Seminary professor and Christian apologist, puts it as, “There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy.”1 Theonomy takes two latin words theos(God) and nomus(law) simply meaning God’s laws. Autonomy means self-law. When it comes to building a society and culture, it all boils down to whether it is going to be build on God’s laws, written in His Word, or is it going to be established based on man made rules and laws. As it pertains to the puritans, their foundation for life and culture was based upon the word of God. It was the puritans who set the example of liberty, ethics, and the spirit of capitalism in our society.

One of the contributions of puritan thought is the rule of law. In his book, Lex Rex, puritan statesman Samuel Rutherford makes the case that the heads are state are under the law. All law is given by God and no one, not even a king, is above the law or a law unto himself. Rutherford writes , “All civil power is immediately from God in its root; in that, 1st, God hath made man a social creature, and one who inclineth to be governed by man, then certainly he must have put this power in man's nature; so are we, by good reason, taught by Aristotle. 2nd, God and nature intendeth the policy and peace of mankind, then must God and nature have given to mankind a power to compass this end; and this must be a power of government.”2 Rutherford was also a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, which means he was also one of the master minds behind the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Catechisms(Larger and shorter), and the Directory for Public Worship. These documents have made profound impact on American culure and the formation of our country. Lex Rex influenced many of America’s founders such as John Witherspoon and Thomas Jefferson.3 In the Declaration of Independent it states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Law is given by God and not by the state. If the state can give rights, it can also take them away. This was what Rutherford argued and this was what the founding fathers put into practice in our country through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Westminister Confession of Faith also gave way to the American Revolution. Reformed theology and doctrine was ingrained in the American way of life, “When Joseph Galloway, friend of Franklin and eminent Philadelphian, gave testimony before a committee of the House of Commons in 1779, he was asked what was the underlying cause of the revolution. He replied that it was the activity and influence of the Presbyterians.”4 At one point, a member of Parliament even confessed “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson![referring to John Witherspoon]” The puritans had a different view of government than what most Christians today believe in. They were more open and vocal on political and social issues. In fact, the American revolution would not of happened if they just preached theology and not encourage congregants to get involved in social issues. Men like John Witherspoon, who was a Presbyterian Minister, who was on many committees in the founding of our country and the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was a professor to James Madison, the man who was the architect of the U.S. Constitution, at Princeton University. It was men like Witherspoon, pastors and clergy, that made the difference in those who started this country.

The work ethic of the Puritans is another influence they had on American cultures. In the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession it states:
The duties required in the eigth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and
justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to every one
his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof;
giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others;
moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a
provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are
necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our
condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits,
and suretiship, or other like engagements; and an endeavour, by all just and
lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of
others, as well as our own.5

This is raising the bar when it comes to vocation and work. In W.K. Jordan’s Philanthropy in England, 1480–1660, he demonstrates that through the proclamation and application of the Gospel actually resulted in private charity in society. 6 Jordan makes note of Puritan preacher Hugh Latimer’s
Sermon “Sermon on the Plough”. In this message, he strongly condemned the rich and nobility for indulging in their wealth while there are less fortunate people dying in the streets of London:
In times past men were full of pity and compassion but now there is no pity, for in London their brother shall die in the streets for cold, he shall lie sick at their door between stock and stock. I cannot tell what to call it, and perish there for hunger, was there any more unmercifulness in Nebo [Jer. 48:1]? I think not.… Repent therefore repent London and remember that the same God lives now that punished Nebo, even the same God and none other, and he will punish sin as well now as he did then, and he will punish the iniquity of London as well as he did then of Nebo.7

Through technological advancement, the Puritans seek to improve the quality of life by starting up schools, training the poor for a better life, and improved public works. They had compassion for the poor and wanted to improve the quality of life for them. Max Weber, in his book, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he makes note of the economical development between Calvinists and Roman Catholics. He wrote, “Examples of the condemnation of the pursuit of money and goods may be gathered without end from Puritan writings, and may be contrasted with the late mediaeval ethical literature , which was much more open-minded on this point. Moreover, these doubts were meant with perfect seriousness; only it is necessary to examine them somewhat more closely in order to understand their true ethical significance and implications. The real moral objection is to relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life.”8 In the mind of the Puritan, laziness and idleness from one’s vocation and family reflects his relaxation in seeking the Lord and growing in holiness. Puritans believed that their labor was to foremost to God. When wealth is grown, idleness and all sorts of sins tend to grow along with it.

The puritans eschatological views were different then what most Christians today believe in. Today, most Christians embrace a pre-millennial dispensationalist view that the world is getting worse and that Jesus will return in our lifetimes . He will rapture his people and those left behind will have to endure a seven year tribulation and put up with an end time super villain called the Anti-Christ. There is more to this but I won’t write on it right now. Those who embrace this viewpoint include John MacArthur, Tim LaHaye, Joel Rosenburg, Brannon Howse, and Ray Comfort. The puritans have a different idea in mind when it comes to the second coming. The writings of puritans such as Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and Samuel Rutherford reflect a postmillennial view of the second coming of Christ. What this means is “Christ will return after a future golden age of prosperity on the earth, during which time the gospel will have been fruitful in all the world, bringing peace and security to all.”9 Also, many bible commentaries written during this time reflected a partial-preterist view of Matthew 24. This means that signs mentioned here are referenced to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., not the end of the world.10
In one of his many writings, Jonathan Edwards wrote “A Humble Attempt.” This piece of writing is on the revival of true religion in latter days:

IT is evident from the Scripture, that there is yet remaining a great advancement of the interest of religion and the kingdom of Christ in this world, by an abundant outpouring of the Spirit of God, far greater and more extensive than ever yet has been. It is certain, that many things, which are spoken concerning a glorious time of the church's enlargement and prosperity in the latter days, have never yet been fulfilled. There has never yet been any propagation and prevalence of religion, in any wise, of that extent and universality which the prophecies represent. It is often foretold and signified, in a great variety of strong expressions, that there should a time come, when all nations, throughout the whole habitable world, should embrace the true religion, and be brought into the church of God.11

It was this philosophy and eschatological viewpoint that motivated the puritans to invest in their families and vocations. They had positive view of the future and started schools such as Harvard and Yale. These puritans were interested in those that will enter the ministry after the previous generation passes away. This was the reason they invested so much in their families. In a view of prophetic inevitibility, it would seem unlikely that parents would provide education to be passed down from future generation. They would seem to be discouraged from making any long term investment because it’s going to get destroyed anyway. The Postmillennial hope is what the puritans embraced.

In closing, there is a lot more that could be mentioned about the puritans. This is only a snapshot of what the puritan lifestyle looked like. Without their investment and their ideas, the United States would not have existed. These people have laid the groundwork for what we enjoy and believe as Christians.

1. Van Til, Cornelius. Christian-Theistic Ethics. P 134.
2. Rutherford, Samuel. Lex Rex. Question 1.
3. Shaeffer, Francis. Christian Manifesto. P 32.
4. Davies, Foundation, p. 227.
6. McDurmon, Joel. “The Lost Reformation.”
7. Leitmer, Hugh. “Sermon of the Plough.”
8. Weber, Max. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
10. Commentaries by John Gill and Matthew Henry reflect this viewpoint (John Gill’s commentary)
11. Edwards. Jonathan. “Humble Attempt”.

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