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The Puritan Outlook on Life

Category Articles
Date October 4, 2011

The word Puritan was originally a nickname, applied to those who, in the late sixteenth century, were anxious to have the Church in England further purified, in the light of Scripture. The name continued to be applied to their spiritual successors down to the end of the following century; among the best known of them were Thomas Watson, John Owen and John Flavel. The Puritans have long been caricatured as killjoys, people who could not be happy if they saw others enjoying themselves. It is, of course, a caricature, but the Puritans did have a different outlook on life from their detractors, past and present – one which was altogether better.

Critical to the Puritan outlook were the questions: What does the Bible say about our lives? What has God made known about how we should live? Scripture determined the Puritans’ sense of right and wrong. They had submitted sincerely to the voice of God speaking in Scripture; it was their dearest wish to live their lives in absolute obedience to his will. So it was to the Bible they turned for an answer to such questions as these: Which activities are forbidden and which are permitted? Which are wrong and which should be encouraged? In particular, which activities may one engage in with the hope of finding pleasure and which activities must one shun?

A secular historian of the twentieth century, with a special interest in the Puritan period, has brought out remarkably well the essence of the Puritan outlook: ‘The life of the Puritan was in one sense a continuous act of worship, pursued under an unremitting and lively sense of God’s providential purposes and constantly refreshed by religious activity, personal, domestic and public’.1 Accordingly the Puritan was conscious of his duty to live to God’s glory. He knew his Bible; he knew that Paul had written: ‘Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31); and he knew that this particular verse summed up the teaching of the whole of Scripture on the fundamental attitude we should have to God and his authority.

There was nothing mechanical about the Puritan’s knowledge of Scripture; it was woven into the very warp and woof of his thinking. He knew, in the words of Nehemiah Rogers, that ‘God will be ever most glorious, let men be ever so obstinate or rebellious. Yea, God will have glory by reprobates, though it be nothing to their ease; and though He be not glorified of them, yet He will glorify Himself in them’.2 Yet while he understood that God so ruled in providence that he would take glory to himself from every event that takes place, even from the most ungodly actions of those who will be finally lost, the Puritan was very conscious of his own duty to glorify God in everything that he did.

Now if God is ruling over everything that happens, it is glorifying to God to trust him always. Accordingly Thomas Watson emphasised that ‘God is to be trusted when His providences seem to run contrary to His promises’. He illustrated this from David’s experience: ‘God promised David to give him the crown, to make him king; but providence turns contrary to His promise; David was pursued by Saul, was in danger of his life; but all this while it was David’s duty to trust God’ (p. 230). The genuine Puritan sought to trust God in all circumstances, however discouraging; he had learned that the promises are totally reliable, for Scripture told him: ‘God is faithful’.

In answer to the question, ‘Why must we glorify God?’ Thomas Watson gives five helpful answers:

(1) [Because he is our Creator]; he gives us our being . . .
(2) Because God has made all things for his own glory. . . It is true, they cannot add to his glory, but they may exalt it; they cannot raise him in heaven, but they may raise him in the esteem of others here . . .
(3) Because the glory of God has intrinsic value and excellence; it transcends the thoughts of men and the thoughts of angels . . . Better men and angels be annihilated than God should lose . . . one beam of his glory . . .
(4) Creatures below us and above us bring glory to God . . . Shall everything glorify God but man? . . .
(5) We must bring glory to God because all our hopes hang upon him . . . The child that is good-natured will honour his parent by expecting all he needs from him.3

And in typically-Puritan fashion, all this is backed up by a multitude of biblical quotations; Watson is profoundly conscious of where all authority comes from, and he puts his thinking into practice by referring to particular scriptures.

The Puritans did not forbid recreation, but it was obvious to them that their general principles for life apply here also; the teachings of Scripture provide direction. Among William Perkins’ rules are the following: ‘Our recreations must be profitable to ourselves and others, and they must tend also to the glory of God; the end of our recreation must be to refresh our bodies and minds; recreation must be moderate and sparing, even as the use of meat and drink and rest’ (p. 233). Perkins was conscious that we are responsible to God for the use of our time; we cannot afford to waste even one moment of it.

The suggestion that the Puritan’s life was, at least in one sense, ‘a continuous act of worship’ may seem a gross exaggeration. But it is no more so than Paul’s direction, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), is unreasonable ““ and prayer, after all, is a significant element in worship. We need not be surprised that the Puritan Matthew Poole understood the significance of this direction; he explained it as requiring us ‘to preserve a heart disposed to pray at all times, and to mingle ejaculatory prayers with the several actions of our lives; our wants are continual . . . and therefore we ought to pray continually’. John Bunyan emphasises the connection between prayer and godly living: ‘Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer’ (p. 211). And John Flavel points out the connection between prayer and happiness: ‘That which begins not with prayer seldom winds up with comfort’ (p. 211). The teaching of these men was eminently practical, and timeless.

It was no hardship for the sincere Puritan to engage in worship, whether in private, or with the rest of his household at their family devotions, or with the rest of the congregation in public. Without a doubt, there were among them those whose heart was not in their worship, for they were unconverted; they did not have the heart of a Puritan. And if Paul had to complain about his imperfections (as in Romans 7), the Puritans were by no means immune from such shortcomings also, and doubtless not all the converted had attained to the same degree of godliness. But by God’s grace they pursued the way of holiness, seeking God’s glory in what they did, and deriving real benefit from the means of grace which they so conscientiously followed.

Do we seek for such benefit from all the means of grace, and from preaching in particular? Watson counsels:

If you would have the preached Word effectual, come with a holy appetite to the Word. The thirsty soul is the thriving soul. In nature one may have an appetite and no digestion; but it is not so in religion. Where there is a great appetite for the Word, there is for the most part good digestion. Come with hungerings of soul after the Word, and desire it, that it may not only please you but profit you.4

The Puritan outlook on life may seem totally out of date and totally unrealistic in this modern, busy age. It is not. It is what we all ought to aspire to. To ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ was a Puritan principle because it was a Scripture command. It should be our principle also.


  1. Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991 reprint), p. 356.
  2. Quoted in I. D. E. Thomas, ed, A Puritan Golden Treasury (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), p. 120. Other references to this book are indicated by page numbers only.
  3. A Body of Divinity (London: Banner of Truth, 1965 reprint), pp. 9-10.
  4. The Ten Commandments (London: Banner of Truth, 1965 reprint), p. 214.

Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the August 2011 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.

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