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Preaching: Learning from the Puritans – Part 1

8 minutes to read

The Puritan movement from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century has been called the golden age of preaching.1 Through preaching and the publication of sermons, the Puritans sought to reform the church and the everyday lives of the people.2 Though they failed to reform the church, they succeeded in reforming everyday lives, ushering in, as Alexander F. Mitchell says, “a season of spiritual revival as deep and extensive as any that has since occurred in the history of the British Churches.”3

With few exceptions, Puritan ministers were great preachers who lovingly and passionately proclaimed the whole counsel of God set forth in Holy Scripture. No group of preachers in church history has matched their biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical preaching.4

The common people gladly heard Puritan preaching. Henry Smith (1560–1591), sometimes called the golden-tongued Chrysostom of the Puritans, was so popular as a preacher that, as Thomas Fuller writes, “persons of good quality brought their own pews with them, I mean their legs, to stand upon in the aisles.”5 No wonder the Puritan minister was called “the hero of sixteenth-century Puritanism.”6

Puritan preaching is transforming. Brian Hedges says that Puritan preachers “lift our gaze to the greatness and gladness of God. They open our eyes to the beauty and loveliness of Christ. They prick our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of sin. They ravish and delight the soul with the power and glory of grace. They plumb the depths of the soul with profound biblical, practical, and psychological insight. They sustain and strengthen the soul through suffering by expounding the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. They set our sights and focus our affections on eternal realities.”7

The Puritans set high standards for themselves as preachers. They believed they should preach the Bible from their own heart experience of it and apply what they preached to the particular needs of their hearers. John Owen (1616–1683) wrote that two principles regulated his ministry: “To impart those truths of whose power I hope I have had in some measure a real experience, and to press those duties which present occasions, temptations, and other circumstances, do render necessary to be attended unto in a peculiar manner.” Owen explained that, when preaching, one should keep in mind the big picture of God’s revealed truth: “the whole counsel of God concerning the salvation of the church by Jesus Christ is to be declared.” Yet, he said, preachers are to aim specifically at practical applications appropriate to their churches: “We are not to fight uncertainly, as men beating the air, nor shoot our arrows at random, without a certain scope and design. Knowledge of the flock whereof we are overseers, with a due consideration of their wants, their graces, their temptations, their light, their strength and weakness, are required herein.” This is a high calling, Owen said, which demands that the Word must be preached in the fear of the Lord, “with a deep sense of that great account which both they that preach and they that hear the word preached must shortly give before the judgment-seat of Christ,” and yet it is a gracious calling, which we may perform in “a comfortable expectation” of God’s blessing and success if we are faithful.8

That is what we want: “a comfortable expectation” that our preaching, or the preaching of our pastors if we are not preachers ourselves, will be blessed by God and rewarded on judgment day. Paul expressed the aim of every true Christian preacher in 2 Corinthians 5:9 and 10, in which he said, “Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”

What can we learn from the Puritans about the preaching that God blesses? My topic is a question: “How Should We Preach Like the Puritans Today?” Implicit in this question is also a resulting question: “How Should We Not Preach Like the Puritans Today?” As much as we admire the Puritans, we should not slavishly imitate them, but critically examine their approach to preaching in order to gather up the gold and leave the dross behind. Negatively speaking, the Puritans had a tendency to overload their sermons so that an avalanche of details buried the main thrust of the specific Scripture text. Positively speaking, the Puritans maintained principles of preaching and applying God’s Word to the mind, heart, and life, and every Christian preacher should adopt these principles as his own. 

This article is the first of the four-part article series of the transcript of the Session 2 preached by Dr Joel R. Beeke in Online AIPC 2020 Conference held on Sep 15-17, 2020.

Please click here to see the video.

1 Tae-Hyeun Park, The Sacred Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit: A Study of Puritan Preaching in a Pneumatological Perspective (Apeldoorn: Theologische Unversiteit, 2005), 4. Several thoughts in this address are adapted from my chapters 41 and 42 in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
2 J. I. Packer, foreword to Introduction to Puritan Theology: A Reader, ed. Edward Hindson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976).
3 Alexander F. Mitchell, introduction to Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, ed. Alexander F. Mitchell and John Struthers (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991), xv.
4 For additional books and articles on Puritan preaching, see R. Bruce Bickel, Light and Heat: The Puritan View of the Pulpit (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999); J. W. Blench, Preaching in England in the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964); John Brown, Puritan Preaching in England (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900); J. A. Caiger, “Preaching—Puritan and Reformed,” in Puritan Papers, Volume 2 (1960–1962), ed. J. I. Packer (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2001), 161–85; Murray A. Capill, Preaching with Spiritual Vigour  (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2003); Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 182–203; Eric Josef Carlson, “The Boring of the Ear: Shaping the Pastoral Vision of Preaching in England, 1540–1640,” in Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early Modern Period, ed. Larissa Taylor (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 249–96; Mariano Di Gangi, Great Themes in Puritan Preaching (Guelph, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2007); Alan F. Herr, The Elizabethan Sermon: A Survey and a Bibliography (New York: Octagon Books, 1969); Babette May Levy, Preaching in the First Half Century of New England History (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967); Peter Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008); D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 372–89; Irvonwy Morgan, The Godly Preachers of the Elizabethan Church (London: Epworth Press, 1965); Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 4: The Age of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 251–79, and The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 5: Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 170–217; J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 163–76, 277–308; Park, The Sacred Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit; Joseph A. Pipa Jr., “Puritan Preaching,” in The Practical Calvinist, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2002), 163–82; John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); Caroline F. Richardson, English Preachers and Preaching 1640–1670 (New York: Macmillan, 1928); Michael F. Ross, Preaching for Revitalization (Fearn, U.K.: Mentor, 2006); Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 91–107; Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Dissertations that deal with Puritan preaching include Ruth Beatrice Bozell, “English Preachers of the 17th Century on the Art of Preaching” (PhD diss., Cornwell University, 1939); Ian Breward, “The Life and Theology of William Perkins 1558–1602” (PhD diss., University of Manchester, 1963); Diane Marilyn Darrow, “Thomas Hooker and the Puritan Art of Preaching” (PhD diss.,  University of California, San Diego, 1968); Andrew Thomas Denholm, “Thomas Hooker: Puritan Preacher, 1568–1647” (PhD diss., Hartford Seminary, 1972); M. F. Evans, “Study in the development of a Theory of Homiletics in England from 1537–1692” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1932); Frank E. Farrell, “Richard Sibbes: A Study in Early Seventeenth Century English Puritanism” (PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 1955); Anders Robert Lunt, “The Reinvention of Preaching: A Study of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century English Preaching Theories” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1998); Kenneth Clifton Parks, “The Progress of Preaching in England during the Elizabethan Period” (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1954); Joseph Pipa Jr., “William Perkins and the Development of Puritan Preaching” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985); Harold Patton Shelly, “Richard Sibbes: Early Stuart Preacher of Piety” (PhD diss., Temple University, 1972); David Mark Stevens, “John Cotton and Thomas Hooker: The Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1972); Lynn Baird Tipson Jr., “The Development of Puritan Understanding of Conversion” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1972); Cary Nelson Weisiger III, “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Preaching of Richard Sibbes” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984).
5 Quoted in Winthrop S. Hudson, “The Ministry in the Puritan Age,” in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives, ed. H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 185.
6 Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 119.
7 Brian G. Hedges, “Puritan Writers Enrich the Modern Church,” Banner of Truth), no. 529 (October, 2007): 5–10.
8 John Owen, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850–1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 7:263.

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