Puritan Manliness

By Evan D. Burns

John Owen has been called the John Calvin of England, and he is arguably the greatest of all the Puritan writers.  Summarizing Owen’s spirituality, J.I. Packer compares contemporary evangelicalism to Puritan spirituality with three points:

Anyone who knows anything at all about Puritan Christianity knows that at its best it had a vigour, a manliness, and a depth which modern evangelical piety largely lacks.  This is because Puritanism was essentially an experimental faith, a religion of ‘heart-work’, a sustained practice of seeking the face of God, in a way that our own Christianity too often is not.  The Puritans were manlier Christians just because they were godlier Christians.  It is worth noting three particular points of contrast between them and ourselves.

First, we cannot but conclude that whereas to the Puritans communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing.…  We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters.  Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us….

Then, second, we observe that whereas the experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unselfconscious, because it was so utterly God-centred, our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves….  The difference of interest comes out clearly when we compare Puritan spiritual autobiography… with similar works our own day.  In modern spiritual autobiography, the hero and chief actor is usually the writer himself; he is the centre of interest, and God comes in only as a part of his story….

Third, it seems undeniable that the Puritans’ passion for spiritual integrity and moral honesty before God… has no counterpart in the modern-day evangelical ethos.  They were characteristically cautious, serious, realistic, steady, patient, persistent in well-doing and avid for holiness of heart; we, by contrast, too often show ourselves to be characteristically brash, euphoric, frivolous, superficial, naïve, hollow and shallow….[1]


[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 215-218.

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Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons.  They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.