Reading the Puritans: Where to Start
Many Christians would like to begin reading the Puritans. But with so many books available, where should someone start?
Perhaps you’ve wanted to check out Puritan writings for a while, or you’ve just recently begun paying attention to encouragements to not be scared off from reading the Puritans. (If you’re not familiar with who the Puritans were, here’s a helpful overview video).
There is much to be gained by reading the works of these 16th and 17th century Reformers. They were immersed in the Scriptures, dedicated to pursuing godliness, and had incredible insight into the human heart.
Reading the Puritans can be more difficult than contemporary writers, but it is not as hard as you might think and you will benefit greatly from your efforts.
Men like John Bunyan, Thomas Brooks, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Richard Sibbes, and many others have left us volumes of invaluable material for spurning us towards personal spiritual revival.
Where to Start Reading the Puritans
I recommend reading books by the Puritans rather than books about the Puritans. As I’ve said before, we often read about “old books” rather than reading the books themselves. When we do so, we miss out on a lot.[That being said, if you would like a more guided introduction to Purtian writings and theology, you should check out A Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer.]
My suggestions below are limited to primary sources that I found especially readable and beneficial.
Okay, I cheated. The first recommendation is actually two different books. Both provide a helpful way of getting used to reading the language of the Puritans are filled with so much amazing content that you’ll be excited to read a lengthier work.
Valley of Vision is a collection of beautiful Puritan prayers. Here you will become acquainted to their devotion to God and personal piety, and you will be struck by how much these lines will seem as though they speak directly to your own personal experience. Consider the following excerpt:
My lips are ready to confess, but my heart is slow to feel, and my ways reluctant to amend…Work in me more profound and abiding repentance; Give me the fullness of a godly grief that trembles and fears, yet ever trusts and loves, which is ever powerful, and ever confident; Grant that through the tears of repentance I may see more clearly the brightness and glories of the saving cross.
A Puritan Golden Treasury is a collection of Puritan quotations organized by topic. Not only will this provide you with a wonderful resource to see what Puritans had to say about a particular subject, it will give insight into their wisdom and provide a way to “get to know” many different writers in a short amount of time.
Here is a sample of one of the 1,500 helpful quotations in the book which captures much of Puritan thought:
Love to God is armor of proof against error. For want of hearts full of love, men have heads full of error; unholy opinions are for want of holy affections. – Thomas Watson
The author of this book, Thomas Brooks, says that “Christ, the Scripture, your own hearts, and Satan’s devices, are the four prime things that should be first and most studied and searched.”
This book gives us an example of how seriously the Puritans took sin, a lesson which all modern day believers could take note of. The snares of the world, the lust of the flesh, and Satan’s methods are not things to be taken lightly.
A little whole in the ship sinks it; a small breach in a sea-bank carries away all before it; a little stab at the heart kills a man; and a little sin, without a great deal of mercy, will damn a man.
This is not a treatise on legalism nor an endorsement for works-righteousness. It is a guide for better understanding the tendency of our hearts towards sin and practical advice for successfully repelling these temptations.
In what reads like the source material for C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Brooks details Satan’s attempts to discourage, deceive, and tempt believers.
He gives paragraphs to choices which are often made in an instant, and his insight shows how important reflection and intentionality are in living lives that conform to the image of Christ.
Precious Remedies is a Puritan classic and is available as a paperback or as a free eBook. Just be sure to get an edition that includes Brooks’ footnotes, as they are as rich and as helpful as the main text!
In Spiritual-Mindedness, John Owen makes his case that, “Spiritual-mindedness…is the chief characteristic that distinguishes a believer from all unregenerate people.” He describes how we are often prevented from being spiritually-minded by a love for the world and for self and gives advice on how we can develop this all-important trait.
There is no more certain gospel truth than this, that believers ought to continually meditate on Christ by faith, and as they think of Him and grow to love Him more, so they are transformed into His image.
Spiritual-mindedness is developed by meditating on heavenly things, which is explained at length in the book in very concrete and practical terms. By having our thoughts focused on Christ we are able to endure trials, overcome sin, and prevent (or escape from) a lukewarm spiritual state.
Spiritual-mindedness subdues and expels worldliness of heart and mind by making the soul see that the only things that make life worth living are that bring true peace are Christ and spiritual things. Worldly thoughts do not satisfy, and serve only to bring worries and fears.
This book will help you to strengthen your faith and increase your affection for Christ. While this is also available as a free eBook, I strongly recommend the Puritan Paperback edition, which was abridged and made easier to read by R.J.K Law.
Puritan writings have a unique ability to push the reader towards a renewed mind and an increased love for God. However, don’t read them because you feel you should get one or two ‘classic’ books on your bookshelf.
A.W. Tozer said, “One reason why people are unable to understand great Christian classics is that they are trying to understand them without and intention of obeying them.”
Read the Puritans with a goal of deepening your walk with the Lord and renewing your resolve to live for Him. As Thomas Brooks says, “If it be not strong upon they heart to practice what thou readest, to what end dost thou read?”
You will be challenged by reading the Puritans. (That’s good.) Allow them to help refocus your attention on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Lastly, an obligatory disclaimer: Are there other good (or better) works to be introduced to the Puritans? Certainly! My advice would be to just pick a book and start, and hopefully this list will encourage you to do just that.