For anyone who enjoys reading American church history, or has an interest in the Puritans, The American Puritans is a treat. Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz have showcased the lives of nine Puritans who were greatly influential in the early settling of America including John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, John Eliot and Cotton Mather. These individuals established “The New England Way,” “an expression of Congregationalism that sought to impact all areas of public life” (p. 7), and that embedded Christianity into the fabric of American society (pp. 54, 68-69, 110, 181). The stated aim of the book is threefold:
“First we hope to clarify and correct many of the myths and half-truths associated with the American Puritans. Second, we hope to showcase their story—without hiding their faults—in order to inspire and edify this generation of Christian believers. Lastly, we hope to encourage further study into their lives, beliefs, struggles, and accomplishments so that we might have a fair and accurate view of our spiritual fathers (p. 8).
The accounts of the lives, hardships, challenges, sorrows, joy, and successes of the chosen Puritans are historically interesting and instructive. The sacrifices made to worship God free from government control, to bring Christianity to America, to establish a “city upon a hill” (pp. 45, 90), are almost incomprehensible by today’s standards. Unfortunately, as the original Fathers began to leave the scene, so did their vision (p. 28). The authors note:
By the end of the seventeenth century, Puritanism in America was on the decline. What began in Plymouth as an escape, and in Massachusetts Bay as an experiment, soon became a tyranny that engulfed all of New England. As the early founders began dying off, their children did not possess their zeal or conviction for Puritanism, and the successive waves of diverse migrants had their own ideas about what the New World would be. What was good and righteous in the Puritan movement was often clouded by fanaticism. As the eighteenth century approached, it was fast becoming clear that the earnest Christian movement that had arrived on ships from England was being carried off by adverse winds (p. 163).
The adverse winds came in several forms, but the divisions among the Puritans themselves (p. 168), much of it centered in the half-way covenant (p. 168), disagreement over The New England Way (pp. 68-69), the Salem witchcraft trials (pp. 172-173), and especially the rise of Unitarianism (p. 202), all served to bring an end to the Puritan experiment by the conclusion of the eighteenth century. The children and grandchildren of the original Fathers simply did not have the same passion for Calvinism, godliness and strict Congregationalism. But while Puritanism as a movement was essentially concluded by 1689, the authors, in the Epilogue, remind us that the “Spirit of Puritanism” continued through such leaders as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), David Brainerd (1718-1747), and George Whitefield (1714-1770) (p. 206), and within many even today.
The authors conclude by summarizing the reason Puritanism gained traction.
Puritanism grew out of three needs: (1) the need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound Reformed doctrine; (2) the need for biblical, personal piety that stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer; and (3) the need to restore biblical simplicity in liturgy and church government so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of the triune God as prescribed in His Word (p. 208)
The American Puritan is an excellent read. There is some redundancy throughout the book, which seems to indicate that the chapters were originally written as independent articles, but this is a minor distraction.
The American Puritan by Dustin Benge & Nate Pickowicz (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020) 208 pp. + xvi, paper $18.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel