Distinctives of Puritan Preaching: Dignity

The Puritan preacher saw the role of preaching much differently than we do today because he saw the role of the preacher so much differently than we do today. Rather than seeing the preacher as just “one of the boys” with a bit more knowledge of religious things, the Puritan preacher saw his office as one of dignity and importance, character and content. Alexander Grosart, speaking of Thomas Brooks, said,“In all likelihood he proceeded from degree to degree, although in common with other of the Puritans, he places none (of those degrees) on his title pages, preferring the nobler designation, ‘Preacher of the Gospel,’ or ‘Preacher of the Word.’ ”

The difference in how we view the pulpit is pointed out by Dr. Bruce Bickel in his excellent book, Light and Heat: the Puritan View of the Pulpit:

The fading picture of the pulpit is a clear picture of how many Protestant ministers see their task and function. Their time is dictated by the vision they have of the pulpit. Many ‘share’ rather than preach, pray rather than pronounce blessings, and perform under a clouded vision of their ministry because they have no clear conviction about the nature of preaching. They do not see clearly the unique and supernatural nature of preaching because they do not see clearly the unique and supernatural nature of the divine Scriptures.

Many ministers allocate their time accordingly. More time is spent in motivational discussions, program planning, and church administration than in sermon study and preparation. Both pastors and congregations alike organize the minister’s schedule based on his or their view of the pulpit. Demands or expectations are placed upon the minister based upon a job description that reflects a weak view of the pulpit.

Throughout history God has raised up men and movements whose great work was to preach and apply the Word of God to their own generation. Of course, by implication, these men have affected all generations thereafter. Such men were the Puritans.

Because the Puritans held that the pure Word of God was the criterion to which doctrine, worship, and church government must conform, proclamation of the Scriptures occupied the central position in their worship. Horton Davies writes: “The importance of [Puritan] preaching consisted in the fact that it was the declaration by the preacher of the revelation of God, confirmed in the hearts of believers by the interior testimony of the Holy Spirit.”

Richard Sibbes spoke for all Puritan preachers when he said, “Christ, when He ascended on high and led captivity captive (He would give no mean gift then, when He was to ascend triumphantly to heaven) the greatest He could give was ‘some to be prophets, some apostles, some teachers (and preachers) for the building up of the body of Christ till we all meet, a perfect man in Christ.’ ‘I will send them pastors according to My own heart,’ saith God (Jer.3:15). It is the gift of all gifts, the ordinance of preaching. God esteems it so, Christ esteems it so, and so should we esteem it.”

To the Puritan preacher, the pulpit was God’s appointed means of bringing men to salvation, and also served as the best means of gaining the interest of a congregation and of educating it. Plus, they believed strongly that only sermons, and not readings, could adapt themselves to the needs of a particular group of people. Consequently, they made the exposition and discussion of the Scriptures the outstanding feature in their worship. Their reverence for the Bible as the only standard for worship produced the Puritan appreciation of the sermon as the culminating  point of the worship of God. “For them the obedient listening to the exposition of the sacred oracles of God was the climax of the service.” 

Thomas Tuke stated in his preface to William Perkins’ classic work on preaching, The Art of Prophecying,  “He hath given us His prophets and ambassadors, which do serve like that cloud and pillar of fire to direct us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this wicked world into the celestial Canaan. He hath thrust forth many faithful and industrious laborers in to His vineyard to prune and to dress the vines of our souls, that we may bring forth the grapes of piety and the clusters of justice.” Perkins himself wrote in his foreword to that same work, “The dignity of preaching appeareth in that, like a lady, it is highly mounted and carried aloft in a chariot.”

The Puritans set much store by preaching, which they considered the principal means ordained by God for instructing people in the great truths revealed by the Scriptures. A thorough understanding of those truths was necessary to salvation, and the Puritans therefore resented the appointment of ministers who were unable or unfit to instruct their congregations by preaching. In petitions, admonitions, and supplications to Parliament, the Puritans complained of the “Dumme Doggs, Unskilful sacrificing priests, Destroyeing Drones, or rather Caterpillars of the Word” who occupied the pulpits of England.”

That his time in the pulpit should be put to the best possible use was, above all, the essential duty of every minister. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind of the efficacy of the Word preached. As Thomas Hooker said, “Every sermon a man heareth, he is thereby nearer either to heaven or hell, either he is made worse or better by it.” Accordingly, a Puritan minister did not spare his pulpit efforts. He preached for an hour or two once or twice and sometimes three times a week—that is, always once or twice on Sundays, often at a week-day lecture, and occasionally on days of fasting, of thanksgiving, and election. His sermon content was based directly on the Bible, for Scripture was the final and infallible authority by which every man was to govern his life. The doctrine for each and every sermon was taken directly from the Bible, and all proof rested in the Bible. No opinion on any matter—theological, moral, political, pragmatic—had any value unless it could be supported by definite Biblical references.

The Puritans thought that a minister must be learned in the Scriptures in order to bring understanding to others. In England, they said, too many ministers substituted an affected eloquence for sound knowledge and indulged themselves “in fond fables to make their hearers laugh, or in ostentation of learning of their Latin, their Greek, their Hebrew tongue, and of their great reading of antiquities.” Richard Baxter wrote against this very thing in his classic work to ministers, The Reformed Pastor, when he said, “You cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them, or telling them a smooth tale, or pronouncing a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures at the drowsy request of one that seemeth not to mean as he speaks or to care much whether his request be granted or not.”

The Puritans had respect they had for true, godly preachers. The ministers who came to New England ranked with the best in the Puritan party. The Reverend Charles Chauncy, later to be president of Harvard College, was long remembered as an outstanding scholar at Cambridge, where he took three degrees, including that of Bachelor of Divinity, and served several years as the Greek Lecturer at Trinity. The Reverend John Cotton had three degrees from Cambridge, and was closely connected with Emmanuel College, where he became fellow, dean, head-lecturer, and catechist. The Master of Emmanuel, the Reverend John Preston, honored him by sending him divinity students to complete their studies. Thomas Hooker, who was to become the democratic founder of Hartford, also had a distinguished career at Emmanuel as a scholar, fellow, and dean, then as Curate of Esher, Surrey, and lecturer at Chelmsford, he became widely known as a preacher and as a writer on the psychology of conversion.

In our next post, we will consider the distinctive content of Puritan preaching.

Dr. Don Kistler, founder of the Northampton Press, is an ordained minister presently residing in Orlando.  He is the author of, A Spectacle Unto God: The Life and Death of Christopher Love, and Why Read the Puritans Today? The editor of all the Soli Deo Gloria Puritan reprints, Kistler has edited over 150 books and is a contributing author for Justification by Faith ALONE!; Sola Scriptura; Trust and Obey: Obedience and the Christian; Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church; and Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching.  Visit donkistler.org.  

Don Kistler