The Style of Puritan Preaching
One of the great follies of which many studies on Puritanism are guilty is the practice of analyzing and criticizing the Puritans rather than allowing them to analyze and criticize us! It is not my intent in this series of posts to comment on the preaching of these godly men, but rather to allow their preaching to speak for itself and to comment on our preaching.
Of all the names used in the 16th century to describe the Puritans, such as “precisians,” “disciplinarians,” “the brethren,” “the consistorians,” and the name which best sums up their character is “the Godly preachers.”
The essential thing in understanding the Puritans is that they were preachers before they were anything else, and preachers with a particular emphasis that could be distinguished from other preachers by those who heard them. Into whatever efforts they were led in their attempt to reform the world through the church, and however these efforts were frustrated by the leaders of the church, what bound them together, undergirded their striving, and gave them the dynamic to persist was their consciousness that they were called to preach the gospel. “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel,” was their inspiration and justification. Puritan tradition in the first and last resort must be assessed in terms of the pulpit.
The Puritan preachers termed their style of preaching as “spiritual preaching” in contrast to the “ceremonial preaching” of the Roman (and eventually even the Anglican) church. John Foxe, the martyrologist, said that the true Christian is not the “ceremonial man after the Church of Rome, but the spiritual man with his faith and other fruits of piety following the same.”
This emphasis on religion as spiritual and not ceremonial was a marked characteristic of godly preaching, and in time the Puritan preachers came to be known as “spiritual preachers” in contrast to the “witty” preaching of their opponents. They not only were to be understood by the people, but they were to stir their emotions, touch their imaginations, convert them to the Lord, save them from sin and death and hell, help them to discern the striving of the Spirit in their hearts as they struggled to make good their election, and point them to the true end of man which was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. To this end they eschewed literary and cultivated allusions, classical quotations, scholastic or metaphysical arguments, choosing rather to speak in homely language spiced with illustrations culled from the farm, market-place, or home. Note the following quotes by several divines to that end:
“I had rather be understood by ten than admired by ten thousand.” – Jonathan Edwards
“It is no easy matter to speak so plain that the ignorant may understand us, so seriously that the deadest hearts may feel us, and so convincingly that contradictory cavaliers may be silenced.” – Richard Baxter
“Starched oratory may tickle the brain, but it is plain doctrine that informs the judgment, that convicts the conscience, that bows the will, and wins the heart.” – Thomas Brooks
Nehemiah Rogers gave this lesson in his Parable of the Rich Fool (1622):
“Ministers ought to speak to their people so as to be understood of them. God commanded Habakkuk to write the vision, that is, what God was about to declare unto him, and to make it plain upon tables, so that he who runs might read, Hab.2:2. The Levites, in the day of Nehemiah, did so read the Law unto the people as that they caused the people to understand it, Neh.8:7. It was prophesied of John the Baptist that he should go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way, Luke 1:76, and how he should do this is further declared, by giving knowledge of salvation unto the people, v.77, which was done, not by infusion, but by instruction, publishing the doctrine of salvation in so plain and familiar a manner that all that heard him might understand the meaning. So all faithful pastors which are after God’s own heart, and of His giving and sending, feed their people with knowledge and understanding, Jer.3:15. How with knowledge unless with understanding? And how with understanding unless they could be understood?
“The end of our preaching is our people’s profit, as the Apostle speaketh, I Cor.7:35, ‘this I speak for your own profit,’ and thus too, ‘for if I come to you speaking with tongues, such as you understand not, what shall I profit you?’ I Cor.14:6. It is no other than to speak in to the air, in respect of any fruit or profit that can follow thereupon to the hearer, for the will follows the act of understanding. Without understanding there can be no assenting; without assenting, no believing. To believe a thing further than we know it is impossible; to love it is lightness, to hate it is injustice.
“From hence it follows that not only those ministers are failing in their duties and come under check who have mouths and speak not; although they have a treasury of learning and other excellent abilities, yet they will as soon part with their hearts as with their meditations; but they also deserve reproof who speak but say not, no way applying themselves to their people’s capacities; seeking rather to show themselves scholars unto their people than to make their people scholars of Christ.
“This we never learned of our Lord and Master. He hath set us a better copy of His own example, ‘He spake the Word unto His hearers as they were able to hear,’ Mark 4:33, ‘not as He was able to have spoken unto them.’ And so Christ tells His disciples, ‘I have many things to say, but you cannot bear them now,’ John 16:2. He had respect to the capacity of His audience.”
In our next post, we will consider the distinctive dignity 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.