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Puritanism: A Legacy Disdained by Historians and Sullied with the Devil’s Victory in Salem


As Appearing in the Pneuma Review - Summer 2013

As Appearing in Pneuma Review Summer 2013

The American journalist and satirist, H. L. Mencken, most famously quipped that Puritanism was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” In many quarters of American life the Puritans are still dismissed as prudes and killjoys that have nothing to teach the modern world. Very often, the infamous Salem witch trials are cited as proof of Puritan fanaticism, barbarism and irrelevancy. Unfortunately, even many well informed Christians have absorbed these myths and misunderstandings about the Puritans from misinformed secularists.

However, evangelical scholars would agree that Puritan theological and devotional writings are among the greatest gems of Christian literature. They have come to appreciate and read their writings, as for instance, the superb revival analysis of Jonathan Edwards, or the theological writings of Richard Baxter. Evangelical seminaries are now requiring appropriate Puritan writings as an essential part of Christian education.1

Here we will first sketch a history of the Puritans and outline their titanic contribution to Christian literature and faith; and then tackle the wide spread mythology about the Puritan witchcraft trials of Salem, Massachusetts. The widespread misinformation about these trials greatly harmed the Puritan reputation, and indeed that of all of Christendom.

Who were the Puritans?

The Puritans were the first major renewal group within the English Reformation. Puritan pastors, writers and theologians recovered much of the Hebraic “earthy” perspective that accentuated the goodness of life on earth. This is in contrast to the predominant pre-Reformation theology of the Western Church (Catholic) which was heavily “Hellenized” and “other-worldly,” and often slighted the role of the layperson in Church life.2 The Puritan’s rejection of Christian Hellenization was not a conscious goal, but rather the natural result of reading the Bible, including the Old Testament, without the allegorical and ascetical traditions that were dominant in Christian theology since the 4th Century. Puritan writers and theologians made Reformed theology into a practical, and biblically centered way of life that looked heavenward while valuing of life on earth. A recent book by the noted Christian scholar, Leland Ryken, calls the Puritans “worldly saints” because of their concerns with practical living.3 All this is contrary to their current caricature, which paints them as glum killjoys focused on avoiding earthly temptations.

The Puritans were originally a faction within the Church of England (the Anglicans) who wanted their church “purified” and to be more like Calvin’s Reformed Church in Geneva—and less like the Church of Rome. Most Puritans stayed within the Anglican Church and worked for reform from within. Among these were some of Puritanism’s greatest theologian/pastors such as John Owens, Richard Baxter and William Perkins. A minority were “separatists” who could not tolerate the “papist” ways of Anglicanism (such as vestments and fixed liturgy) and chose to separate from Anglicanism, often at considerable cost—as in losing their salaried pastoral offices.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame were Puritan Separatists, but the majority of America’s Puritans came to New England a decade later, during the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, and were technically Anglicans. However, since there were no Anglican bishops in America they developed a “congregational” type of church government where the local church was governed by its members. They ultimately separated from the Anglican Church.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2013

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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