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Books: Puritanical hang-ups

Books | The real Puritans have much to teach the modern mind

Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the notion persists that the Puritans were dour, repressive, paltry, ignominious, and cheerless. Despite their laying the substantial foundations for our liberty, establishing our greatest institutions of freedom, and confirming our remarkable legacy of prosperity, the Puritans are routinely portrayed as an eminently forgettable feature of our cultural inheritance.

I hope these three companion volumes will do much to change our assumptions. Thanks to the editors at Soli Deo Gloria-who have already restored an entire library of classics from the Reformed tradition-the very best thoughts of the Puritans on conversion, prayer, and the life of love have been brought together in handsome new editions.

The Puritans on Conversion collects three rich sermons: "Sin: The Greatest Evil," by Samuel Bolton; "The Conversion of a Sinner," by Nathaniel Vincent; and "The One Thing Necessary," by Thomas Watson. Each offers vivid testimony of the Puritan emphasis on grace. They also offer abundant evidence of Puritan passion, rhetorical expertise, practicality, pastoral care, tenderhearted compassion, and holy relentlessness. The contrast with modern evangelism is starkly obvious-there is no relativism here. Instead, the integrity of the gospel is matched by the integrity of methodology and the integrity of character that was the hallmark of Puritan life.

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The Puritans on Prayer is a volume that collects several classic treatises and sermons delivered by some of the greatest Puritan divines. "The Saint's Daily Exercise," by John Preston, has long been recognized as the quintessential Puritan work on prayer, covering the whole range of its character, its nature, its necessity, its efficacy, and its delight. "The Spirit of Prayer," by Nathaniel Vincent, is a practical exhortation to constancy, watchfulness, and selflessness in the holy office of prayer. "Secret Prayer Successfully Managed," by Samuel Lee, is a remarkable series of meditations on the quiet joys of a life of both sustained and spontaneous communion with the Father. The paucity of modern piety and prayerfulness makes these dynamic Puritan examples all the more apt for us today.

Perhaps the most surprising of these volumes is The Puritans on Loving One Another. A compact anthology of sermons and treatises, this collection throws a searchlight on the covenantal responsibility and mutual concern the Puritans undertook in their lives together. "The New Commandment Renewed," by Ralph Venning, is a practical primer on interpersonal relationships within the Body of Christ. "Love One Another," by Thomas Manton, is a brilliant portrayal of the duty and privilege of selfless lovingkindness. "The Nature and Principles of Love," by Joseph Caryl, examines the issues of purity, conscience, and the affections of the heart in a marvelous series of Scriptural expositions. "The Holy Exercise of Love," by John Ball, is a kind of systematic catechism on love.

What is most evident in each of these volumes is the healthy balance the Puritans displayed in almost every aspect of their lives-a balance that we might well seek to emulate.

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