Puritanism is a word that, I’m sure, conjures no small array of preconceived determinations and judgments. It is, as they as, a “loaded word” — perhaps a moniker whose usefulness is undone by its baggage. I understand the sentiment. To be a Puritan is almost akin to being a Pharisee, wherein the righteous meticulousness of the faithful life overpowers the “more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Mt 23:23) Earning the label “Puritan” is to receive the libel of legalist, i.e., the “Scarlet L” of modern Christendom.
Such assessments of Puritanism, however, are not confined to contemporary thought. In fact, the jaded view of the Puritans stretches back hundreds of years, as is seen in the excerpted passage below from Rev. John Henry Jowett. What Jowett does, here, is both address the jaundice associated with the Puritan idea while also affirming its judicious advantage. He is expositing 1 Peter 4, with these specific comments springing from verse 4: “They are surprised (“they think it strange,” KJV) that you don’t join them in the same flood of wild living — and they slander you.” Jowett remarks:
“They think it strange!” They are arrested in wonder! What is the significance of this? That we shall startle the world by our Puritanism. We “run not with them into the same excess of riot.” They are astounded! Puritanism is arresting. Do not let us be ashamed of the old word. Puritanism is most vigorously denounced where it is least understood. We need to get back the commanding characteristics of its life. We need to recover its broad principles, but not its particular and detailed application. I speak not now of the counterfeit Puritanism which expressed itself in loud and eccentric externalisms, and in much flaunted and self-advertised piety and self-denial. There is the Puritan described by Lord Macaulay, who was distinguished from other men by “his gait, his garb, his lank hair, the sour solemnity of his face, the upturned white of his eyes, his nasal twang, and his peculiar dialect.” That is a puritanism for which no sane and healthy man desires a resurrection. But there is the Puritanism which Longfellow portrays in Miles Standish; there is the Puritanism of John Milton, in whose poetry we touch the very heart and spirit of the great awakening. What, then, is the characteristic ideal of true Puritanism? It is life whose secret springs are governed by the eternal. It is choice of duty before ease, of ideas before sensations, of truth before popularity, of a good conscience before a full purse, of the holy God before dazzling and bewitching Mammon! That is the true Puritanism, and that is the life whose glorious passion arrests the unrestrained and riotous world in sharp and inquisitive wonder.1
The all-surpassing point of Jowett in this passage is to raise the Christian’s affections from the temporal to the eternal — which, as it turns out, is precisely what the Lord’s apostle was likewise determined to do. St. Peter’s overriding charge is that God’s will for the church is for them to live in the holiness that God’s Son has wrought. (1 Pt 4:1; cf. 3:18–22) As those in the church live accordingly, those outside the church are scandalized. “They are surprised that you don’t join them.”
The reason for the church’s disengagement from “the same flood of wild living” is not out of a holier-than-thou approximation of righteousness, but because of their eternal outlook. (1 Pt 4:7–11) The heart of the Puritan perspective is one that was arrested by the heavenly. In that case, then, St. Paul might’ve been accused of encouraging Puritanism. “If you have been raised with Christ,” he writes, “seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1–3; cf. Phil 3:13–14)
Such is what the world needs, though. Namely, those who are so captivated by the glories of heaven that they cannot help but shout the wonders of the glory that has come down. Setting your mind “on things above” is to consider that great “mystery of godliness,” wherein the God of the heavens was “manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Tm 3:16) It is to be enamored with the One in whom shines the “radiance of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3), in whose face we see the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory.” (2 Cor 4:6) Such enthralling faith is itself a sermon to the world of the world’s truest, greatest, and deepest need — that of the Prince of Heaven who came and visited and died for those on Earth.
John Henry Jowett, The Epistles of St. Peter (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1906), 158–59.