Was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan?
July 21, 2014
Just who were the Puritans? Was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan? Was Matthew Henry a Puritan? Is Nacho Libre a Puritan? The answers to these questions are not uniform, but I think that once we answer the first question the following questions answer themselves.
Around 1564 the term "Puritan" emerged, primarily as a pejorative term aimed at clergymen in the Elizabethan church who wanted further reformation to take place. They objected to wearing those things that look like dog collars, and wanted to cleanse the church of other "Romish" elements. This movement was peculiar to the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These so-called "Puritans" experienced various successes and setbacks, with the major setback - probably a defeat - taking place in the early 1660s. Their glory years were the 1640s (Westminster Confession) and 1650s (Savoy).
By the eighteenth century Puritanism was effectively dead. In fact, I think the movement died - though (thankfully) not the Puritans themselves - with the Act of Uniformity on St. Barholomew's Day (1662). John Bunyan even reminisces about "the Puritans": "the man was a godly old Puritan, for so the godly were called in times past."
Puritanism moves to Dissent in 1660. But even if we allow for Puritanism to remain as a historical phenomenon after 1660, then surely the end date comes in 1689 with the Act of Toleration. After 1689 we have what has been called "Protestant Nonconformity."
In New England the context is obviously a little different, and the so-called Puritans were becoming "Yankees" by the early eighteenth century. "Puritanism" was displaced by "Evangelicalism." A state-supported church in New England was possible in the early eighteenth century, but even by the 1670s the church leaders could see the writing on the wall: that is, they could not depend on the civil leaders to take their concerns seriously (certainly not by the 1720s).
Theologically, Puritanism was not quite as monolithic as we might think or as some might like to think. Sure, most were "Calvinists"; but there were Puritans who were Antinomians; others, such as John Goodwin, were Arminians, though John Goodwin enjoyed the great affection of his Calvinist friend, Thomas Goodwin. There were ecclesiological disagreements between the Puritans (even the Presbyterians disagreed with one another), but also some intense soteriological debates among them, too.
The Puritan national church during the Cromwellian era (1650s) incorporated Baptists. In fact, as far as I am able to tell, paedobaptist attitudes towards the antipaedobaptists softened as the century wore on, especially after the Great Ejection!
Thus the term "Puritan" to describe one's theology can pose all sorts of problems. Put together in a room a bunch of Johns, such as John Owen, John Bunyan, John Howe, John Milton, John Goodwin, John Cotton, and John Eaton (all "Puritans"), and you've got an almighty amount of disagreement between them. Add Baxter, who might just have "won" by poisoning them all with his medical home remedies - unless he decided to swallow another bullet for its good medicinal effects - and you don't just have disagreement, but theological carnage.
Politically speaking they are also at odds with each other. Oliver Cromwell and John Milton had much stronger radical sympathies than other Puritans.
There are also major eschatological (remember: don't use that word in the pulpit) issues among the Puritans that require us to limit the term "Puritanism" to a specific historical context. The millennial glory that many of them hope would take place around 1660 proved to be a source of great embarrassment for those (Thomas Goodwin) who lived long enough to experience the 1660s-1670s.
So, was Jonathan Edwards a Puritan? No, he was not a Puritan. That may be a disappointment for some and a relief for others. But my admiration for the man doesn't depend on whether he was a Puritan or not. Edwards may have had the "spirit" of Puritanism in him, for he read them with profit. But he can't be described as a Puritan if the term is to have any historical meaning. There is also the fact that Edwards had a theology that was in some ways "innovative." But I don't think I want to get into that right now...
(BTW, Matthew Henry was also not a Puritan, even though his father was. Regarding Nacho Libre, I am inclined to believe he is the exception that proves the rule).
All of this is to say, I love most of the Puritans, but not all of them. Some of their theology disgusts me; some of their theology delights me. But if there is one label that ought to stand the test of the centuries it is "Confessional."