Did the Puritans understand suffering?
Some years ago a student came to ask me if the Puritans had a theology of suffering. Apparently he had been told by someone that they did not.
My response pointed to three basic facts.
First, the Puritans lived in a time before the discovery of antibiotics, analgesics and flush toilets. Disease and pain and filth were thus part of everyday life. A good day. a really good day, for a seventeenth century person would have involved something akin to a low-level fever which today would involve time off work. A bad day would be… Well, best not to dwell on that if you want to sleep at night. Read Samuel Pepys's account of his bladder stone operation if you are truly curious.
Second, with catastrophically high infant mortality rates, scarcely a family would have been untouched by something that today would be regarded as exceptional and horrific. John Owen buried all eleven of his children. Imagine that. And in all his voluminous writings, he never mentions these tragedies even once.
Third, the Clarendon Code of the early 1660s was legislation that led to loss of property and even liberty for many who held Puritan views in Restoration England.
So the Puritans certainly suffered – physically, emotionally, politically. But did they have a theology of suffering?
Well, few of them dwelt on their suffering in their writings so not really, no. Not explicitly so anyway. But implicitly even this silence indicated that yes, they did have a theology of suffering. It was a theology that denied cosmic significance to the pain and injustice which they personally endured. They simply did not consider themselves or their experiences to be that important. They knew they lived in a fallen world. That did not make them passive in the face of such. But it did mean that they wasted little or no time complaining about it or seeing its as some major theodicy problem. They and their lives were just not that significant in the grand scheme of things.
That is truly a bygone age.
As Philip Rieff once commented, “Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church, so as to find the rationale of their misery; they did not expect to be happy.” Or, to cite Paul: 2Corinthians 4:17.