Women Reforming Religion
It’s sort of comical to think of how many Christians today perceive the Puritans as a group of men. Of course, many of those male pastors, theologians, and authors were highly influential and cannot be ignored. But where did they come from? Who did they preach, teach, and write for? How did any of them have kids? Like all centuries of the church, half of the Puritan believers in 17th Century England were women. And like Puritan men, they were equally as interested and involved in continuing the work of reforming religion in their country and contributing to society at large. Women were Puritans too, and until we get that into our brains, we can’t really understand Puritanism at all—that movement so concerned with genuinely loving God in their communities, churches, and families—without understanding the part played by Puritan women.
But I am one to talk. The first time I read the writings of a Puritan woman was only after completing my undergrad and master’s degrees in historical theology, writing a thesis on Puritanism, and starting my doctoral studies in it. Happy for me, the supervisor at my new job—working with J. I. Packer’s rare Puritan books at Regent College—was an expert in studying the experiences of women and children in the history of Christianity, and she struck the match that would burn into my fiery passion for discovering and sharing the stories of the women in my favorite era.
In 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk shows how the lives and writings of Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley encourage the beauty of holy living and provide practical wisdom for the home and the church.
Like I mentioned before, these women can be properly termed “Puritans” because they fit smack dab in the middle of the best definitions of Puritanism that we have. Not only did they exhibit the outward characteristics of this group—advocating for a more committed return to true worship in English churches than what had happened in reality—but they also exhibited the inward characteristics of sincere and wholehearted devotion to God, which overflowed into all aspects of their everyday lives.
The reason it is especially important to learn about them, however, is because they wrote about these experiences in real time as lay people. While the theological prowess of John Owen’s treatises, the moving sermons of John Bunyan, and the practical instructions of Richard Baxter are basically unmatched in terms of their expertise and skill, the writings of such popular figures are often didactic; even those that are more personally reflective still have a somewhat formulaic feel to them. Thus, though we get glimpses into their psyche and everyday life, for many of these figures we do not have years of private diary entries, hundreds of consecutive family letters, or an anthology of personal poems from them that record the humdrum events of life.
But we do from Puritan women. These forms of literature are understandably more difficult to excavate precise theological statements of faith from (though they are, of course, steeped in theological ideas since they were written by religious individuals). Yet this is exactly what makes these pieces so special and useful to us. For a highly technical breakdown of a specific doctrine, you really must go to someone like Owen. But for an unfiltered, raw, bare-all account of the lived experience of a doctrine according to an everyday Christian, you’re going to have to look somewhere else. It is in the writings of women like Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley that we can more clearly see what it was like to live in the real world as a Puritan.
This might seem to be a small point, but I can assure you it is not. For, as I mentioned earlier, one of the great accomplishments of Puritanism was applying the Bible to everyday life, and one of their main emphases was, in your truest self, communing with God and others. When we put these together, we get a form of Christian spirituality that is completely honest about one’s feelings and experiences and totally committed to finding a companion to each of these in Scripture and the Spirit.
Right now, this probably sounds too theoretical to mean much to you. But if we look at some specific examples, you’ll see what I’m getting at. It is really in the nitty gritty of their life journeys over time that the applicability of Scripture and the comfort of the Spirit shine through in precise detail, but for now, some little tidbits will do.
Power and Limitations of Words
When Agnes Beaumont, a young Baptist convert, had to face the horrible rumors being spread about her and the ghastly names she was being called, even by her own father, she remembered from the Bible that God calls his children his “beloved.” This word became the “melody” that sang in her heart through the ongoing, even cumulative, trials that came her way. When Mary Rich was struggling in her relationship with an angry husband, she meditated on the story of unjustified anger in Jonah 4:9. This helped her confirm that she wanted to remain calm no matter what because that would mean she was rational, virtuous, and beautiful, and that she wanted others to do the same, which influenced her determination to help those in need around her, in the end, giving away a third of her income to charity. And when Lucy Hutchinson decided to write a theological treatise for her daughter, she framed it around sticking to the love and faith of the church, as inspired by passages like James 2:16. Theological reflection on what Scripture has to say about loving all people led her to affirm the importance of not only loving one’s own family and church, but also believers in other denominations as well as those outside the church in genuine and practical ways.
One of the great accomplishments of Puritanism was applying the Bible to everyday life . . .
Such a marriage of life, Scripture, and divine love did not just pop up in little crevices here and there or only in the hard times; rather, they were the general spirit of these women’s everyday experiences. And by honing this skill over time, they were led to great insights regarding themselves, their relationships with others, and their relationship with God. They wrote wise sayings like, “starve a lust to feed a saint,” let out proclamations like, “O it is a sweet thing to open our hearts to our God as to a friend, ” and penned notes to their loved ones like, “you sleep and dream not of the spiritual loving care I have for you.”
For me, at least, it’s kind of hard to say what is so captivating, gratifying, and gladdening about their words. The best way I can think of it is like making a new friend—you have a random conversation with someone about something, something that maybe isn’t interesting in itself at all, and you just click. Probably it has to do with the blessing of communication—that we can sit across from another person who has a different brain and different life and by using words from a shared language we can, in an instant, get a glimpse into their way of experiencing the world and have them do the same with us, and then a little light sparks and we are suddenly connected. Like I said, it’s hard to explain, and you can probably best understand it from your own experience rather than having me try to describe it in words. Behold, the irony of language!
These Puritan women also understood the great power and limitations of words. When Beaumont said that the term “beloved” made a melody in her heart, she added “such a melody that I cannot tell you.” When Mary Rich experienced another horrible loss in the death of her only son, she wrote of her “inexpressible grief.” And when Hutchinson instructed her daughter to stick close to the church, she concluded that the joining of believers in public worship made the Lord’s presence among them more glorious, “in such a manner as cannot be expressed but by them who have experienced it.”
Maybe this is all a bit more airy fairy than you were expecting from the Puritans, the great championers in England of Reformed theology, which is known for its use of reason and distinctions and concrete ideas. But I assure you that the spiritual theology of these women is not something foreign to Reformed Christianity; it’s actually us—you and me—that get it wrong by thinking Reformed Christianity is all mind and no spirit.
Overall, it is the spirit of these women that I think is the primary reason we should read them today. When you have a spark exchange with another human, especially when it is about the Creator of all things, the first mover and lover, a little piece of your soul that got chipped off by the difficult experiences of life comes back into your heart, making it even stronger and more beautiful than it was before. And that’s something all of us—female or male, young or old, devoted or seeking—only need more of in our lives.
Jenny-Lyn de Klerk is the author of 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love.
With our course marked out for learning contentment, let’s think about how we might evaluate where we are in our own personal progress.
Reading the Puritans can contribute to our growth, holiness, and conviction of the need to stay close to the Lord.
Spiritual warfare made the Puritans what they were. They accepted conflict as their calling, seeing themselves as their Lord’s soldier-pilgrims.
The genius of the Puritans was that they knew how to build bridges between Scripture and the human heart.