Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were

By Leland Ryken
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1986). 281 Pages.

Reviewed by
1.2 (Fall 1990) : 215-217

The author, an English teacher at Wheaton College, initially expresses a threefold purpose for his book: (1) to correct an almost universal misunderstanding of what the Puritans really stood for, (2) to bring together into a convenient synthesis the best that the Puritans thought and said on selected topics, and (3) to recover the Christian wisdom of the Puritans for today (p. xvii).

By returning to original sources, Ryken both addresses and refutes some of the unjust allegations against the Puritans, such as they were against sex, they never laughed and were opposed to fun, they were opposed to sports and recreation, they were money-grabbing workaholics who would do anything to get rich, and they were hostile to the arts.

J. I. Packer in the forward similarly responds to criticism of earlier Puritan scholarship and expresses appreciation for Ryken's work in which "at last the record has been put straight" (p. x). Packer argues, "The typical Puritans were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens, persons of principle, determined and disciplined, excelling in the domestic virtues, and with no obvious shortcomings save a tendency to run to words when saying anything important, whether to God or man" (p. x).

Having restricted the definition of "Puritan" to a movement of those adhering to "Puritan religion" (p. xviii), Ryken explains Puritanism as a social and historical phenomenon. In order to facilitate the understanding of how seventeenth century Puritanism came into existence, he provides a helpful time-line on which he locates a few Puritan antecedents and some of the landmark dates in Puritan history.

In chapter two the book begins a topical format that continues through chapter ten. In these chapters the author discusses the Puritan perspectives on work, marriage and sex, money, family, preaching, church and worship, the Bible, education, and social action.

The chapter entitled "Puritan Preaching" is a detailed picture of the Puritan pulpit ministry. Pastors will delight both in the model of teaching ministry espoused and its pervasive effect on the home life. Specific discussions include Puritan expository preaching, sermon organization, practical application of doctrine, affective preaching, and style of preaching.

Chapter eleven, "Learning from Negative Example: Some Puritan Faults," adds a necessary touch of realism to a book defending Puritan integrity. The author summarizes, "We find it easy to admire their courage, their faithfulness to God and the Bible, their effectiveness in changing the course of history. But we also sense their remoteness from us, their somewhat forboding austerity, their rigidity, and their tendency to be looking for an argument" (p. 186).

In the final chapter, Ryken forsakes the topical format to "attempt an anatomy of underlying principles . . . each of which would apply to a whole cluster of earlier topics" (p. 205). After the analysis of divergent topics (chaps. 2-10) this chapter is a satisfying conclusion in integrating "the entire book into a unified final impression" (p. 205).

Twentieth-century evangelicals may learn several significant lessons from the Puritans: "the integration of their daily lives; . . . the quality of their spiritual experience; . . . their passion for effective action; . . . their program for family stability; . . . their sense of human worth; and . . . the ideal of church renewal" (pp. xi-xv).

Ryken's sensitive use of language adds to his grasp of the Puritans and their times to make the book pleasurable reading. The wealth of quotations from numerous Puritan writers on various topics establish this as a welcomed resource for the pastor searching for challenging quotations and illustrations. The craft with which the author weaves together these gems of wisdom and examples is commendable.