The following extract is from J. C. Ryle’s sketch of the life of the great Thomas Manton found in the 22 volume set of Manton’s works. Though Ryle is speaking primarily of Manton, he makes it clear that what he says of Manton applies to the other Puritan theologians.
If ever there was an English divine who must be classed as a Puritan, that man is Dr. Manton. But what of it, if he was a Puritan? It does not prove that he was not a valuable theologian, an admirable writer, and an excellent man. Let me once for all make a few plain statements about the school to which Manton belonged – the school of the English Puritans. It is one of those points in the ecclesiastical history of our country about which the ignorance of most Englishmen is deep and astounding. There are more baseless and false ideas current about them than about any class of men in British history. The impressions of most people are so ridiculously incorrect, that one could laugh if the subject were not so serious. To hear them talk about Puritans is simply ludicrous. They make assertions which prove either that they know nothing at all of what they are talking about, or that they have forgotten the ninth commandment. For Dr. Manton’s sake, and for the honour of a cruelly misrepresented body of men, let me try to explain to the reader what the Puritans really were. He that supposes that they were ignorant, fanatical sectaries, hater of the Crown and Church of England – men alike destitute of learning, holiness, or loyalty – has got a great deal to learn. Let him hear some plain facts, which I will venture to copy from a work written by myself in 1868 (“Bishops and Clergy of other Days).
“The Puritans were not enemies to the monarchy. It is simply false to say that they were. They great majority of them protested strongly against the execution of Charles I, and were active agents in bringing back Charles II to England, and placing the crown on his head after Oliver Cromwell’s death. The base ingratitude with which they were afterwards treated, in 1662, by the monarch whom they helped to restore, is one of the most shameful pages in the history of the Stuarts.
“The Puritans were not enemies to the Church of England. They would gladly have had her government and ceremonial improved, and more liberty allowed in the conduct of public worship. And they were right! They very things which they desired to see, but never saw, are actually recommended at this day as worthy of adoption by Churchmen in every part of the land! The great majority of them were originally ordained bishops, and had no abstract objection to Episcopacy. The great majority of them had no special dislike to liturgies, but only to certain details in the Book of Common Prayer. Baxter, one of their leaders, expressly testifies that a very few concession in 1662 would have retained in the Church of England at least sixteen hundred of the two thousand who were driven out by the Act of Uniformity on Bartholomew’s Day.
“The Puritans were not unlearned and ignorant men. The great majority of them were Oxford and Cambridge graduates – many of them fellows of colleges, and some of them heads or principals of the best colleges in the two Universities. In knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in power as preachers, expositors, writers, and critics, the Puritans in their day were second to none. Their works still speak for them on the shelves of every well-furnished theological library. Their commentaries, their expositions, their treatises on practical, casuistical, and experimental divinity, are immeasurably superior to those of their adversaries in the seventeenth century. In short, those who hold up the Puritans to scorn as shallow, illiterate men, are only exposing their own lamentable shallowness, their own ignorance of historical facts, and the extremely superficial character of their own reading.
“The Puritans, as a body, have done more to elevate the national character than any class of Englishmen that ever lived. Ardent lovers of civil liberty, and ready to die in its defence – mighty at the civil board, and no less mighty in the battlefield – feared abroad throughout Europe, and invincible at home while united – great with their pens, and no less great with their swords – fearing God very much, and fearing man very little, - they were a generation of men who have never received from their country the honour that they deserve. The body of which Milton, Seldon, Blake, Cromwell, Owen, Baxter, and Charnock were members, is a body of which no well-informed Englishman ought ever to speak with disrespect. He may dislike their principles, if he will, but he has no right to despise them. Lord Macaulay, no mean authority in matters of English history, might well say, in his essay on Milton, ‘We do not hesitate to pronounce Puritans a brave, a wise, an honest, and a useful body.’ – Unhappily, when they passed away, they were followed by a generation of profligates, triflers and skeptics; and their reputation has suffered accordingly in passing through prejudiced hands. But, ‘judged with righteous judgment’ they will be found men of whom the world was not worthy. The more they are really known, the more they will be esteemed.”
Such was the school to which Manton undeniably belonged. Such is the truth about Puritans. That they were not perfect and faultless, I freely admit. They said, did, and wrote many things which cannot be commended. Some of them, no doubt, were violent, fierce, narrow-minded sectarians; some were half-crazy fanatics and enthusiasts. Yet, even then, great allowance ought to be made for the trying circumstances in which they were often placed, and the incessant, irritating persecution to which they were exposed. And where is the great school of religious thought which is not often disgraced by some weaker members? With all their faults, the leaders of the party were great and good men. With all their defects, the Puritans, as a body, were not the men that some authors and writers in the present day are fond of representing them to have been. Those who disparage Manton because he was a Puritan, would do well to reconsider the ground they are taking up. They will find it utterly untenable. Facts, stern facts, are dead against them. They may not admire Puritanism in the abstract, but they will never give any proof that we ought not to admire, value, and study the writings of Puritan divines.