Puritan Portraits

Title: Puritan Portraits
Author: James I Packer
Book Review: Tony Fowler

If you watch ‘Richard Osman’s House of Games’, you’ll know that he introduces the contestants by describing them as ‘four famous faces/people’. This week I didn’t recognise any of them! In fact, I rarely recognise more than one of those competing. But what about these names: Thomas Boston, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel and Henry Scougal? Famous? Hardly! They’re some of the pastors portrayed in Jim Packer’s excellent book, ‘Puritan Portraits’. We tend to have such a negative attitude to the Puritans – indeed they’re normally described as being ‘puritanical’: harsh, uncompromising, unyielding, and totally lacking in compassion. This short book reveals how unfair that picture is!

The book has three main sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue asks what we mean by devotional writing. Packer argues that the Puritans produced devotional writing at its best. Section 1 is an essay on how Puritan pastors approached their work, and provides a helpful background to the specific men to whom Packer will later introduce us. It sets them in their wider context, and outlines their mindset as they sought to minister God’s Word in a turbulent period of British history.

Section 2 is made up of articles originally penned to introduce reprints of devotional books written by seven of the finest Puritan pastors: Henry Scougal, Stephen Charnock, John Bunyan, Matthew Henry, John Owen, John Flavel and Thomas Boston. Only the first and last are Scots; but the balance is redressed by the fact that three of Boston’s books are included in the series. As well as helping readers to get a handle on the material to be found in each book, these essays give a pen-portrait of the men’s lives, including the many challenges they faced. It’s to the Church’s loss, Packer argues, that these men are not famous people today. Their books have so much to offer in terms of depth of understanding of the Scriptures, practical wisdom when it comes to living the Christian life, and heart-warming, compassionate teaching to lift our spirits. Packer’s articles made me want to take up the books they were first written to commend.

Section 3 takes a more detailed look at the lives and teaching of two preeminent Puritan pastors: William Perkins, one of the earliest (his life spanned the reign of Queen Elizabeth I); and one of the latest, Richard Baxter, whose ministry had such a dramatic impact on the town of Kidderminster in Worcestershire. When he arrived, scarcely one home in a street would house somebody with any concern for the things of God. When he left, scarcely one home in any street held people who had hardened their hearts to the gospel. Packer doesn’t deify his subjects, however. He notes, for example, that Baxter’s blunt approach failed him in one of his other great concerns: promoting fellowship and unity among different branches of the Christian Church.

The epilogue, entitled ‘The Puritan Pastor’s Programme’, would suggest that this work is aimed at ministers. And, indeed, the book won’t appeal to everyone. In the first place, the Puritans don’t provide the sort of light entertainment of Richard Osman and his ilk. They were deadly serious about the perilous position of the lost, those without Christ; and deeply earnest about the Christian’s growth in godliness. But also, perhaps influenced by his subjects, Packer is at times inclined to pile clause upon clause in long sentences. (I found several sentences as long as paragraphs in much modern writing.) However, the sentences were always worth re-reading, to untangle the rich content they contain. A tough read, maybe, but worth the effort! Those of us who aren’t ministers will find in the epilogue fuel for our prayers for our pastors, those called to be under-shepherds in Christ’s flock.