Book Review: Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction

Puritanism:  A Very Short Introduction, by Francis J. Bremer

Although the quality of this series is wildly uneven [1], in general I am fond of reading these very short introductions of various subjects because the extreme brevity of the text forces writers to be concise in their discussion of topics and only to include what they feel to be the most essential matters.  This brevity is something to be celebrated and it allows one to get a basic introduction to fundamental matters while one is engaged in reading massive amounts of books about subjects as part of various syntopical reading projects.  In this particular case the author does a great job because he takes on a difficult job (defining what it means to be a Puritan) and does something fairly remarkable in contemporary writing, and that is sticking to the sources and what they say rather than in focusing on his own supposed insight into the topic he is writing about.  While this should be by no means a rare approach, it frequently appears that many writers fail to do what is obvious in seeking to increase their credibility by showing more textual knowledge and less speculation, but only time will tell if this approach becomes more common.

This particular book is a bit more than 100 pages and is divided into seven chapters.  The author begins this book with a list of illustrations and an introduction.  After that he explores the Puritans and their goals of reforming the English Reformation (1), which seems more unusual on the surface than in reality when one understands the compromises that were involved in the incomplete English reformation.  After that the author discusses Puritan experiments at showing holy living in practice, most notably in the New England colonies (2).  The authors then discuss the relationship between the Puritan and his God (3), which is explored through the discussions of Puritans about sch matters as grace, security, and predestination.  After that comes some discussion on living the Puritan life and how that often alienated people from less restrained neighbors (4).  This leads naturally into a discussion on Puritans and their neighbors (5), who were often less than enamored with the Puritan focus on holy and restrained living.  After this the author discusses the relationship between Puritans and larger society (6) as well as the Puritan legacy (7) in the English-speaking world.  Finally, the book ends with references, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

Admittedly, there is a lot more to Puritanism than this particular book indicates, but if you want a good guide to the subject this will at least get you started in a fair-minded way.  A great deal of the discourse on Puritans and their religious thinking has been greatly harmed because we have read about them more from their enemies and from mockers whose words cannot be taken seriously than we have from the Puritans themselves, who were not shy about reflecting on their struggles and lives.  If we want to understand the Puritans–and I think it is worthwhile to understand them even if my own beliefs are distinct from theirs–then it is best to do so taking their own writings as being serious and honest.  The opposition that Puritans had to the Anglican compromise between Catholic and Protestant principles has put the Puritans at a bit of a disadvantage, especially since it never became a national and dominant religious tradition during the course of English history and because taking American religious history has not been a frequently undertaken scholarly task.  But it can be done and this book demonstrates at least part of what can be done working in that field.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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