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TEXT: Galatians 6:10

SUBJECT: Puritans #10: Social Action

Today, with the Lord's help, we'll continue our study of the Puritan view of life. The book we're using to guide us was written by Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College. The title is Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were.

If you're interested in the Puritans, but feel intimidated trying to read them, this book is a very good place to start. I highly recommend it!

The Puritans, remember, were Reformed Christians who lived in England and America and flourished from about 1550 to 1750. Some of the names you recognize: John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, and maybe Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, or Cotton Mather. These men didn't see eye-to-eye on every issue, of course, but they held a consistent world-view, based on the sovereignty of God over every part of life-devotional and church life-yes-but also life at home, at work, at school, and the neighborhood.

The Puritans were not perfect. Next month, Lord willing, we'll look at some of their faults. But they thought longer and harder about things than we do. They shouldn't be followed blindly, of course, but they're worth listening to. The Puritans are good teachers-not infallible-but good. We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring them. When it comes to learning from other men, here's the rule:

"Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good".

Today's topic may surprise you. It's the Puritans on Social Action.


Social Action is a term most of us don't like. We believe that man's great need is spiritual, not financial or political. Thus, we preach a soul-saving Gospel, and not the social Gospel. We're as much against poverty or oppression as anyone else is, but we don't think it's our job to do anything about it.

Men who preach social responsibility are written off as Liberals, who've lost faith in the Gospel and replaced the glorious doctrines of God with a bleeding-heart do-goodism!

On this point, however, I suspect the Puritans had more in common with the Liberals of today, than they do with us. The Puritans did not preach the Social Gospel, yet they very firmly believed in a social conscience-or caring about your fellow citizens.

In my opinion some of what they said is obsolete, and some is just flat wrong. But most of what they said is right and applies to the People of God in every age-including our own.


The Puritan view of social action comes from their view of society. What is it? Ryken says,

"In the Puritan view, society is a whole

network of interdependent people".





The word is inter-dependent not independent. The Puritans did not live as most of us do-in a cocoon, with our families and a small group of friends. No, they believed in community-that we are connected to, dependent on, and obliged to be involved with the people who live around us. In short, they wanted neighborhoods, not subdivisions.

Here are some quotes on the subject,

"Neighbor is a word of love and signifieth

we should ever be nigh and at hand, and

ready to help in some time of need".

(William Tyndale)

"A good society is one in which each

part is so contiguous to the others

as to thereby mutually participate

with each other, both in strength and

infirmity, in pleasure and pain".

The Puritans favored separation from the world. But they were strongly against seclusion. They did not believe in running off to the mountains to live by yourself or in barricading yourself in the house to live a virtual life.

To their way of thinking, man was made for society. And that part of the Christian's calling is to be a good neighbor.


Because neighbors are connected to each other, we cannot ignore their needs to satisfy our own wishes,

"When once we are in Christ, we live for

others, not for ourselves".

(Richard Sibbes)

"The care of the public must oversway

all private respects, for it is a true

rule that particular estates cannot

subsist in the ruin of the public".

(John Winthrop)

"Go forth, every man that goeth, with

a public spirit, and look not on your

own things only, but also on the

things of others".

(John Cotton)

The Puritans would not reduce "loving your neighbor" to doing him no harm. In fact, we have a positive duty. The man who minds his own business only-the Puritans would argue-is sinning.

"Every man in his place owes himself

to the good of the whole; and if he

doth not so devote himself, he is


(Samuel Willard)

"He abuseth his calling, whoever he

be that employs it for himself, seeking

only his own, and not the common good.

And that common saying, `Every man for

Himself and God for us all is wicked'"

(William Perkins)


No discussion of social conscience can go on very long until it gets to the problem of poverty. Should we do anything for the poor? If so, what should we do, how should we do it, who should do it, and what should we expect from the poor-if anything-in return?

On this point, you've got to remember: "The poor you have with you always". No economic system has-or can eliminate all poverty. Communism said it would, but it didn't. Capitalism does better, but drive down Fremont Boulevard and it won't be long till you see people pushing shopping carts, digging through trash cans, bumming spare change, and looking for a place to bed down for the night.

Poverty is a perennial problem. The Puritans couldn't wipe it out-nobody can. But, it seems to me, they addressed the issue better than we do.

What did they say about it? In the first place, they said, It's our business.

"One main end of our civil actions, political

employments, and corporeal endeavors in

our particular callings, must be to give

to the poor".

Note the words, "one main end" (or goal). The Social Gospel goes wrong because it reduces the whole Christian life to relieving the poor. But we often go to the other extreme-saying charity is no part of our calling.

William Perkins was a leading minister. Listen to a sentence he put into one of his sermons,

"Any earnings above a fair maintenance

must go directly to the good of others,

to the relief of the poor, and the main-

tenance of the church".

This "fair maintenance" means living modestly-and paying your bills. But after this is done, give your money to the church and to the poor. The Puritans saw no difference between supporting the church, promoting missions and relieving the poor. Each one is God's work.

This is what they said. But what did they do about it?

In short, they practiced what they preached.

Lancelot Andrewes was not a Puritan, but he admitted that his people-the Anglicans-didn't match the Puritans for charity,

"They do so much good as that not one of

their poor is seen in the streets, but this city

should not be able to do the same good".

What's interesting about this quote is the context. Andrewes said this in 1588 when Calvinists from all over the world were fleeing to England for political asylum. They were being run out of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and so on, and came to England without property and unable to speak the language. But the refugees were taken care of by the Puritans.

While the Anglicans-who were far more numerous and rich than the Puritans-were not taking care of their own poor.

W.K. Jordan is a modern historian who contrasted the Catholic Middle Ages to the Puritan Era. Here's what he said about them,

"The Catholic Middle Ages were acutely sensitive

to the spiritual needs of mankind while displaying

only scant or ineffectual concern with the relief

of poverty, while the private donations in

England came-in large proportion-from

The Puritans.The great moving impulse

Behind the growth of voluntary charity is

The emergence of the Protestant ethic".

The contrast is worth thinking about: The Medieval Catholics were so worried about saving souls that they didn't care about life in this world. But the Puritans cared for the whole man-body and soul.


Were the Puritans forerunners of the Welfare State? No they weren't. They drastically differed from the Liberals of today in four ways: motive, means, goals, and effectiveness.

"True morality or Christian ethics is

the love of God and man, stirred up

by the Spirit of Christ, through faith;

and exercised through works of charity".

This is in sharp contrast to the spokesmen for the poor today who say the poor are entitled to our money and that if we don't give it to them, we're not compassionate or we're inviting riots. You see the difference, don't you? Love versus guilt or fear. Love the poor because God loves them versus Love the poor.or else.

"There must be personal cooperation".

This is charity born of love and received with gratitude. Again, the contrast could not be sharper. In our system, I work for a living, the IRS takes some of the money from me, gives it to an agency that cuts a check for the poor and sends it by mail. Note how impersonal it all is. There is no love in giving and no gratitude in taking. What should bring the poor and the rich closer together only makes each resent the other.

"Indiscriminate charity was a social menace.

It prevented the poor from realizing their

Responsibilities and seriously looking for

Employment. As a result, many Puritans

Preferred that the churches take care of

The poor in their own parishes, where

They could judge between genuine and

Fraudulent need".

The Puritans were very much committed to charity. But charity had to do some good. If it went to support drunkenness or to keep a man lazy, it was wrong. The only way to know who was getting what was to work locally-to know who you're giving the money to and to have some idea of what he's doing with it!

A few minutes ago, I quoted from Lancelot Andrewes-who hated the Puritans-admitting that their system of charity worked. That the poor they took care of were, in fact, taken care of.

Whatever you think of the Welfare State, one thing is sure: It's not working. The United States is the richest nation in the history of the world, yet millions are living under bridges, sleeping in cars, and worse. Some blame the poor, others blame the rich; it's the Republicans who did it to us-or the Democrats! It was the Sixties, Vietnam, Drugs, Reaganomics, unions, multi-national corporations, the CIA, illegal immigrants, Japan, blah, blah, blah.

I don't know to say about all this: But I know a country as rich as ours is has plenty of money to care for the poor. If we had the grace to wisdom to do it.

The Puritans did. We could learn a lot from them.


When it comes to caring for the poor, the Puritans did not blunder into the right way of doing it. Their social vision came from the Gospel. Contrasting his father's piety with the Catholic attempt to save yourself through good works, Cotton Mather wrote,

"A noble demonstration did he give that they who

do good works because they are already justified

will not come short of those who do good works

that they may be justified; and that they who

renounce all pretence to merit by their good

works will more abound in good works than

the greatest merit-monger in the world".

In other words, the Puritan social conscience comes from gratitude. We love others only because God loves us and sent His Son to redeem us from our sin and misery.

In short, the Puritans were generous to the poor because God was so generous to them. Has He given you anything? Anything you didn't deserve? If He has, then you're obliged to

"Go and do likewise".

"Freely you have received. Freely give".


Oh, one more thing: Should we help everyone or only our fellow believers?

Based on the theology of the Puritans, you should know the answer to that one: If our charity is modeled on God's, then.

"Would you have us love none but saints?
We ought to love all others with a love of

pity, we should show abundance of this

love to all mankind".

"We must have a fellow-feeling with the

misery that others are beset with regardless

of their spiritual condition".

"Such is the tenderness of the godly eye

that it sheds tears, even for enemies".

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