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The Puritan Fire
The story of the Puritan Revival is that of England itself in the most heroic period of her history. It is the story of her great uncrowned king, Oliver Cromwell; of an earnest and sustained endeavor to found the government of this realm upon the deep, broad base of the Eternal Righteousness; of a time when, in the glowing language of Baxter, "England was like to become a land of saints, a pattern of holiness to the world, and the unmatchable paradise of the earth." And it is all this because it is the story of the English Bible.
The real beginnings of Puritanism are seen in London, when, as the fruit of the sacrificial labors of Tyndale and his brethren, the Book of God was at last given to the people in their own tongue. The first six Bibles were set up in the nave of St. Paul's, and day after day crowds flocked to the edifice to drink from the living stream.
Good readers were in great request, and one of these stands out vividly in the page of the historian, John Porter, a fresh young man, big of stature, to whom the multitude resorted, "because he could read well and had an audible voice." Soon that glad and solemn scene was repeated throughout the whole land, for in every Parish Church the Bible was displayed, chained in the porch, and, as in the days of Nehemiah, men listened with streaming eyes to the words of the Book.
But the Book did not remain in the porch. In the form of the small Geneva version, it entered the homes of the people, and there it was deeply, prayerfully pondered. It is well that it was so, for the clergy of that day, ere the Puritan fire reached the pulpit, were faithless shepherds and in many cases grossly immoral. In Baxter's parish, the vicar, an old blind man, holding two livings twenty miles apart, never preached at all, but repeated the prayers by heart (and without heart!) being assisted latterly by his son, the best stage player and gamester in the country round. Sunday was a day of revelry.
The Morris dancers, in their fantastic dress, entered the church, gave careless heed to the mumbled devotions, then ran out to play. But, quietly and surely, the Bible did its Divine work in the homes of the people. Everywhere men and women, as they read, were awakened and converted. These converts of the pure Word were marked at once as a peculiar people. A deep sense of the Holy Majesty of God possessed them. An ineffable light seemed to spring from the Book and invest them.
The awful purity of God, contrasting with the foul world around them, almost over-whelmed their spirit. It entered into them and filled them with a tremendous earnestness of moral purpose. No wonder they appeared to their neighbors as inhabitants of another sphere. Men tried to find a name for them, and as often before and since, the nickname they invented stuck fast. They called them Puritans.
In other days Puritanism might have held on in its quiet channels, vitalizing the nation by a gently pervasive influence. But the course of events brought it into a great and terrible pro-eminence. Because of the decisive part it played in the Civil War, we are apt to think of it as essentially stern and warlike; but, in truth, Puritanism found its strength in a quiet and peaceable people. They suffered long and patiently under the cruel tyranny of the Stuarts.
Rather than lift the sword against their unworthy rulers, a multitude sought refuge in the New World, and, battling with Nature's grim but honest powers, built up a free and righteous state. In the course of some ten years, 20, 000 of the best of England's race crossed the Atlantic, and the great American Commonwealth is the direct outcome of the Puritan awakening. From the days of the Pilgrim Fathers America has been the Home of Revival, and there the living waters have again and again appeared to diffuse a world-wide blessing.
In England itself a strange and wonderful time followed the triumph of Cromwell and the Puritan host. By the Solemn League and Covenant, the nation bound itself to God in holy obedience. The Bible was placed on the table of the House of Commons and recognized as the fount of its laws, the inspiration of its life. Vital godliness became the indispensable qualification for public office. Swearing, drunkenness, and impurity were criminal offences. Every theatre in the land was closed. England became a refuge of the oppressed, the tower and strength of Protestantism in Europe. It never stood higher among the nations than in the days of Cromwell's Protectorate.
These were the days of the great Puritan preachers of Owen, Howe, Baxter, Goodwin, and the immortal Bunyan, whose works have enriched every generation of preachers since, and whose pastoral devotion has never been surpassed. In a brief account of one of these we may taste the quality of a Puritan minister and feel the power of the Puritan Fire.
When Richard Baxter went to Kidderminster it had a population of about 3000, shrewd, hard-headed weavers, who worked diligently and lived in considerable comfort. Their vicar was a weak, incompetent man who preached but once a quarter, and then so foolishly that he roused only the laughter of his audience, while his curate was a common drunkard seldom out of the alehouse, and ignorant even of the Children's Catechism. The people, thus neglected, abode in deep spiritual darkness, ignorant, wild, and ungodly.
When Baxter settled amongst them they gave him a rough reception, but the utterly selfless spirit of the man soon secured their respect. His was one of the finest intellects of the time. He was a master of mathematics, physics, and medicine. But the whole mass of his knowledge, the whole being of the man, were aglow with the love of God and of his fellows. His whole energy flowed in one channel; he was always and every where a soul-winner. He preached with passionate earnestness, and ever, he tells us, "as a dying man to dying men." Soon the large church was filled to overflowing, and gallery after gallery had to be added, to the number of five.
How often is the pastor lost in the preacher! Baxter felt that his work was but half done when he had studiously prepared and forcefully preached his sermon. He must come into vital, personal, individual touch with his people, and so he invented his own method of catechizing. He arranged that every family in his parish should come to his house, one by one, and with each family he spent an hour. Then he took each member apart, and urgently, tenderly besought him to make immediate decision for Christ. Seldom did a family leave Baxter's door without tears.
The fruit of this labor was most precious, and filled the faithful minister's heart with an overflowing joy. Fully a third of the older inhabitants were converted, and the young received a great blessing. Family worship was set up in almost every home, and as one passed through the streets, the songs of Zion might be heard resounding from every quarter. Kidder-minster became a "colony of Heaven" in the days of the Puritans. The blessing spread to the country around. The neighboring ministers especially felt the Heavenly influence, and Baxter became a shepherd of shepherds to his brethren.
"The Reformed Pastor," that great Puritan homiletic, contains the gist of his instructions, and it has inspired and directed some of the noblest ministries of modern times. This book and his "Call for the Unconverted," with "The Saints' Everlasting Rest," are his abiding legacy to the Church.