Discipleship in the Puritan Era - Part One

The English Puritans were a 16th and 17th century movement that sought to purify the Church of England in worship and doctrine. They were the outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation and heavily influenced the later development of Christianity in North America. The Puritans were Reformed and emphasized the necessity of spiritual conversation. The Puritans placed a special emphasis on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, which strongly influenced modern Evangelicalism. Contemporary Evangelicals are beginning to look once again to the Puritans for their robust theology.[1] What is not so widely known about the Puritans is their emphasis on discipleship and how that can speak today in the 21st century. J.I. Packer says,

“The Puritans were robust in their view of life. To be a Puritan was to look forward to the glory that is to come and to prepare for a good death-that would be the last act of a life of good and faithful discipleship.”[2]

Here are a few ways that the Puritans made gospel centered disciples.

Biblical Preaching Ivonwy Morgan said, “The essential thing in understanding the Puritans was that they were preachers before they were anything else…what bound them together, undergirded their striving, and gave them the dynamic to persist as their consciousness that they were called to preach the Gospel.”[3] The Puritan era produced some of the greatest preachers England has ever known.[4] Men such as William Perkins (1558-1602), Richard Baxter (1615-1691), Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), and John Owen (1616-1683) were theological giants as well as great biblical preachers.

The Puritan pastor played an important role in discipleship of believers through preaching and personally catechizing the flock.[5] One of the primary reasons Puritans were great preachers is because they were men of prayer who loved the Bible.[6] Their sermons were biblically grounded and saturated with doctrine and devotion to the risen Christ.[7] J.I. Packer offers the following marks of Puritan preaching:

  1. Expository in its method
  2. Doctrinal in its content
  3. Orderly in its arrangement
  4. Popular in its style
  5. Christ centered in its orientation
  6. Experimental in its interests
  7. Piercing in its application
  8. Powerful in its manner[8]

The Puritans took the sermon beyond the pulpit on Sunday morning. Men, women, boys, and girls were all expected to hear, discuss, and apply the sermon to their everyday lives. Families were encouraged to discuss the sermon around the dinner table and at home throughout the week. Erroll Hulse said, “Heads of families should make sure that the sermon materials are retained. Encourage lively discussion and repletion of the main heads of the exposition at meal table.”[9] In a similar way, Mark Dever says, “They realized that in preaching their sermons well, they would be educating the church. That’s why they would encourage families to rehearse the sermons at the dinner table.”[10] By encouraging families to discuss the sermon each week, discipleship was extended from the pulpit to the home. Families played an important role in discussing the sermon in informal small groups.

Devotional Writing Packer says, “Puritan pastors insisted that part of being a good Christian was to read Puritan devotional books, and so a common literature bound the constituency together.”[11] The Puritans were prolific authors who produced a plethora of devotional books and pamphlets for their followers.[12] William Perkins’ writings totaled over 2,500 pages and were translated into half a dozen languages. John Owen’s works are collected in 24 volumes-including his large work on the Holy Spirit and his 7-volume commentary on Hebrews. John Bunyan wrote 60 books over a 30 year time period. Richard Baxter also wrote an impressive 1143 pages which included various topics from pastoral ministry to dying well.

Nearly 300 years ago, George Whitefield said, “Though dead, they by their writings yet speak.”[13] Their writings still have power and influence today. Packer passionately reminds us, “The unction continues, the authority is still felt, and the mature wisdom still remains breathtaking, as all modern Puritan-readers soon discover for themselves. Through the legacy of this literature the Puritans can help us today towards the maturity that they knew, and that we need.”[14]

Catechisms and Creeds The Puritans also used catechisms, creeds, and confessions to disciple their flocks.[15] A catechism is the process of instructing believers both young and old in the basics of the Christian faith. Catechisms provide basic summaries of the church’s teachings to ensure that all members of the church understand the essentials of the faith for themselves. Most catechisms generally have questions and answers accompanied by Biblical support and explanations.

The Puritans developed their own catechisms, including the Westminster Larger and Smaller Catechisms in the 1640’s. For many Protestant Christians everywhere, the Westminster Catechisms are the most important and influential of all the Reformed catechisms. These documents were written to provide children, new believers, and church members alike a short but comprehensive summary of the Reformed church’s doctrines.

Puritan pastors encouraged heads of families to catechize family members in their home. Richard Baxter said, “Persuade the master of every family to cause his children and servants to repeat the Catechism to him, every Sabbath evening, and to give him some account of what they have heard at church during the day.”[16] Puritan pastors regularly visited the homes of their flock to catechize families. They believed that the pastor had a personal responsibility to personally catechizing church members.[17]

[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990. 11.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ivonwy Morgan, The Godly Preachers of the Elizabethan Church. London: Epworth Press, 1965. 11.

[4] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 280-281.

[5] See Richard Baxter’s classic The Reformed Pastor. The entire book is dedicated to training pastors on reformed ministry which included preaching and personally catechizing.

[6] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust. 2001. 122.

[7] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 284.

[8] Ibid, 284-288.

[9] Erroll Hulse, “The Puritans and the recovery of the Lord’s Day.”  Thomas Ascol, Editor. Reclaiming the Gospel and reforming Churches.  Cape Coral, FL: Founder Press, 666.

[10] Mark Dever,” The Value of the Puritans for SBC Ministry.” Thomas Ascol, Editor. Reclaiming the Gospel and reforming Churches.  Cape Coral, FL: Founder Press, 624.

[11] J.I. Packer, “Physicians of the Soul.” Christian History and Biography. Issue 89, winter 2006. 12.

[12] Ibid, 28-31.

[13] George Whitfield, quoted in A Quest for Godliness. 23.

[14] Ibid, 23.

[15] Donald Van Dyken, Rediscovering Catechism. New Jersey: P&R publishing. 2000. 14.

[16] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor. 177.

[17]  Ibid, 42.


Dr. Winfield Bevins serves as lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks, which he founded in 2005.  His life’s passion in ministry is discipleship and helping start new hurches. Winfield speaks at conferences and retreats throughout the United States on a variety of topics. He is the author of dozens of articles as well as several popular ebooks including Grow: Reproducing through Organic Discipleship. He recently wrote Creed: Connect to the Basic Essentials of the Christian Faith which is now available through NavPress.

Winfield has a doctorate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He lives in the beautiful beach community of the Outer Banks with his wife Kay and two daughters where he loves to surf and spend time at the beach with his family and friends.