Today’s guest post is from Jenny-Lyn de Klerk (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). She is the author of 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love (Crossway, 2023) and has contributed to the Essential Lexham Dictionary of Church History (Lexham, 2022). She works as an editor at Crossway and you can follow her on Twitter at @puritanjenny.

When I first started reading Puritan women, I was not surprised that they wrote about spiritual practices. They were, of course, Puritans! Holiness, discipline, and zeal were in their theological DNA. But I was surprised to find that they often reflected on their personal use of spiritual practices and how they impacted their lives—and the lives of those around them—in very specific and unique ways.

In the end, what I took away from these Puritan writers was that (1) they used these practices to know God better, (2) they were intentional about using these practices but were never perfect, and (3) their use of these practices was organically connected to other aspects of their existence, like parenting and working. Their autobiographies, poems, diary entries, letters, and treatises showed me that Christian spirituality was a whole thing, a big thing, a full thing. It wasn’t one part of their schedule or to-do list but a holistic method they used to live all of life with God, bring all of themselves to him, receive all of the blessings he wanted to give, and engage with their full selves in the main purpose of Christian living—loving their Creator and his creatures.

Although we may think it a cliché, studying the Puritans reminded me afresh that leading a Christian life is not about following a set of rules but rather developing a relationship with God. This came through loud and clear in the Puritan women I was reading.

If you read my book 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love, you’ll see that in one letter to her son Edward, Lady Brilliana Harley wrote out a lengthy description of how to do self-examination (so long that I decided to add numbering to it in my book to make it easier to read). And in a letter to her friend Lord Berkeley, Mary Rich wrote out an essay about how he should structure his entire life according to the spiritual disciplines.

If we read Harley and Rich correctly—taking into account all they said and preserving the original emphases and priorities they articulated—we see that their rules alone are not enough to reveal what they believed and what they did. They wanted to spend time with God because they loved him and they knew he loved them, so they developed systems to support knowing God.

One quote that might sum it up comes from Rich after her sister Katherine—a godly woman who worked as a scientist and was Rich’s closest friend in life—was leaving Rich’s home at the end of a long visit. Rich was really discouraged about this and wrote a lament with this conclusion: “Yet my best friend,” meaning God, “stayed with me” (Rich, Memoir of Lady Warwick, 164).

Of course, as ordinary human beings bringing their hearts and souls to God, Puritan women sometimes encountered obstacles that got in the way. For example, Rich recorded instances in her diary when hot weather, an unexpected visitor, important errands, or just plain old tiredness would shorten her meditation time. When she lost her husband, it seems that she entirely abandoned her regular schedule of spiritual disciplines for several months.

What this tells me is that, in general, we must have special times of communion planned with God and do our best to meet with him there if we want to keep close to him. Yet, even in the times that we’re not at our best, God is still with us. And since being with him is the whole point of the practices in the first place, we can rest assured that he still loves us and is still nearby even if we can’t form the words to pray to him or our brains won’t think very deeply about him.

As we spend time with God, we are changed—our perspective or feelings about a situation might change, our desires and goals might change, and we may become motivated to change our behaviours. And even if unspoken, the people we interact with can feel these effects too. Because the lives of Puritan women were integrated in this way, their use of spiritual disciplines started and ended in organic relationship with other aspects of their lives.

Lucy Hutchinson, for example, poured an immense amount of time into theological studies and then ended up writing the only theological treatise we have from a woman in the seventeenth century to encourage her daughter, Barbara, to stick close to the church. Likewise, because Agnes Beaumont memorized Scripture, she was able to lovingly and truthfully evangelize her father during a medical crisis when there was simply no time to find a Bible and read it aloud. And when Anne Bradstreet began to craft her own poetry after immigrating to New England and facing the highs of childrearing and the lows of child losses, she dedicated prayers to her family in order to sanctify their shared experiences of joy and sorrow.

Overall, though they get a bad rap for being religious extremists who made no space for emotion or error, the Puritans were actually quite balanced. Their ideal spirituality entailed knowing God, giving their all to do so, and getting it all back in return.

Book links here are part of the Amazon Associates program.