Question: In your studies, have you found out much about the Puritans? My understanding is that they were upstanding, God-fearing people who sought to worship Him in truth. Then after coming to America, they became excessively legalistic and as intolerant of others as their persecutors were before them. Is the current aversion of the various churches to ``legalism'' a backlash against the rigidity of the Puritans?-H.D., Missouri.

Answer: There are different ways in which the word ``Puritan'' is used. In the broad sense, the word describes an approach to theology that arose in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This approach is characterized by a belief in the unity of the Bible, and in particular in the eternal validity of the moral law of God, especially the ten commandments.

In my article ``Our Own Thanksgiving Story'' in Issue 6 of Grace and Knowledge, I begin the story of the Sabbatarians by talking about Puritanism. That is because the Seventh Day Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Church of God (Seventh Day), and the WCG (until recently) and its offshoots are all part of the Puritan tradition, broadly defined. (This is brought out very well in the books of the Seventh-day Adventist historian Bryan W. Ball, including The English Connection : The Puritan Roots of Seventh-Day Adventist Belief, J. Clarke, Cambridge, England, 1981; and The Seventh-day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800 , Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994.)

Puritanism was one of the main schools of thought in the English Reformation, so Puritans were one variety of Protestants. In the WCG, we used to say that we weren't ``Protestants.'' However, in our Puritan approach to the Bible, we definitely always were Protestants.

Among Puritans, there were different views about the relationship between church and state. Most Puritans had no problem with the idea of a state church. Their goal was to reform the Church of England, and eventually all of society, according to their interpretation of biblical law. They envisioned a state church playing an instrumental role in carrying out their program. On the other hand, some Puritans, the ``Separatists,'' placed a high value on freedom of conscience and favored religious liberty and separation of church and state. Baptists, including the Seventh Day Baptists, are very much a part of the Separatist tradition.

In the United States, we usually associate the word ``Puritan'' with the specific group of Puritans who founded and settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These Puritans hoped to carry out their vision of an ideal society in the New World through a theocracy, with church and state combined. I discuss this group of Puritans in the article ``Cotton Mather's Dilemma: Christmas in Puritan New England'' in Issue 2 of Grace and Knowledge . The New England Puritans didn't become intolerant after reaching the United States. They never claimed to be tolerant of ideas with which they disagreed, and indeed they weren't. It wasn't long after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded that Separatists began leaving it for havens of religious freedom like Rhode Island.

There has been a definite anti-Puritan backlash in the United States over the past 150 years. Since religious freedom and separation of church and state are very important to Americans, we tend to view their experiment in theocracy with suspicion; and in a culture where Darwin, Freud, and Marx comprise a ``trinity,'' Puritan moral values are increasingly seen as oppressive and outmoded. Today we tend to associate Puritan New England with punishment in the stocks, witch trials, scarlet letters, and Sunday ``blue laws.'' Our negative picture of the Puritans is reflected in the word ``puritanical,'' whose synonyms, according to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1913), include `strict,' `overscrupulous,' and `rigid.'

The Puritans would certainly be out of step with the prevailing values of modern America, where there is an overemphasis on individual freedom and the only thing considered to be a sin is a lack of tolerance for the views of others. Recently the student newspaper on our campus featured a front-page picture of a ``wedding'' ceremony for two male students, held at a local Episcopal church. When someone pointed out in a letter to the editor that these young men were certainly not married in God's eyes, he was chastised for his narrow-mindedness by another reader. The second letter included the following statement: ``We have freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State for a reason-to keep your god's laws out of my life.'' After reading this exchange, I couldn't help thinking that our society might really benefit from a good dose of Puritanism.

Now what about the aversion of today's churches to ``legalism''? The word legalism is thrown around quite a lot these days, and it may mean different things to different people. To modern advocates of moral relativism, like the second letter writer mentioned above, a legalist might be anyone who supports careful obedience to a set of moral absolutes. Churches, however, generally use the word in a theological sense, in reference to (a) an excessive attention to the external requirements of God's law that obscures the spirit of the law; or to (b) any belief or practice that suggests that one can ``earn salvation.''

Definition (a) describes a universal tendency of human nature that has been around throughout human history. Both the Old and New Testaments oppose this kind of legalism (see for example Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 23:23), and churches rightly caution us against it. One doesn't have to be a Pharisee or a Puritan to have a problem with this sort of legalism. All of us are prone to it at one time or another.

Definition (b), on the other hand, seems to me to be more hypothetical than real, in the sense that I know of no group of Christians which believes that salvation can be earned. There have been times when one group of Christians has accused another of this type of legalism, but such charges have generally been exaggerated or false, as far as I can tell.

There are some common misconceptions about legalism and the nature of God's law. One is the mistaken idea that Judaism is or has been a religion of ``salvation by works.'' On the contrary, both the Old and New Testaments teach that salvation is a gift of God's grace. Note that God showed His grace to the Israelites, freeing them from slavery, some seven weeks before giving them His Torah. This priority of grace before law is also exhibited in Exodus 20, where God prefaces His statement of the ten commandments by reminding His people that He is their Redeemer: ``I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery'' (Ex. 20:2, NIV). Jews have always believed in salvation by grace. According to Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide, ``The rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of salvation to God . . . [we Jews] regard salvation as God's exclusive prerogative, so we Jews are the advocates of `pure grace.' " 1

A second misconception is the tendency for Christians to view the law of God in negative terms, as a series of burdensome regulations. Instead, it constitutes God's loving guidance for His redeemed community. The true nature of God's law is reflected in the fact that Torah, the Hebrew word for ``law,'' has the broader meaning of ``instruction.'' One good source for a balanced view of God's law is Psalm 119, in which David expresses his love and appreciation for Torah. God's instruction had protected David throughout a tumultuous life, revealing to Israel's king the mind and will of God. Through Torah, David had come into an intimate relationship with God, learning in many ways to think like Him.

Responding to Legalism

In the WCG, we have had some serious problems with legalism. All too often in the past, many of us tended to view the laws of God as a standard we had to reach in order to qualify for God's Kingdom. One natural way to respond to such problems is to reject God's laws altogether, feeling that our attempts to be obedient are themselves somehow inherently legalistic. And indeed, some in our fellowship have reached this sort of conclusion.

Situations similar to ours can be found in history. For example, in a book called The Snare Broken (1677), John Cowell, a former elder of the Sabbatarian Baptists in Tewkesbury, England, described the legalism he had witnessed among the English Sabbatarians. In his own congregation, there had been a dispute in 1668 over the exact time at which observance of the Sabbath should begin. Elsewhere in England, there was one faction of Sabbatarians that was reported to advocate circumcision and animal sacrifices and prohibit the trimming of beards and the wearing of mixed-fabric garments. Cowell, who had been a Sabbatarian from 1661 to 1674, finally concluded that Sabbatarianism led inevitably to legalism. 2

Later in 1677, English Sabbatarian leader Edward Stennett answered Cowell in The Insnared Taken in the Work of His Hands, in which he argued that the blame for legalism lies with the legalist rather than with the law itself. Although I can sympathize with Cowell's point of view, I am on Stennett's side in this debate. It is important to understand that God's law is not a set of hurdles that one must navigate perfectly in order to attain salvation. On the other hand, neither is it a yoke of bondage. Instead, it is God's instruction in holiness for those who are saved by His grace. If we take a balanced approach to this instruction with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we will find, as David did, that our lives and the lives of those around us will be greatly enriched.

Doug Ward


1 Quoted in Marvin R. Wilson's Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1987, p. 21.

2 Bryan W. Ball, The Seventh-day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, p. 199.


Issue 7

File translated from TE X by T TH , version 2.79. On 11 Feb 2001, 17:38.