Having grown up in a non-Christian home, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk didn’t discover theology until college. At first, she struggled to understand theological concepts, but everything started making sense after she encountered the Puritan writer John Owen. Her subsequent research on Puritan spirituality helped pave the way for a new book—5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love. Author Catherine Parks, an editor with Moody Publishers, spoke with de Klerk about what believers today can learn from these women.
When people learned you were writing a book about Puritan women, what were some of their reactions?
Most fell into two categories: Either people had no idea who I was talking about, or they expressed negative stereotypes about the Puritans. At least on a popular level, people still view the Puritans as fun-killers—and Puritan women as extremely patriarchal. I’m hoping my book can move readers past such stereotypes by helping them get to know a range of real individuals.
Some suggest that the poet Anne Bradstreet departed from Puritan ideals because she wrote about things like intimate love with her husband. How would you respond?
There are all sorts of crazy interpretations of Bradstreet out there. To understand her place within the Puritan movement, we need to start with an accurate definition of Puritanism and then see who fits.
Puritans, for starters, wanted to bring further reform to the Church of England. Though some ministers sought change from within while others felt compelled to leave, they all wanted to go further in replacing certain vestiges of Roman Catholicism with biblical worship practices. And secondly, they emphasized a personal communion with God—a genuine, vibrant relationship with him—that led to a life of holiness.
If we use these two points as a litmus test, we can generally figure out who was a Puritan and who wasn’t. And by this accounting, Bradstreet easily fits.
You write about the Earl of Berkeley, who asked a Puritan woman named Mary Rich to send him her rules for holy living. What do you make of the fact that a Puritan woman was being asked for spiritual guidance by a male friend?
This question highlights one main way we misinterpret Puritan women. On one hand, there is a superprogressive, often non-Christian perspective that these women were trapped in the confines of their religion, and if they had just pushed a little harder, they might have broken free and become their fully actualized selves. But on the flip side, there’s also a highly conservative, often Christian perspective that just takes every preconceived notion about “good Christian women” and projects them onto Puritan women, thinking, “They must be exactly like I imagine them, or even more so.”
With Mary Rich and the Earl of Berkeley, seeing one thing happen in one person’s life doesn’t justify drawing big conclusions about all Puritan men or women. But it is fair to say that because Rich was a highly religious person who valued modesty, decorum, and respect, it was not out of line for her to receive this request and then respond in a full and honest manner. And stories like these do remind us to constantly ask whether some attitude or value in our church is truly biblical or just cultural.
While debates about gender are important and needed, they can also become a bit overwhelming and negative. This is why I wrote in my introduction that one benefit we get from reading about women in church history is celebrating Christian women while taking a breather from all the contentiousness. I wanted to signal that this book is a fun, safe space—whatever your beliefs on gender roles or your own experiences in the church, let’s look at these amazing women and the amazing things God used them to do.
You write, “I have seen again and again how God providentially uses whatever I’m currently reading to teach me a specific lesson or give me a specific comfort I desperately need at that exact moment.” How did you experience that as you wrote this book?
One specific story I deeply resonated with was Anne Bradstreet’s experience of doubt. As I studied her life, I happened to be in a bad place with my faith, on account of some painful experiences in the church. I hadn’t lost faith, but I was really questioning whether I still believed in God’s existence.
Then I ended up reading a letter from Bradstreet to her children where she talks about experiencing a crisis of faith. She writes, Satan has troubled me many times concerning the existence of God and the veracity of the Scriptures, and she describes how she would address one doubt only to find another standing in her path. That part was extremely powerful for me. I literally started crying in the library stacks.
My assumption, at this point, had been that my doubts meant I was either a weak Christian or not Christian at all. And that was a disturbing thought, because I had already started a PhD in church history and I was married to a pastor, so I couldn’t just deconvert quietly. Reading Bradstreet really helped me, because even though she was sorting through similar doubts, she was clearly a godly person. Her doubts spoke to the strength of her faith rather than any weakness in it.
The Puritan women you profile were “zealous” in their spiritual practices, you say, but were neither “extreme nor legalistic.” How do you see that distinction play out in their lives?
Something that immediately struck me was that these women were very into Christianity. They talked about God all the time, they read the Bible all the time, and they were very invested in church. That’s what I mean by “zealous”—they were just unashamedly religious.
But I was surprised, given their zeal, that I did not see many aspects of their lives that felt too intense or immoderate. They weren’t the mean rule makers people often expect them to be. So they were very into religion, but not in this bombastic way that feels totally unrelatable to someone in the 21st century.
Are there any other lessons you hope people learn from these women?
As someone who comes from an atheist family, I hope some readers will see how it’s possible to be wholeheartedly devoted to God while still maintaining genuine friendships with people who believe differently. We often think of the Puritans as wanting to escape and condemn society, but that wasn’t what I came across in their stories.
To take one example from the book: Lucy Hutchinson wrote a theological treatise for her daughter encouraging her to stick close to the church, mostly by holding to its beliefs, but also by loving it. In one of my favorite sections, she goes on this little excursus about how Christians are not grateful enough to God because they don’t love other people enough, and if they loved people more—including other Christians who they maybe think are weird or have some wrong beliefs and including those outside the church—they would be more grateful to God.
Of course, love interacts with other theological ideas like justice, so loving others doesn’t mean ignoring sin in your life or someone else’s life. But for the Puritans, there is this baseline belief that if you want to call yourself a Christian, you really need to have a loving attitude and do loving things for the people in your life, regardless of whether they’re just like you.
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