Book Review: Worldly Saints

Dear Reader,

So I finished reading Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were by Leland Ryken. I have blogged on different aspects of this book three times before (here, here and here), but I thought I would give a more comprehensive review of it.

I will start by saying that I loved reading this book and I could see myself going back to it many times to revisit various topics. This is not an impartial, scholarly  treatise on the Puritans (if it is even possible to be impartial about things which I doubt). Which is not to say that it is not scholarly; Mr. Ryken seems to have done his research, but he is clearly on the side of the Puritans. Here, for instance, is a statement from his concluding chapter:

“It is impossible to overstate how much difference it makes in a person’s life when he or she views the Bible as ‘a perfect and absolute rule ‘ for life.” (p.219)

This is not a Puritan speaking, this is the author’s opinion, and while I agree with him, I use it to show that Mr. Ryken definitely comes to his subject matter from a certain theological school himself. So if you are a non-Christian, or perhaps even a Christian far removed from Puritan thought, you will probably not like this book but will find it biased and misleading.

I myself, being reformed and Presbyterian, found a lot to like here. On almost every subject I found myself “amen”ing the Puritan position as Ryken presents it (of course, being reformed and Presbyterian, this amen-ing was done quietly in my head).  Mr. Ryken quotes the Puritans liberally. He also does a good job of showing the underlying principles behind the Puritans’ beliefs. The last chapter is devoted to this topic, though I think he makes his case better as he goes through the book.

My one big quibble with the book is embodied in the next to last chapter, “Learning from Negative Example: Some Puritan Faults.” Up until this point, Mr. Ryken has presented a fairly uniform and (to my RP mind) very positive view of Puritan thought. But in this chapter, he admits that the theory did not always play out in practice. That, in fact, the Puritans sometimes seemed to hold ideas contradictory to those he has already presented. When is left wondering which are the real Puritans. Should we accept Ryken’s ideal view of them as presented in the first ten chapters? Or should be look at how they really behaved? Here is a quote to illustrate what I mean:

“Throughout this book I have had occasion to praise the Puritans for the things they affirmed — work,  sex, the physical world, education, and much besides. But Puritan theorists on these subjects had a way of surrounding their affirmations with so many qualifying rules that a person could scarcely practice these activities without a sense of guilt creeping in. I have already observed the legalism with which they surrounded recreational activities.” (p.192)

For a specific example, let us take the case of Puritan sermons. Ryken spends quite a big of time earlier in the book telling us how long the Puritans preached and extolling how wonderful it was that their congregations would not only put up with extended sermons but would ask for more. But in this chapter, he adds that they were really very repetitive and “seemed to search for ways to say to say everything at least twice in different words” (p.194). To me this would seem very relevant to the length of the sermons. It is not that they had two-hour sermons that were necessarily more substantive than the 45 minute ones I hear every week but they apparently had  s style of preaching that tended to produce long sermons without adding more content.

The other area where he seems to save some negative and yet highly relevant news for this later chapter is on the subject of the Puritan view of women. In his earlier chapter on the subject he spent a lot of time convincing us that the Puritans had a very high view of women, seeing them as the moral equivalent of men. However, in this chapter he quotes them as saying things about “‘the natural  imbecility of the female sex'” (p.196). To me it is deceptive to give all the good quotes that one likes to hear in the main part of the book and to save all the negative views for one final wrapping up chapter as if they were somehow less important or showed us less about who the Puritans were.

Overall, I still liked this book. It is a valuable resource, but the way Mr. Ryken presented his material, selecting out good facts for most of the book and  then only hinting at their less desirable views in a final chapter, left me feeling deceived as if what he spent most of his time presenting was not the real Puritans. It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the Puritans were human and had their weak points as well as their strengths, but I wish that a more balanced view of them had been presented from the outset.



6 responses to this post.

  1. […] Protestantism is a big category and I cannot speak for all aspects of it, but according to the book I read recently on Puritan thought, the whole idea of a Protestant work ethic is overblown and misunderstood. […]


  2. […] addition to my own perceptions of what I as a Calvinist belive, I am relying heavily here on a book I have reviewed previously, Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken. This volume discusses various beliefs of the Puritans and […]


  3. […] in which she lists lots of resources for the study of this famous play. I was intrigued that an author I have enjoyed, Leland Ryken, is also #1 on her Macbeth […]


  4. […] went wrong. Theologically, I am not so far from the Puritans myself (for an excellent book on them, check out Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints). And I do believe in witches. It is ironic to me that though the general interpretation seems to […]


  5. […] Saints by Leland Ryken — This is a book I have discussed previously when I read it myself. It is on the Puritans. I had really enjoyed it and was pleased to be able […]


  6. […] . .and get more out of it by Leland Ryken. I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved Ryken’s book on Puritans and had high hopes for him as an author. And I would really like to have found a book on biblical […]


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