Monday, December 11, 2000

The Puritan Pastor as Counselor

This paper was written for an undergraduate class on the Puritans. It demonstrates my thinking about integration at that point.

The title of Pastor given to a minister of the Christian faith speaks directly of his responsibility for compassionate care of his parishioners. Pastoral care clearly exists as a function of the Church, and has been practiced to various levels of efficacy throughout Christian history. The Puritans, in the Reformed tradition, sought to regain the proper understanding of the nature of mankind. For them this meant a thorough recognition of the depravity and evil within man balanced by a concern for the well being of the people of God. Their concern in preaching was to affect the conscience of those who heard to a holy and godly life. Contrary to their popular image, the Puritans were intensely concerned with the spiritual and emotional well being of their people. It will be shown that the Puritan pastoral calling attempted to balance the care of those who were hurting with an earnest plea for a holy life.

Before the rise of modern psychology the clergy undertook the care of those in emotional, mental, and spiritual distress. Pastoral care, as clergy- provided care of Souls is called, has its origin in the Wonderful Counselor Himself. The ideal of the pastoral counselor is seen in the relationships Jesus cultivated with his followers. His intense concern for those who were socially outcast and for women was at monumental odds with contemporary thought in his age. Jesus’ ministry was not one without conditions however; His was a convicting gospel, which called one to complete surrender to the will of God. The early Church picked up on the essential act of repentance, eventually codifying it into the practice of confession, followed by penance and reconciliation. By the time of the protestant reformation the Roman church had fallen into severe moral decay. Indulgences rather than true repentance ensured the layman of eternal paradise. It was this practice that Martin Luther responded to in the opening statements of his 95 Theses. The Puritans sought to put into practice this rediscovered gospel of repentance, or lifelong turning to Christ. It is clear that the guidance of souls would be of utmost importance to a faith wherein salvation is not dependent upon outward acts of obedience, but on the condition and motives of the heart. The first way that this concern was played out was in the powerful preaching for which the Puritans are especially well known.[1] Additionally, there is ample evidence that Puritan concern for the individual encompassed every area of life. Life according to Puritan teaching is considered a unified field for the service of God. No area of life, public or private escaped the concern of the Puritans, as in all areas of life God is to be served. The combined effect of the newfound importance of personal sanctification and a view of every aspect of life as important naturally led to the Puritan preacher’s careful attention to his role as a pastor.

Although Puritan preaching can be characterized by constant appeals to the intellect, this academic approach was tempered with a desire to speak to people on an intimate level. This is a hallmark of the concern that the Puritan preachers evidenced in their ministries. The substance of these messages was “aimed at the awakening and guidance of the conscience, and conscience was for them a tremendous and inescapable reality.[2]” William Perkins who entered the ministry by preaching to condemned prisoners is an example of this pastoral care for the soul. Perkins addresses the needs of those who had “partly departed from the state of grace, either in faith or in lifestyle[3]” by imparting corrective doctrine in a manner consistent with brotherly affection. This group of ‘backsliders’ receives the most attention in his work addressed to ministers. Those who are fallen are the responsibility of the minister as pastor according to Perkins, and must be cared for with gentleness and patience. At center, the remedy for the struggle with sin is a hatred “of sin as sin[4]” not for its consequences. Perkins contributed a book of casuistry to the body of Puritan literature in which he contrasts those things that were profitable and those that were a hindrance to holy living.[5] Other Puritan authors did more in the field of casuistic literature, but Perkins is cited due to his influence as both a preacher and a theologian.

Scottish minister and professor Samuel Rutherford is known for his tender concern for his flock, with whom he maintained extensive correspondence during a period of forced exile.[6] It is from these letters that one can glean a sense of his style of pastoral care. In a letter to Lady Kenmure, who had lost her husband suddenly, Rutherford extols the grace of patience in trial, as hardship is God’s hammering “to make you a fair carved stone in the high upper temple of the New Jerusalem.”[7] A fine example of the application of the Puritan understanding of providence, Rutherford declares that, “your Lord has been loosening you at the root from perishing things, and hunting after you to grip your soul.”[8] Comfort is found through a proper understanding of the refining work of providence in life to make one fit for glory. Rutherford was adept at meeting the needs of his flock by relaying the grace he had himself received in times of suffering.[9] Few writings of the Puritans can match the level of intimacy of his letters to his estranged church.

Concern with the alternative misunderstandings of antinomianism and legalism in regard to the law of God led Samuel Bolton to write his treatise on Christian freedom and responsibility.[10] This is a work of pastoral compassion, in that, where misunderstanding over sin and grace increased, anxiety also abounded. By clarifying the miserable bondage of those who are not under the grace of Christ and the freedom unto obedience of the Christian, Bolton delivered a work with the power to free learned Puritan laymen from misery and doubt.

Thomas Brooks wrote the foremost of Puritan practical works regarding resistance to temptation and remedies for sinful habit.[11] Brooks achieved his aim to expose those tactics that the devil is known to employ in his attacks. His observant chronicle of these devices shines particularly bright in his treatment of, “Satan’s devices to keep Saints in a sad, doubting, questioning and uncomfortable condition.”[12] A Christocentric response emerges from the text as Brooks shows that Jesus has broken sin’s tyranny, yet sin remains pervasive within the world and a constant enemy. Brooks addresses despair of assurance of grace – a problem that surfaced in Puritanism because of the Reformed doctrine of election and the emphasis on purity and holiness that defined the Puritans – with similar tact. Faith, not assurance is the measure of grace in a believer. The two he places in proper relation; “As the effect flows from the cause, the fruit from the root, the stream from the fountain, so doth assurance flow from faith.”[13] Again and again Brooks deals compassionately with those who are troubled by doubt of election either by continued sin or by numbness of joy. The familiar theme of God’s providential control runs throughout the work, tied to the Christian life as ink to the page. He thus showed divine election to be a comfort rather than a frightening doctrine. Christ’s sufficiency is ever expressed, as here:

“We have all things in Christ, and Christ is all things to a Christian. If we be sick, he is a physician; if we thirst he is a fountain; if our sins trouble us, he is righteousness; if we stand in need of help, he is mighty to save; if we fear death, he is life; if we be in darkness, he is light; if we be weak, he is strength; if we be in poverty, he is plenty; if we desire heaven, he is the way. The soul cannot say, this I would have, and that I would have; but saith Christ, it is in me, it is in me eminently, perfectly, eternally.”[14]

Thus Brooks points those in distress back to Christ and his adequacy as Wonderful Counselor to the soul.

John Bunyan, a Baptist and well know Puritan author penned the English classic The Pilgrim’s Progress as a call to salvation and as an encouragement to those who were caught in the “Slough or Despond” or in the hands of the “Giant Despair.”[15] By its very nature the book lends comfort to the reader, as one can easily recognize trials and suffering to which one can relate in the characters and situations of the allegory. His religious awakening and conversion is recounted in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, in which he describes a period of attack by Satan that resulted in great doubt.[16] His personal account encourages the use of Scripture to ward off the assaults of Satan, following the example of Christ himself. These works speak well for the zeal and compassion he displayed as “Bishop Bunyan” to the congregations in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.[17]

Foremost among those who reinvented and promoted the ideal of minister-as-pastor was Richard Baxter. Along with an extremely practical manual on cases of conscience, entitled A Christian Directory he also published Gildas Salvianus, the Reformed Pastor a treatise of instruction to his fellow ministers.[18] Baxter’s intention was to motivate ministers of every stripe to the performance of their duty as pastors of their congregations. To Baxter this duty consisted of, “the work of catechizing, and instructing individually, all that are committed to their care” and “the practice of those parts of Church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work.”[19] This is accomplished by first scrutinizing oneself to ensure a proper condition of the soul. One must live a life of holiness to be an effective minister and pastor according to Baxter, for the eyes of the congregation are focused and sharp. Thus says Baxter, “Let your lives condemn sin, and persuade men to duty.”[20] Baxter advocated occasional spiritual examinations of every member of his church. He provided a manual for the practice of Christian conference, in which he lists reasons (or motives) for the practice, directions to the minister on his own conduct, and guidelines for knowing when exhortation is wise and when it will come to naught.[21] Baxter wrote a situation specific tract for cases of depression among those in the Church.[22] Both practical and theological, the work first lists common causes of melancholy (depression) then sets out principles for its cure. The work is remarkable for its day because of Baxter’s discussion of the mind/body interaction as it relates to depression, as well as physiological causes of depression for which Baxter admits to the use of medicine (physic).

Particular traits seem to bind together the various Puritan sentiments on the care of the flock. Among these, as Ryken points out is the tendency in Puritan preaching to be both impacting and understandable.[23] Preaching was the first line of instruction in Puritan society, as it reached many in a short amount of time and could be done powerfully. Even when the Puritans erred in their wordy sermons, it was most often an attempt to drive home a point of doctrine. The Puritans knew that knowledge of the fundamentals of the faith was a very important foundation for all care of souls. For this reason catechetical learning was an important aspect of family life, and stressed time and again by Richard Baxter.[24] Right knowledge of God and self gives one a solid background for development, useful to thwart problems prior to their incubation and proliferation. Thus their preaching endeavored to clarify doctrine and apply it to the lives of the flock. The puritans approach to the soul went beyond cold knowledge and acknowledged the heart and affections of people. The Puritans strove for a balance of reason and emotion, wishing the internalization of what was taught. Herein lay a difficulty for the Puritan preacher, the inability to know the effectiveness of his preaching upon individual hearts, thus the practice of personal conference was invaluable.

One will notice that in all of the previously cited authors the pastoral focus is on those who have fallen in their faith. The question then arises, “What would a Puritan have to say to a non-believer?” Two explanations are necessary of clarity. First, the Puritans operated in an environment wherein church attendance was normative. The church and the state were linked both in England and later in America. The Puritan minister was intensely aware that not all of his parishioners were true believers, and thus it was his chief duty to preach the gospel of salvation to them. Secondly, there was no profession of psychotherapy in the 16th and 17th centuries. The psyche, which took on so much attention in the 19th and 20th centuries as psychology blossomed, was unknown. Rather the soul (yuch) was the focus of attention. The soul is a synonym for psyche that has all but disappeared from common (and especially professional) usage. The term soul had religious importance, while the psyche (or mind) has been divorced from any religious connotation. Certainly the pastor before the advent of psychology had as much to say about the inner workings of man as the modern therapist. Problems were identified as the result of sin as well as the result of illness. There can be no doubt that physical and chemical abnormalities can be the immediate cause of emotional problems, though finally all mental illness can be attributed to sin. The Puritan pastor did not have anything to say to the afflicted non-Christian because his position demanded attention to the life changing power of Christ.

Currently the care of souls remains the charge of conscientious pastors and Christian therapists. Some, such as the Nouthetic School of pastoral counseling, founded by Jay Adams, admit to no use for any material in the counseling endeavor save the Bible alone. This is at odds with what we know about the Puritan mindset, which commends all learning and values education. Secular counseling theorists are at odds with the Puritan mindset in many respects. Chief among them is the insistence upon ‘unconditional positive regard’ for which Person-Centered Therapy calls.[25] Carl Rodgers, the founder of this approach, believed that “if one is able to get to the core of an individual, one finds a trustworthy, positive center.”[26] The Puritan understanding of human sinfulness cannot be brought into harmony with this kind of statement. Puritan thought would insist upon acceptance of personal responsibility for actions. No concomitant level of responsibility is found in modern psychotherapy, save the responsibility for one’s feelings in Reality and Gestalt therapies. Counseling, following trends in culture as a whole, rejects moral absolutes in favor of ones’ own internal judgment. The Puritan’s trust and dependence upon Scripture as a rule of life is certainly not devoid of moral absolutism.

It is clear from the writings of prominent Puritans ministers and theologians that the care of souls was of utmost importance to that movement. While Anglicanism was engaged in pastoral work, the Puritans added a strength and fervency to their ministry both to call the unrepentant to Christ and to woo back those who had fallen away. For their tenacity to duty and for their unification of life, the Puritans are to be admired and their example imitated. The following section will attempt to apply the example of Puritan pastoral care to the modern practice of psychotherapy.

The Puritan Example in Counseling

The Puritan movement was the clearest example of Reformed doctrine given flesh through people’s lives that has ever existed; thus it behooves us as Reformed people to study and learn from the Puritan example. One must think of Puritan thought much like one thinks of Existential therapy, not as a specific set of techniques for the practice of psychotherapy, but as a conceptual framework within which many techniques can be employed.

The primary goal of the pastor was the edification of the body of Christ, through preaching and personal conference. In contrast to current trends, health did not for the Puritan consist of happiness. Certainly there was concern for those who are overly burdened with sorrow that “perverteth reason” and “disableth a man to govern his thoughts.”[27] Godliness, not happiness was the guiding principle for the Puritan way of life. As Ryken points out, theirs was a lively and progressive movement. There is no reason to think that joy and happiness did indeed flow from a life of holiness. One of the best aspects of the Puritan pastoral method was the emphasis on a balanced unified life. A life of disunity and segmentation can lead to cognitive dissonance, which becomes a catalyst for pathology. The unreserved dependence upon a covenantal God also is psychologically beneficial.[28] There were however a couple of situational factors which contributed to emotional problems.

The Puritan insistence on personal responsibility and understanding of sin led to occasional self-loathing by members of Puritan society.[29] Combined with a misunderstanding of the doctrine of election this contributed to depression and doubting in some people. Baxter’s The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow aims directly at overcoming this problem. The condition described in this work can be identified as symptoms of many disorders including depression but containing indications (including auditory, aural and tactile hallucinations) of more serious psychopathology. Baxter denies that over concern is a common problem, as for most a “seared conscience keeps most from all due sense of sin.”[30] The cure of overmuch sorrow to Baxter is put on the shoulders of the client as well as on family members of the troubled soul. Proper evaluation of sin, in light of the scripture is the essential starting place for depression based on sinful conduct. Acknowledgement of errors is analogous to the current trend in psychotherapy of acknowledging one’s part in one’s problem (especially in reality therapy) yet it is far more pervasive. Baxter also makes a clear distinction between sin and temptation for which there need be no repentance, as there is no culpability. Baxter sets a course for recovery by admonishing the parishioner to “overcome the inordinate love of the world.”[31] The catechism is also seen as a tool for living a mentally healthy life. Social support, in this case the Church, is highly recommended as necessary to proper functioning. Other practical suggestions by Baxter to cure depression include, putting oneself under authority, avoid musing by praying communally and not alone, resolving to spend much time in thanksgiving and praise rather than complaint, and to keep busy with your calling. Friends are also called upon to monitor dietary needs of the afflicted and to divert them from musing. Most of all they are required to live in a loving and cheerfully supportive manner.

From these suggestions by Baxter one gets a feel for the practical application of Reformed doctrine. Certainly Baxter believed that the individual was not capable of change without significant help from supporting others. Since this particular malady had a more scholastic cause, Baxter is justified in a course of treatment that involved reading and meditation on proper doctrine.

Another excellent application of Puritan learning is in the area of bibliotherapy. Bolton’s The True Bounds of Christian Freedom is an excellent resource for anyone who is distressed with his relationship to the law. Similarly, Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices is a great guide for those who may misunderstand temptation and sin, or suffer from anxiety about matters of Spirituality.

This section of application is necessarily brief because there is not much that the Puritans did wrong. It is difficult to know how the Puritans would have dealt with such modern conditions as anorexia, but it is clear that they would have applied similar techniques of familial support and exhortation to proper view of oneself in God’s creation. Finally, one should remember Baxter’s great emphasis on preparedness and learning in order to properly deal with the problems of those in one’s care. The great themes of responsibility, unified living, and trust in God are as applicable to the counselor as they are to the counselee. This is Puritanism’s great legacy to the practice of counseling.


[1] Ryken, Leland Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1986) p. 91.

[2] McNeill, John T. A History of the Cure of Souls. Harper: New York (1965) p. 263.

[3] Perkins, William The Art of Prophesying. Banner of Truth: Edinburgh (1996) p. 60

[4] ibid. p. 61

[5] McNeill p.264

[6] McNeill p. 254

[7] Rutherford, Samuel Letter No. 37 4/20/2000

[8] ibid.

[9] Rutherford had lost both wife and children and was well acquainted with grief.

[10] Bolton, Samuel The True Bounds of Christian Freedom. Banner of Truth, Edinburgh (1994).

[11] Brooks, Thomas Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Banner of Truth, Edinburgh (1997)

[12] ibid. p. 142-182.

[13] Ibid. p.150

[14] ibid. p.163

[15] Bunyan, John The Pilgrim’s Progress. Penguin, London (1987).

[16] Clebsh, William A. and Charles R. Jaekle Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. Jason Aronson, Northvale (1994) p. 274f.

[17] Bunyan p. ix

[18] McNeill p.265-6

[19] Baxter, Richard The Reformed Pastor. Banner of Truth, London (1999) p. 41-46.

[20] ibid. p. 65

[21] Baxter, Richard Special Directions for Christian Conference, Exhortation and Reproof. 4/20/2000.

[22] Baxter, Richard The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith. 4/20/2000.

[23] Ryken p. 92-93

[24] Ryken p.80

[25] Corey, Gerald Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. 5th ed. Brooks/Cole Pub., New York, 1996. p. 200

[26] ibid. 200

[27] Baxter, Richard The Cure for Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow. 4/20/2000

[28] Perceived external loci of control are detrimental to mental health, with the exception of perceived control by God.

[29] Ryken, Leland Worldly Saints. p.6

[30] Baxter, Richard The Cure for Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow. 4/20/2000

[31] ibid.


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