The Puritans had no assurance?

Discussion in 'Theological Forum' started by Ron Henzel, Jan 5, 2018.

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  1. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    A couple of days ago I came across a video and article by Bob Wilkin of the Grace Evangelical Society where he says (in the article):

    "Dr. R. T. Kendall in his book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 reports that nearly to a man the great Puritan theologians lamented on their death beds that they probably were going to hell because they did not see enough evidence in their works to convince them that they had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith."​

    After vainly searching through my copy of Kendall's book for this statement, I contacted both Wilkin and Kendall (through his ministry web site) for the reference. Wilkin hasn't gotten back to me yet but Kendall has already graciously exchanged a few emails with me.

    Kendall agreed that Wilkin is accurately representing him, but apologized for not being able to recall exactly where he wrote it. After a few emails I had enough clues to track down the following from his book:

    "Thomas Fuller says that Perkins reportedly died 'in the conflict of a troubled conscience'. This is 'no wonder', for God 'seemingly leaves his saints when they leave the world, plunging them on their death-beds in deep temptations, and casting their souls, down to hell, to rebound to higher heaven'."

    [Page 75]​

    The quote from Fuller (1608-1661) comes from The Holy State (1648), but when I checked the context through copies on Google Books and the Internet Archive it appears that Fuller doubted this account. In any case, this is only one Puritan and I haven't been able to substantiate the notion that lack of deathbed assurance was a general pattern for the rest of them.

    Kendall informs me that the statement Wilkin refers to may have actually been cut from his doctoral thesis before it was published to meet the word limitation imposed by Oxford University Press, but I'm still searching, because Kendall is sticking by the gist of it.

    I am quite familiar with the furor Kendall's book created in 1979 with its contribution to the ongoing "Calvin versus the Calvinists" controversy, but nearly all my knowledge of the Reformed response to Kendall is concerning his thesis that Calvin did not teach limited atonement. I know he made a big deal about the ground of assurance in the same book, but I'm not as familiar with how Reformed writers have responded to his contention that Beza and Perkins departed from Calvin on this point, nor did I realize that one of the contentions Kendall has made was that nearly all the Puritans (Kendall preferred "experimental predestianarians") died lacking assurance.

    Does anyone here have more light they can throw on this?
  2. Ed Walsh

    Ed Walsh Puritan Board Junior

    More light? Not directly, but I do have some insight on Perkins' doctrine of assurance.

    You mentioned the report about William Perkins that he died without assurance so I thought this might be helpful.

    Perkins in his life wrote a lot on the subject of assurance. I have attached a PDF of Chapter 37 of Beeke's book, Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life, titled:

    William Perkins and His Greatest Case of Conscience
    Lord increase the number of them which may rejoice that their names are written in heaven.

    I added chapter 38 on Perseverance since it is a related topic.

    Attached Files:

  3. C. Matthew McMahon

    C. Matthew McMahon Christian Preacher

    Read Beeke on The Quest for Full Assurance. He covers faith, assurance and full assurance from the perspective of puritanism. It will give source info on all their writings and what they believed about it.
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  4. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, Ed. I have my own copy of the book, but the PDF is convenient.

    Kendall also extensively covered Perkins' teachings on assurance in Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, but perhaps Beeke will give a fuller picture.
  5. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, Matthew. But the point by Kendall that I am addressing is not about what the Puritans believed and taught about assurance, but rather whether they themselves enjoyed it, especially on their deathbeds. I have The Quest for Full Assurance as well and checked it for any references to dying Puritans having troubled consciences or doubts about their own salvation, but came up empty.
  6. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Senior

    Here are some relevant passages from Dort.


    "The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God—such as, a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc."


    "The Scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they do not always feel this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that they may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13), and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering."
  7. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, timfost. I get that. But the issue is not what the Puritans believed and taught, but what they experienced themselves. Did most of them die lacking assurance of salvation, as Kendall indicates? And what evidence is there for either an affirmation or denial of that assertion?
  8. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Senior

    Yes, I understand your point. My only point in writing these quotes is that they gave ample reason to have assurance. I doubt that there would be a lack of assurance on their deathbeds when their theology gave us every reason for assurance.
  9. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    If he's not able to source it, as he isn't, it's quite irresponsible of Dr. Kendall to make such a sweeping claim. I don't know that anyone has gone through and compiled the deathbed relations of major Puritan theologians and ministers, but let me suggest two sources that seem to render Kendall's claim probably implausible.

    First is the readily-available Pilgrim's Progress. There are several deathbed scenes, but doubt occasioned by unfruitfulness does not figure in all or most of them.

    Second is Robert Bolton's A Treatise on Comforting Afflicted Consciences. This contains a significant excursus on the different sorts of deathbeds one might be called upon to attend. Bolton seems to be drawing on his own pastoral experience in that section, but he gives a salutary caution against emphasizing deathbeds in opposition to lifestyles, as well as an insightful classification of the kinds of deathbeds.
  10. Cymro

    Cymro Puritan Board Junior

    Ron, if you have or can get, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines, Banner of Truth, you will find how they died. Far from lacking assurance, they bore their illnesses and afflictions with meekness and fortitude and a blessed hope of the better country before them. As examples see Dr Twisse, Simeon Ashe and Joseph Caryl. It would be unthinkable that those who exhorted their hearers on the necessity of assurance, would fail to uphold their teaching in their own experience.
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  11. Cymro

    Cymro Puritan Board Junior

    Written of Rev Herbert Palmer at his death, “he lived piously and died cheerfully, in the exercise of faith, patience and submission to the will oF God.” And said ,” I should act unworthily, if after I have preached to others, that they would cast their burdens upon God, I should not do so myself.”
  12. Cymro

    Cymro Puritan Board Junior

    Rev Stephen Marshall adying said, “I have so learned Christ, that I am not afraid to die.”
    Dr Thomas Goodwin, when dying, “he discoursed with such strong faith, and assurance of Christ’s love, with such holy admiration of free grace and joy in believing, and with such heavenly expressions of gratitude and praise ,that it deeply affected all persons who heard him.——-with this assurance
    of faith , and fullness of joy his soul left this world.”
    But I must desist, as most of the deaths recorded show they died as they lived, with strong reliance upon the Christ who saved them.
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  13. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable


    I emailed Dr. Beeke about the issue discussed (deathbed) in the OP. Hoping he will respond.
  14. Ed Walsh

    Ed Walsh Puritan Board Junior

    Here's some history on death and dying in, The Puritan Way of Death, by David E. Stannard.
    It covers the Puritans in New England. Here's a search of Google Books that will take you to a link to chapter 4, Death and Dying, pg 72

    Here's the book on Amazon
  15. Ed Walsh

    Ed Walsh Puritan Board Junior

    Here's an excerpt from The Puritan Way of Death where the author seems to agree, although he only presents one supporting story in some detail. He relates the doubts of Increase Mather as told by his son Cotton.

    ...Or, as Allan I.Ludwig has more recently-and somewhat more dramatically-put it: "In the midst of darkness and confusion there was light, the triumph of Death was overcome by eternity. The fear of death gave way to the thrill of spiritual pleasures yet to come as archangels trumpeted the glorious day." The evidence does not confirm this interpretation. Instead, it suggests that the Puritans were gripped individually and collectively by an intense and unremitting fear of death, while simultaneously clinging to the traditional Christian rhetoric of viewing death as a release and relief for the earth-bound soul.

    Note by me: Although the author suggests that most Puritans had a great fear of dying, he later says,

    "None of this is to suggest, of course, that all New England Puritans faced the ends of their lives in desperate fear and trembling. Many of them did not, and, at least as reported in the didactic postmortem expositions of their ministers, perhaps most even gasped a sigh of personal conviction as their final breath escaped."​

    Increase Mather provides a clear-cut example of this duality. Mather was fond of the kind of declaration cited earlier, indicating that believers should long for the deliverance of death. Indeed, in one of his sermons published in 1715, he cried, "I know that the time of my departure out of this World is now very near at hand.... And now that I am Preaching Christ, how glad should I be, if I might dye before I stir out of this pulpit!" But eight years later, when death was in fact near at hand, his reaction was quite different. As his son Cotton relates and explains it:

    And in the Minutes of the Darkness wherein he lay thus feeble and sore broken, he sometimes let fall expressions of some Fear lest he might after all be Deceived in his Hope of the Future Blessedness. His Holy Ministry having very much insisted on that Point, that no care could be too much to prevent our being Deceived in that Important Matter; tis no wonder, that as the Dark Vapours which assaulted and fettered his Intellectual Powers, broke in upon him, his Head should run much upon the Horror of being Deceived at the last. Yea, had there not been anything at all of a Natural Debilitation and Obnubilation in it, yet it were a very Supposeable thing, and not at all to be wondered at, if the Serpent be let loose to vex a Servant of GOD in the Heel of his Life; and if the Powers of Darkness, knowing the Time to be short, fall with Great Wrath on the Great Opposers of their Kingdom, and make a very Dark Time for them just before the Break of the Eternal Day upon them. And how justly might it awaken the rest of us to Work out our own Salvation with Fear and Trembling, when we see such a man as Dr. Mather, concerned with so much Fear and Trembling, lest he should be Deceived at the Last?... The best Judges of Things have agreed in this Judgment; That going to Heaven in the way of Repentence, is much safer and surer than going in the way of Extasy.​

    Not only does this passage illustrate the difference between Increase's earlier pronouncements and his actual deathbed behavior, but with equal force, it points out the dissonant nature of the father's experience of death and the son's "rhetorical" interpretation of it. Cotton, after all, remained clearly convinced of his father's salvation, despite the force of his father's despair.

    David E. Stannard. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (Kindle Locations 814-816). Kindle Edition.
  16. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor

    As for Bob Wilkin and the Grace Evangelical Society, they represent what could be called the New Antinomianism (if there is such a thing). They, among others, had their knives out (so to speak) against John MacArthur during the Lordship Controversy of the 1980s and 1990s. So, I wouldn't put a lot of stock in Wilkin's assertions.
  17. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    Two good sources in refutation of the claim:

    Accounts of the Covenanters, during the Killing Times.
    The Non-Conformists Memorial
    [being available in digital form, it would be simple to search for examples like this:

    From the latter, Vol. II, p. 59, quoting the Rev. George Hughes of Devonshire [where Flavel also ministered]:

    "Nature would not willingly go where it must and shall go; yet I will wait all the days of my appointed time for my change. Oh! when wilt it once come, that I shall put off this earthly tabernacle, and be clothed with my house from heaven! I desire to be dissolved, and at home with Christ. I thank God I am not ashamed to live, nor afraid to die." . . . . The evening before he died, he ordered his watch to lie by him, and desired a relation to observe when it was two o'clock, "for (says he) that is my hour." And accordingly, just at that time he expired, in 1667, in the 64th year of his age.
  18. arapahoepark

    arapahoepark Puritan Board Graduate

    So a couple of anecdotes along with bald assertions from a "scholar" that contributes little is to call into question Puritan theology that says the opposite?
  19. KMK

    KMK Administrator Staff Member

    I have a book of testimonials by all the Puritans who came back to life to write about their death bed experiences. If I can find it I will provide you with some evidence. ;)
  20. Ask Mr. Religion

    Ask Mr. Religion Flatly Unflappable

    Dr. Beeke responded:

    I have never read anything like this in my life. As far as I know, most Puritan theologians and ministers died well and in sweet assurance of faith just as they lived well in sweet assurance.​
  21. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, brother!
  22. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thank you for taking the time to share this. It's quite helpful!
  23. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Yes, and thanks! It's something that I've been aware of, but didn't point out, although it has great significance in this context.

    I am concerned that those who oppose Calvinism may also be spreading misrepresentations of it. Of course, I can't stop them from doing that, but I can alert others to it when it comes to my attention. But I want to tread carefully, because I've heard similar things about the Puritans from other Calvinists. It's possible that they may have been unwittingly misled by anti-Calvinists, but I thought I should do my due diligence before coming to that conclusion.

    So Wilkin does have an ax to grind, and it is good of you to point that out. Thanks!
  24. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thank you, brother, for this amazing and helpful quote! I'll be sure to follow up in the book you've recommended here.
  25. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Agreed! Unfortunately, R.T. Kendall is a scholar of no small influence, especially among the enemies of consistent Calvinism. The published version of his 1979 doctoral thesis drew responses from the likes of Roger Nicole and others. As wrong as I believe him to be, he is someone to be reckoned with. Fortunately, he has maintained an irenic tone in our email dialogue, for which I am most thankful.
  26. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    "Came back to life?" Sounds interesting. I would love to hear more.

    Thanks! :lol:
  27. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Brother, you beat me to it! Thanks so much for taking the time, and for sharing the response!
  28. C. Matthew McMahon

    C. Matthew McMahon Christian Preacher

    ...Which is why I posted Beeke's book. In all the bios I've written and read, I've not come across a puritan that didn't make me personally feel like, "I need what he has," both theologically and practically in their daily walk. They were, from my own studies, brimming with sweet communion with Christ, and overflowing with it.
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  29. Ron Henzel

    Ron Henzel Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks! This is quite helpful!
  30. moral necessity

    moral necessity Puritan Board Junior

    John Knox wrote some letters to his mother-in-law who apparently struggled a lot with her assurance. She was not on her deathbed, as far as I know. But, the subject is discussed and Knox is left to give some counsel.
    You'll find his letters to her in Volume 3: p.331-402 in the Banner of Truth edition.

    This article references these Knox letters, but it is written from the perspective of a departure happening after Calvin regarding assurance. Some reformed might describe it differently. I'll post it here so you can see his use of the Knox quotes.

    I suspect you'll find more of what you're looking for (if it exists) from authors who might differ from the puritans on assurance. Or, you'll find examples in letters of correspondence, or perhaps biographies.

    Last edited: Jan 7, 2018
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