Encouragement for Bible Reading from Puritan Women

“So how can we know what the Bible really says?” my classmate timidly asked at the end of a long lecture about interpretation. She was not playing the devil’s advocate, but was clearly discouraged by the fact that there seem to be many different and discordant ways of interpreting the Bible. Sometimes reading intense scholarly debates that dissect every tiny part of a passage, listening to sermons that use methods we don’t know how to use, or overhearing a friend joke about misapplying passages like Jeremiah 29:11 make us shrink back from Scripture.

But, aside from the obvious fact that we will never get close to correct interpretations if we don’t even try, we must overcome these fears so that they don’t prevent us from communing with God. We can do this by learning about helpful doctrines, like the clarity of Scripture, and the history of the church, which shows us that Christians of every stripe used the Bible to worship God, draw near to him, and hear from him.

This is clearly seen in the examples of many Puritan women who had no reservations about reading the Bible. If they were here to listen to your concerns, they would instruct you to run to Scripture not hide from it, and trust the Holy Spirit and the church to help you apply it to the very specific situations you find yourself in. Let these seventeenth-century women remind you that even if there are parts of the Bible you feel upset about or don’t understand, there is life to be found in it because God speaks to you through it.

  1. Lady Brilliana Harley (1598–1643)

Lady Brilliana Harley knew several languages, read Luther and Calvin, and is best remembered for her letter writing. The hundreds of letters she wrote to her husband and oldest son Edward show how she used Scripture to encourage and instruct her family. For example, she logically and gracefully connects the health of one’s soul with the truth that is given in God’s Word and by his Spirit, saying:

Good Ned . . . it is my joy that you are well, and I beseech the Lord to continue your health, and above all to give you that grace in your soul which may make you have a healthful soul, sound without errors, active in all that is good . . . I am glad you find a want of that ministry that you did enjoy: labor to keep a fresh desire after the sincere milk of the word, and then in good time you shall enjoy that blessing again. The Lord has promised to give his Spirit to his children, which shall lead them in the truth.[1]

  1. Anne Bradstreet (1612–72)

Anne Bradstreet was the first person (male or female) in America to publish a book of poetry. Her writings are peppered with citations of and allusions to Scripture; she recalls her use of it in personal struggles (showing she applied it to her unique situations) and contemplations about life in general (showing she framed her understanding of the world by it). She even says in a letter to children that though she repeatedly struggled to believe it was truthful, God and reason helped her:

Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the veracity of the Scriptures, many times by atheism how I could know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me, and those which I read of, how did I know but they were feigned? That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things . . . the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end. The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being. But how should I know He is such a God as I worship in Trinity, and such a Saviour as I rely upon? Though this hath thousands of times been suggested to me, yet God hath helped me over. I have argued thus with myself. That there is a God, I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must be it or none. Have I not found that operation by it that no human invention can work upon the soul, hath not judgements befallen divers who have scorned and condemned it, hath it not been preserved through all ages [despite] all the heathen tyrants and all of the enemies who have opposed it? Is there any story but that which shows the beginnings of times, and how the world came to be as we see it? Do we not know the prophecies in it fulfilled which could not have been so long foretold by any but God Himself?[2]

  1. Lucy Hutchinson (1620–81)

As a young girl, Lucy Hutchinson received an excellent education and showed interest in theology and religious activities like listening to sermons, including those of the well-known Puritan John Owen. As an adult, she translated theological treatises, penned her own theological works for the purpose of passing this knowledge to her daughter, and wrote an epic poem on Genesis. Her understanding of Scripture is seen in all of these documents, showing the Bible held a central place in her thought and heart.

First, in her On the Principles of the Christian Religion she explained to her daughter that Scripture is the “sacred spectacles” that God gives us to know him, and knowledge of him brings life. Hutchinson encouraged her, “let us with thankfulness . . . be content to obey the dictates of God . . . without expecting revelations out of God’s ordinary way which is his written word.”[3]

To express her own beliefs in My Own Faith and Attainment, she adapted the Westminster Confession to state:

I . . . believe that the Scriptures of the New and Old testament contain in them a perfect rule of faith and life and that although there are many things in them mysterious and dark even to the most penetrating understandings, yet all things necessary to salvation are clear and perspicuous, even to the most vulgar capacity of those who are sanctified. I believe . . . that the Scripture is the best interpreter and reconciler of itself.[4]

In her Briefer Sum of What I Believe she identified studying Scripture as the starting point of worshipping God and our source of sustenance, saying, “Our first duty [in worship] is to yield attention to that word, and to search the scriptures for those streams of life which the Spirit there derives to us, from the fountain of life to meditate day and night in the law.”[5]

Finally, in poetic form she wrote:

[The love of God] delights in the law of God and makes it its daily study

It loves his word because he gave it forth and delights not less in
the precepts then in the promises yielding a reverential awe to the
threats.[6]

  1. Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick (1625–78)

Mary Rich was a determined young woman who refused the arranged marriage that was set up for her, choosing instead to marry Charles Rich, the second Earl of Warwick. Charles and Mary had Puritan values and were known for their piety, as seen in Mary’s diary, letters, and religious writings, and her support of ejected Nonconformist ministers. Her letter to George Berkeley, responding to his request for an explanation of the rules of holy living, shows that she believed that reading the Bible first thing in the morning is an important spiritual practice that enables Christians to live holy and full lives:

I shall advise your Lordship to go to bed in so good an hour at night, as that you may wake in so good time, as you may not lose the morning, which is certainly the best time for the service of God . . . then . . . retire to your closet, and let none of the business of the world be first dispatched . . . then . . . begin your private devotions with reading the Word of God . . . for David says, “wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his ways? Even by taking heed thereunto according to thy Word.” And certainly these divine oracles of God are a most excellent means towards the mending of our lives.[7]

  1. Mary Rowlandson (1637–1711)

Mary Rowlandson lived in Massachusetts with her husband and four children, one of whom died in infancy. While her husband was in Boston, Nipmunk and Narragansett Indian tribes attacked her town and captured her and her children. Her six-year-old daughter died in captivity, but Rowlandson and her other two children were eventually released. Her account of these events shows that she often used Scripture to express her own feelings and to comfort herself, facing serious danger with strong faith:

They told me I lied, and taking up a hatchet, they came to me, and said they would knock me down if I stirred out again, and so confined me to the wigwam. Now may I say with David, ‘I am in a great strait’ (2 Samuel 24.14). If I keep in, I must die with hunger, and if I go out, I must be knocked in head. This distressed condition held that day, and half the next. And then the Lord remembered me, whose mercies are great . . . Then . . . I had the time and liberty again to look into my Bible, which was my guide by day, and my pillow by night. Now that comfortable scripture presented itself to me, Isa. 45:7, “For a small moment have I forsake thee but with great mercies I will gather thee.”[8]

  1. Agnes Beaumont (1652–1720)

Agnes Beaumont was a new convert and member of John Bunyan’s church in Bedford when she received a ride to a church meeting with him on his horse. Contentious people in town soon accused her and Bunyan of inappropriate behavior, and even murder of Beaumont’s father who had suddenly died after the incident.

In her narrative of these events, Beaumont showed that she often used memorized Scripture to give her courage, saying things like: “but at last one scripture after another came into my mind to encourage me,”[9] “that good word darted upon my mind,”[10] “towards night that scripture would often run in my mind . . . and that was a mighty word to me.”[11] She also meditated on certain words in Scripture that gave her a special sense of peace: “But now I began to look back with comfort upon Friday night in the barn and to think of that blessed word, ‘Beloved.’”[12]

All in all, these women found themselves in different situations but each one made the Bible central to their lives because, despite the hard passages and personal doubts they had, they knew its basic message could be understood and that by reading it, they communed with God himself.

 

[1] Lady Brilliana Harley, The Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley, ed. Thomas Taylor Lewis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, 1854), 10. Spelling adaptations mine.

[2] Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear Children,” in The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1981), 243–244.

[3] Lucy Hutchinson, The Works of Lucy Hutchinson, Volume II: Theological Writings and Translations, eds. Elizabeth Clarke, David Norbrook, and Jane Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 196–197. Spelling adaptations mine.

[4] Hutchinson, The Works of Lucy Hutchinson, 95–6.

[5] Ibid., 133. Spelling adaptations mine.

[6] Ibid., 154. Spelling adaptations mine.

[7] Anthony Walker, Eureka! Eureka! The Virtuous Woman Found . . . To which are annexed some of her ladyships pious and useful meditations (London: Printed for Nathanael Ranew, at the King’s Arms in S. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1678), 126–129. Spelling adaptations mine.  

[8] Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings, and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1856), 65–7.

[9] Agnes Beaumont, The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont, ed. Vera J. Camden (East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1992), 48.

[10] Beaumont, The Narrative, 49.

[11] Ibid., 63. See also 68, 69.

[12] Ibid., 62.

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