Propaganda on the Puritans

This track by Propaganda entitled “Precious Puritans” (PP) has generated not a small amount of commentary in certain circles of the Christian blogosphere. A friend first brought it to my attention with the following email:

Everything is seen through the eyes of race for people groups that are not the majority culture. This song points out a way white preachers do not get that. We have to confront our white privilege that blinds us to race issues if we are going to have serious efforts towards racial reconciliation.What do you think? Is the song off-base?

A number of things could be said in response but for the purposes of this post I’ll focus on the song & it’s message for the church. In short, I would recommend PP as a positive contribution to the overall discussion of racial reconciliation albeit with a few cautions & and a number of questions.

First a disclaimer. I recognize that lyrics will often lack the nuance more readily available to prose and that a certain amount of artistic license is granted to a lyricist in order to make his song “work”. In other words, I don’t expect a 3-4 minute song to cover all the fine points of a subject matter beyond the basic message at hand. So while I may push back on a few thoughts I hope to do so graciously, mindful that a single song can’t represent all the layers and shades of someone’s thinking. [see, for example, Propaganda’s own qualifications concerning the Puritans here.] Having said that here are my thoughts:

1) I find myself in agreement on the essential point(s). I take PP to communicate two fundamental points and I go back & forth on which one Propaganda considers the main point. First, Propaganda would have us recognize the racial insensitivity at work when white pastors blithely quote the Puritans. The Puritan participation, advocacy, and/or silence on the slave trade creates a bitter taste for black Christians who hear these men lionized from a pulpit. Second, Christians must recognize–and fight–the temptation to “pedestal” fellow Christians (past or present), acknowledging that we’re all “crooked sticks” that God uses to make straight lines according to His will. [I suspect this latter point is the primary point of the song]

2) The song paints a picture with an incredibly broad brush. It’s hard not to notice that Propaganda speaks as if the Puritans were a monolithic group, but history is rarely, if ever, so neat and orderly. I seriously doubt Propaganda intends to convict an entire group on the basis of a stereotype, but the language & tone don’t seem to leave much room for exceptions. I’m no church historian but is it right to talk as if all Puritans were slave owning/selling/hating bigots?

3) The song comes close to raising an impossible standard for public ministry. No pastor (or artist in Propaganda’s case) can rise to the level of inerrancy but that shouldn’t dissuade us from answering the call or commending certain men for corporate edification. As Propaganda notes, “There’s not one generation of believers that figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action” and history bears that out. Peter was guilty of gospel compromise (Gal 2:11ff), Martin Luther was guilty of antisemitism, and Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Even so, if God saw fit to use these men for the building up of His Church, shouldn’t we build on them too?

4) The song creates a host of unanswered questions–not necessarily a bad thing. Can I quote the Puritans to a white Christian/congregation? Should I never quote the Puritans to a black Christian/congregation? Is censoring Puritan quotes a prerequisite for celebrating diversity in the church?

Having listened to the track multiple times, I don’t think Propaganda is trying to write off the Puritans any more than he’s trying to write off his own ministry. Rather, we’re being challenged to acknowledge & confront the sins of our forefathers even as we stand on their shoulders to gain a clearer vision of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Praise God! He uses crooked sticks like us and them to make straight lines. Now go read those crooked Puritans and marvel at His grace.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

4 thoughts on “Propaganda on the Puritans”

  1. Thanks for posting… Only listened to the song once and didn’t read the lyrics but I think we walk a thin line when attempting to compare or condemn cultures of the past. It certainly isn’t that the cultures of the past doesn’t deserve condemning… But are we no different? After all, the Americans have killed 30 million babies through abortion. Does that remove a future generation’s right to quote the Christian preacher of our day? Maybe it does; but the bible is full of sinful men we look towards as an example. King David is just one of many.

    Conversing with atheists has demonstrated that their disdain for Israel’s claim as god’s chosen people is directly related to the immorality of that nation. Does that gripe change their place in history? I don’t think so.

    If ultimately his point is that God alone is worth quoting then I would tend to agree with him, as you pointed out… All others just demonstrate the depth of Gods grace toward us. Unfortunately I think he is trying to say much more than that and I tend to disagree.

    And what was he trying to say about Paul?

    1. Thane,
      Thanks for the feedback. To clarify Prop wasn’t condemning Paul but the Puritan interpretation of Paul used to justify slavery. “Isn’t that what Paul taught/According to your precious Puritans.”

      I think we all agree on the basic point: “There’s not one generation of believers that figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action.” We do ourselves and the church a disservice when we try to ignore or airbrush the sin out of our heroes if not for the simple fact that we make more of them & less of God. But I think we can do just as much harm to the church if we discard the Puritans. To paraphrase Paul: Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise Puritan utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.

  2. Jonathan – the more I think about this song and the discussion of it, the more I have questions about our culture. I think the reason the Puritans accepted slavery is because it was accepted in their culture. It was an accepted practice and so they did not think twice about it. It is just how it was. I am not making excuses for them or trying to justify it, but only recognize how it could have happened. Maybe my explanation is an over-simplification, but I think it is probably the main reason.

    So what I have been thinking about is: what in our culture do we do the same thing with? Is there anything that we currently practice that is just accepted as the way things are done that people 400 years from now look back on and ask, how could those Christians have done that? Were they really being led by the Holy Spirit if they did not realize that was wrong? Are there things about our lives that we just do because that is what we as Americans do? Are there cultural evils that we are blind to because it is just a part of our society?

    What do you think?

    1. I think you’re right–the culture has a huge impact on our thinking (or lack thereof). The Puritans weren’t immune to cultural conditioning which explains why, on the one hand, they could could be so perceptive on so much doctrine & Christian life but, on the other hand, be so devastatingly blind on slavery. Hindsight really is 20/20 in many ways & we benefit from the clarity that history brings.

      Similarly for us, future generations will criticize our cultural blindness. I don’t have a conviction of where our blindspot(s) is but I could guess–can a blind man see his blindness?–abortion, sanctity of marriage, homosexuality, ecclesiology, foreign missions, preaching cultural relevance at the expense of sanctification, politicizing the church, nation worship. These aren’t all cultural evils, some are more pronounced than others, and some are (already) receiving more attention than others.

      I’m sure you could add a few others. Semper Reformanda

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