Book Review: 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love

5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love

Puritan men loom large in our Protestant heritage. We've been shaped by the Johns (Owen, Bunyan, Flavel), the Richards (Baxter, Sibbes), and the Thomases (Brooks, Watson), and they're quoted frequently today. But what of the 17th-century women? 

In her new book, 5 Puritan Women, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk shines a spotlight on these forgotten females. Through the practices of Scripture memorization and meditation, fellowship, prayer, and spiritual conversation, these women lived faithful lives. They were devoted to God and to others, and as a result they had a godly influence on the people around them.

Five women are covered in this book: Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley. De Klerk focuses on each woman through the lens of a particular role she had (daughter, mother, philanthropist, homemaker, and matriarch) and explores how her spiritual practices enriched that role.

Devotion to God

These women didn’t approach spiritual disciplines as a list of tasks but as means of communing with their beloved Lord. As de Klerk recounts their stories, God was always at the centre—knowing him, loving him, and serving him.

Agnes Beaumont saw her regular practice of memorising and meditating on Scripture as a means of staying close to God, no matter what life threw at her. As a young woman she went through many painful experiences: Her father treated her poorly because she insisted on continuing to attend church. When he died, she was accused of adultery with a preacher and conspiring with him to murder her father. She was ultimately acquitted, but this was exceptionally difficult time in her life, through which she kept finding comfort in God’s Word.

Because of the storehouse of biblical truth in her mind and heart, Beaumont was able to genuinely rejoice amid suffering—because that’s when she had occasion to draw most readily from the treasures of God’s Word and trust in him. That trust kindled intimacy. Writing later in life, Beaumont looked back with longing on the sufferings that had produced in her “great consolations and enlargements of heart, with fervent desires after Jesus Christ” (45).

Devotion to Others

As an overflow of their love for God, these Puritan women were devoted to loving and serving the people around them, particularly those in closest proximity: their families.

Of all the women in de Klerk’s book, Lady Brilliana Harley would be the most likely to be lauded as a role model among modern women. She was highly educated, fluent in several languages, and well versed in politics. She even defended her castle home against a three-month siege during the English Civil War, while her husband and sons were away. 

But amid these impressive achievements, I believe Harley’s greatest influence is seen in how she raised her children. We have hundreds of letters written by Harley to her eldest son, Ned, that show her devotion to both God and her family. As he went off to college, she continually encouraged him to prioritise the means of grace and seek to follow God in everything.

De Klerk writes, “Harley had intentional discussions about religion with him, . . . encouraging him to live for God, sharing her own religious experiences, and connecting him to the community of faith” (115).

From the overflow of her own close relationship with the Lord, Harley helped to guide Ned into a sincere and robust faith in Jesus. Her most common exhortation to him was simple: “Devote yourself to God” (115). Although Harley died quite young, her faith lived on in Ned, who spent the rest of life following the Lord. For all her intellect, savvy, and courage, this unusual 17th-century woman left, more than anything, a legacy of devotion.

Godly Legacies

Though most Puritan women didn't have prominent public ministries or leave theological tomes behind, they ministered powerfully among their families and communities. No matter what relationships and roles we have in our own lives, we can follow in their footsteps.

The five women de Klerk profiles teach us how to be steadfastly devoted to God through the means of grace and other spiritual practices. Only when we’ve been shaped by God’s Word can we then turn to influence others towards devotion and godliness. 

As de Klerk writes in her introduction, “The Puritans as a whole stand out in church history for being particularly skilled at applying the Bible to all areas of existence” (21). As we read the rich and edifying theological works of Puritan men, let’s also take heed of the lessons we can learn about how devotion to God looks in practice—not just on the page—through these faithful Puritan women.