Mothers of the Soul

Puritan Lessons in Encouraging Faith

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When I began my doctoral studies on the Puritans, I received all sorts of odd, and sometimes troubling, questions about my research. One of the most surprising came from a stranger who, upon learning the focus of my PhD, asked, “Do we have any stories of children raised by Puritans who grew up and left the faith because of how their parents mistreated them?” The question came out of nowhere; I could hardly think of what to say. In my shock, I blurted out that I was not aware of any stories like this.

Later that night, I realized why the question shocked me. Not only had I never heard such a story, but I had heard many stories that showed the opposite — stories of young men raised by Puritan fathers who then became Puritans themselves, such as Matthew Henry, son of Puritan clergyman Philip Henry. Soon, I would also discover that the Puritans explicitly spoke against abuse in the home, instructing parents instead to care for and pass down the faith to their families.

In fact, the Puritans are often remembered for their devotion to family life. What we don’t often hear about, however, are the Puritan women — the faithful mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters who bore much of the load. When I started studying Puritan women, their stories excited me: a daughter evangelizing her unbelieving father, an aunt catechizing her nieces and guiding them through life’s challenges, a grandmother raising her granddaughter after a family tragedy. These are just some of the amazing testimonies that have been preserved for us from church history.

But to me, the most fascinating story of a Puritan woman passing down the faith comes from the life of Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681). A mother of eight who wrote works of poetry, history, and theology, Hutchinson crafted the only known theological treatise written by a woman in the seventeenth century. Its purpose? To pass down the faith to her daughter Barbara, who would soon move away to start life as an independent adult.

When Love and Duty Meet

The fact that Hutchinson wrote an entire book of theology becomes less surprising when we consider her upbringing: she hated sewing and playing with friends her age, loved reading and listening to the adults of the house, attended sermons with her mother, outperformed her brother in Latin, and eventually married a man who had similar intellectual interests.

But still, why would Hutchinson go to the trouble of writing an entire book for her daughter? In a letter to Barbara that she attached to the treatise, Hutchinson explained herself. Though she could have simply bought Barbara an affordable short catechism written by professionally trained theologians (such as the theologians who influenced her own writings), she believed it was her duty as a mother to do all she could to stabilize her daughter’s faith — and she could not shirk this duty.

True, Barbara might think it over-the-top. What’s more, Hutchinson was weighed down by great personal challenges during her writing process: illness, distraction, a lack of external support and self-confidence, and the aftermath of her husband’s death (which left her with a broken heart, debts to pay off, and children to care for alone). But she felt that she had to proceed, no matter how slow and painful the process might be. Overall, what motivated Hutchinson, in addition to her motherly love and sense of duty, was her own commitment to God and his people.

Faith-Filled Mothers Faithfully Teach

As Hutchinson’s treatise shows, she was convinced from Scripture that the purpose of life was to love God, which led, in turn, to loving his people. So, she taught Barbara that we fulfill the most important commandment or “the law” through “love” (Mark 12:29–30; Romans 13:10) and that God calls us to “stir up one another to love” (Hebrews 10:24) and abide “in the light” (1 John 2:10) through love.

In light of these passages, she urged Barbara to partake of the faith and love of the universal church by joining a local church to worship God with fellow believers, serve one another, and care for the needy. In fact, her book is one big explanation of faith in God, his work in creation, salvation, and sanctification, and how we live in relationship with him and humanity.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what became of Barbara after Hutchinson sent her off with this special book; the only record we have is of the financial hardships Barbara’s daughters faced later in life. But we do know that despite whatever trials Barbara and her family faced, they had access to the most important truths through the teaching Lucy had passed down to them.

Passing Down the Faith Today

After learning about Hutchinson’s intellectual prowess and great ambitions, we may be tempted to think of her example as too great to emulate. But despite her unique talents, Hutchinson’s story has many lessons for us today as we seek to raise our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews in the Lord Jesus.

1. Teach yourself first.

First, Hutchinson grounded herself in the truths of Scripture before and as she taught her daughter. When she instructed Barbara, she did not speak as a nameless, faceless narrator — she spoke as a Christian who had spent her life studying theology, gathering with the church, and reflecting on her own faith journey.

Her commitment to personal discipleship teaches us that if we want to do any spiritual good to the dependents and disciples in our lives, we first need to receive that spiritual good for ourselves. As Paul says, “You . . . who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” (Romans 2:21). If we don’t want to be like the Pharisees, we need to believe and experience what we are teaching to others. We don’t need to be perfect in our faith or good works, but we do need to spend time reminding (even teaching!) ourselves what we believe and why, and then share our personal experiences of these truths with others in order to offer genuine and effective instruction.

2. Draw from the best resources.

For all her theological aptitude, Hutchinson was not a professional theologian. She did not even go to university because of the laws and societal norms of her day. Even still, Hutchinson was able to become skilled in theology because she supplemented her personal Bible reading with some of the best theological resources available to her, including the writings of John Calvin, John Owen, and the Westminster divines.

Like Hutchinson, all of us can become good disciplers if we have the right tools — we do not need to be officially trained or paid. If we want to fulfill the Great Commission to “make disciples” and teach “them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded” (Matthew 28:19–20), all we need to do is use the abilities God has given us (Romans 12:6) alongside the wisdom God has given to others.

3. Let suffering strengthen resolve.

Finally, Hutchinson persevered through many struggles in order to teach Barbara. Perhaps we picture great thinkers from history cozied up on the couch, tea in hand and dog on lap, writing their magnum opus. The reality, however, is that many of these thinkers, including Hutchinson, wrote in the midst of waking nightmares. Yet such trials did not stop them from passing down the faith. In fact, in many cases, suffering had the opposite effect, creating the right emotional environment to spur them on to communicate the truth with intensity and clarity.

After losing so much, Hutchinson must have felt even more keenly her duty to fortify Barbara’s faith. Suffering did not make her hopeless; rather, it created endurance and character as she passed on the faith for her family’s future (Romans 5:3–4).

Right now may feel like the wrong time to devote yourself to teaching. Maybe your children are small, and you can hardly get through the day. Maybe a family member is ill. Maybe someone in your family has lost a job or you are in the middle of an international move. While there are times to work and times to rest, it is important that passing on the faith within our families does not get put on a permanent back burner.

Reminding ourselves of the greatness of Christian love and the example of Hutchinson’s motherly love can spur us to pass on the faith even when we feel weighed down by life or unqualified for the task. Whatever our circumstances or qualifications, God can use us to strengthen the faith of others, especially as we ask him to strengthen our own.