How To Read the Puritan Paperbacks

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and old-school.  That was ten years ago; now I have about 15 of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

Puritan Paperback Set

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification. 

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even annoying, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Be patient and start by reading a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to start with is Thomas Watson’s Repentance because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages or so. 

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  Basically, you’ll profit from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use these books often in your future studies and devotions. 

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other stuff we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper subjects.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or Twitter, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  For example, I read one last week (on my “vacation week”) and I won’t read another for a month or so.   Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing. 

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, the Paperbacks have given me a deep respect for the Puritans. 

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

shane lems

7 thoughts on “How To Read the Puritan Paperbacks”

  1. Yep – spot on, Shane. I remember being really disappointed the first time I read one of the Puritan Paperbacks because RC Sproul had raved about them and I wasn’t getting anything out of them! Of course that was a matter of my ignorance, not RC’s misguiding me at all, but it did take a while to really get used to their writing and approach.

    I find too these days that while my exegetical method is a bit different that his, Matthew Henry’s commentary is such a fun book to consult. Even if I would treat a passage differently, he gives such interesting things to think about!


  2. Thanks for the advice Shane! I bought “Mortification of Sin” a few years ago, and never managed to get through it. Maybe now I’ll be able to finish it this time. :-)


    1. Thanks guys.

      By the way, I was just using “Mortification of Sin” for sermon prep last week, and I found a few good outline summaries of it on the internet. That helped me remember the main flow of the book. I recommend getting an outline somewhere to make the reading easier.

      Tripp: Thanks for that link. Looks like a good deal!



  3. awesome. love these books. Have only read in their entirety Watson’s All Things for Good and Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed, but have several others and have read sections from them(Contentment by Burroughs, Brooks’ Precious Remedies, Baxter’s Reformed Pastor and Perkins’s The Art of Prophesying). Thanks for the great tips on how to start and stick with these wonderful gifts to the church!


  4. I respectfully disagree with point no. 2.

    The Elizabethan language of the highly educated and literate Puritans is a JOY to read. The excruciating chore is having to plow through modern attempts at writing. If you want to write well then read the eminent writers; among whom we may number many 16th and 17th century Preachers of the Word.

    Thank you for point number 3, on creating a personal scripture index in the back; a fine suggestion.


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