The affections and the imagination

In a previous post we looked at the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality. In this post we explore the link between the affections and the imagination.

As we have seen in previous posts, our affections determine our behaviour. This means that simply informing people or commanding people is not enough. The affections must be won for Christ. An individual in besetting sin might know it is wrong. But he remains trapped because his affections are captured by the sin. What the individual needs is a clearer vision of the beauty, love and glory of God.

So the Puritans employed ‘fancy’ or ‘imagination’. This could be used to have a negative affect. But it could be used to shape the affections. Richard Sibbes said: ‘We should make our fancy serviceable to us in spiritual things.’ (Works 1:185) The imagination has great power over the soul ‘because it stirs up the affections … for as the imagination conceiveth, so usually the judgment concludeth, the will chooseth, the affections are carried, and the members execute.’ (Works 1:182).

This is reflected in the Puritan preaching which often had long passages designed to appeal to the imagination. Jonathan Edwards said: ‘Our people … don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched.’ (Cited in Harold Simonson, Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart, Eerdmans, 112)

Puritans would often rather boldly address their congregations in the first person as if Christ himself we addressing them. They also employed a technique called ‘composition of place’ which involved imagining you were present or entering into the scene. Arthur Dent in The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven encouraged his readers: ‘Nail down all our sins and iniquities to the cross of Christ, bury them in his death, bathe them in his blood, hide them in his wounds, let them never rise up in judgement against us.’ John Downame, in his directions for the stages of meditation, advised saints to let ‘our hearts [be] affected with a lively taste, sense, and feeling of the things whereon we meditate.’ In one sermon, Thomas Shepard concludes a sermon on the union of the believer with Christ by conducting the wedding in the sermon. ‘I pronounce Christ and you married,’ he says.

Citations from Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press is available from and

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