Marsden's Edwards VII
Bill Long 9/18/05
Northampton Life, 1737-40
As you can tell, I am now finding Mardsen's biography delightful and instructive, enabling me not only to fill in large gaps in my knowledge of Edwards and mid-18th century New England intellectual life but to reconnect with my own "Edwardsian" period. In this essay I will briefly describe three things: (1) the building of the Northamption Meeting House in 1737; (2) Edwards' "love" sermons; and (3) Edwards' first attempts to think historically.
Rebuilding the House of God
The soaring spires and boxed pews of old Protestant Churches that are familiar to all who have walked the Freedom Trail in Boston or lived in the New England culture for any length of time were quintessential expressions of an 18th century architectural urge. Borrowed as they were from the English architecture of the times, these heaven-splitting spires were reflective of a new English ambition in the world. Shakespeare and Jonson and the Puritan writers of the 17th century may have given England a new linguistic consciousness and optimism, but the spate of building after the London fire of 1671 itself fired the British imagination, where indeed the "sky was the limit." So when the good citizens of Northampton decided to build their third meeting house in about 80 years this one would not be modeled on the humble, plain and nearly inconspicuous Puritan structure. Instead, it would have a belfry and spire (with clock added later) dominating the town as it reached heavenward. Inside would be 35 "family" box pews around the perimeter of the church, with straight pews in the center. Edwards agreed with the planning committee (or did he direct the planning committee?) that seating in the new church should be based on three criteria, in this order: wealth, age, and service to the community. Marsden interprets this in line with Gordon Wood's thesis, that the social reality of the pre-revolutionary New Englanders was hierarchical and that Edwards shared this approach. We all may be sinners dangling precariously in the hands of an angry God (see a later essay), but some, when the dangling was over, deserved (figuratively) the cushioned seats.
That this hierarchicalism could sometimes provoke a mini-conflict within clergy who benefitted from this arrangement is nicely illustrated by Marsden in the story of a child's baptism. The remark in question was made not by Edwards but by the Anglican Evangelist (no, the terms are not incompatible!) George Whitefield, who stormed through the colonies in 1739-40. Marsden thinks that Whitefield, who was close to Edwards during his New England visit in 1740, may have spoken the following to Edwards, referring to life in Boston:
"The little infants who were brought to baptism, were wrapped up in such fine things, and so much pains taken to dress them, that one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world" (Marsden, 207).
Preaching on Love
Marsden mentions that upon settling into the new Church (could you still call it a "meeting house"?), Edwards preached series of sermons, nineteen on the "rich and foolish virgins" (Matt. 25), and then several on "Charity and its Fruits," which was only published postumously but became one of Edwards' best-known works. I remember running across a reprinted edition of these sermons in Seminary and drinking in their deeply biblical thinking. The series was so entitled because of the biblical observation: "By their fruits ye shall know them." Edwards preached on I Cor 13, summarizing his approach as follows: "all that is distinguishing and saving and true Christianity may be summarily comprehended in love." The ultimate test of whether revival "stuck" was whether the spirit of love actuated people. Edwards delivered a sermon on each of the following things that love opposed: envy, pride, selfishness, anger, and censoriousness. His concluding sermon of the series, as Marsden says (191) was entitled "Heaven is a World of Love" in which he depicted the heavenly reality as a perfectly harmonious society with "no string out of tune." Love of persons for each other flowed out of the intratrinitarian love expressed by Father, Son and Holy Spirit among themselves. Even though the fulness of this love couldn't be expressed in this life, the saints in heaven would be able finally to communicate this charity toward God and each other.
When the ambitious Edwards conceptualized his life work in his 20s, it was to be in the form a systematic review of all human knowledge from a theological perspective. Yet, as he matured, his perspective began to change. By his mid-30s he was ruminating about a new historical approach to explain the work of God in the world and, at the end of his (relatively brief) life (he was 54 when he died), he told the Princeton trustees that he hoped to write a work entitled A History of the Work of Redemption, which he characterized as "a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history" (Marsden, 193). His "dry run" on this theme was a thirty-part sermon series in the late 1730s in which he tried to show that Christ's redemptive love was the key to all history.
Why the shift in Edwards' way of conceptualizing his grand life task? We can't say that it is solely related to the idea of growing older and developing a deeper sense of history because you have lived more of it. I think also that because of the "surprising" events of 1734-35 in Northampton Edwards had seen the hand of God working in the communal affairs of humans, and that this experience triggered in him thoughts of how God might have worked in different ages in the past and might indeed work in the future. But this project was to be a summative one for his life that would gestate over decades. One wonders that when he breathed his last in 1758 because of a bungled smallpox inoculation he died with regrets on this score. In any case, he is now a man conscious of the ebbs and flows of historical movement and the presence of the Spirit of God in those ebbs and flows.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long