Marsden's Edwards XV
Bill Long 10/1/05
David Brainerd and the Events of 1745-48
Marsden is at his best in these pages (306-340). With confidence and clarity he skillfully weaves the story of threats to New England's stability with threats to the Evangelical (New Light) movement that grew up in the wake of the Awakenings. But the high point of Marsden's efforts is his depiction of how Edwards transformed the image of the youthful and zealous David Brainerd from a young person with a checkered past at Yale and a partial success in bringing revival to the Indians to the paragon, exemplar, and instantiation of New Light Protestant Evangelicalism. This essay tells the story of events in Northampton and environs after the revival flames of the early 1740s had cooled and opposition to Edwards had developed both in his congregation and throughout MA. The next essay talks about David Brainerd.
Setting the Broader Historical Context
The mid-1740s saw New England in its most precarious position in decades. On the international front the French had combined with the Indians to harass the colonists and, by a threatened attack on the British colony of Nova Scotia, to try to cut off two of the economic lifelines of New England--the fishing industry and ship commerce. As a result the colonial leaders devised a risky plan to try to capture the French fort at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island north of Nova Scotia. Troops from Northampton were sent in 1745 and an improbable victory was won. This victory gave Edwards and his colonial religious opponents an opportunity to praise God not only for sparing them but for limiting the spread of international Catholicism. For if there was one thing that Edwards and his most liberal opponent (such as Charles Chauncy) agreed on, it was that America was to be a Protestant land, with the Puritan errand into the New England wilderness a scheme blessed by the beneficent hand of God.
But in the midst of this pressure from the French was a revolt in the heart of the British Isles. In July 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Catholic or Catholic-leaning James II, had led a revolt, beginning in Scotland and now, by December, closing in on London. However, as 1745 turned to 1746 he was unable to secure enough support in England for his revolt, and he withdrew from London and eventually fled to France. In addition, the French fleet sent to try to recapture Louisbourg in Fall 1746 was turned back by a terrible storm and death of its commander (314). Who could not help but see the providential operation of God in such events?
The Cooling of Revival Fires
Even though there were these threats, with eventual victories, on the international* front, the domestic front was far from
[*A point of irrelevance. The word "international" was only invented in 1780 by English philosopher and jurisprudent Jeremy Bentham in his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Thus, my use of it here is anachronistic.]
glorious for Edwards. The Old Lights, as the opponents of revival were now known, had consolidated their power through passage of the anti-itinerant legislation and agreement in the ministerial associations to oppose revival measures. They would be prepared and not so gullible the next time anyone showed up to start fanning the revival flames. For, in their mind, revival was nothing short of anarchy, a device to bring about disorder in ordered New England under the guise of religious revival. So significant was the growth of the "Old Lights" as they were known, that they could further be divided into two groups: (1) the conservative Old Lights, who not only oppposed revival but did so by holding firm to the language of the Westminster Confession of the 1640s; and (2) the liberal Old Lights, who were open not only to Arminian-leaning theology but to the skeptical philosophy of Hume that was beginning to be popular in England. The tendency, among these liberal Old Lights, was to see religion increasingly as something little more than moral sentiment. In any case, the Old Light opposition had hardened against revival by the mid 1740s.
Thus it is significant that very few people know about Whitefield's return visit to Northampton in 1745. Why? Because it had no effect. Late in 1744 Whitefield had returned to Boston to try to stir revival again, but was met this time by a tract entited The Testimony of the President, Professors, Tutors and Hebrew Instructor of Harvard Colelge, against George Whitefield. Harvard wasn't going to lie supine this time around. On the defensive, Whitefield was able to do few mighty wonders. He retreated to Northampton in the Spring and stayed with Edwards for a week, where they conversed about affairs international and the state of revival. And, as was said of Jesus 1700 years earlier when he came into a town that wouldn't receive him, "And he could do no deed of power there...." (Mark 6:5). Revival was seemingly not a function of the falling of the Spirit of God on fertile soil but something either encouraged, allowed or not permitted by the powers that be. When the ranks of influential men closed against Whitefield, he became, like Samson shorn, "weak and like any other man."
But in the midst of the setback for revivalistic Evangelicalism, a most fortunate thing happened for Edwards. His family home became the hospital for the dying young missionary to the Indians, David Brainerd, and Edwards was so impressed by what he perceived to be the meaning of this young man's life that he set aside his huge work against Arminianism (which would become The Freedom of the Will) to edit, change (!) and publish the Diary of David Brainerd.
The next essay tells a little of that story.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long