Marsden's Edwards XVII
Bill Long 10/3/05
Last Days in Northampton (1750)
When I studied the life of Jonathan Edwards for the first time 30 years ago, I always thought it was unusual that he would have left the pastorate of one church and headed off to another (and that on the frontier) while in his mid-40s. Ministry wasn't the same then as it is today. Normally a pastor would stay at his charge for life. Indeed, when the Northampton church hired Edwards in 1726, they certainly were thinking that Edwards would serve his entire ministry there, since his grandfather Solomon Stoddard had served the Northampton Church for 55 years by then, and would soon die in Northampton. Edwards' father Timothy also had a "lifetime" ministry at the Congregational Church in East Windsor, CT. But such was not to be the case for Jonathan. My thesis here is that Edwards' political naivete, combined with a theological and personal inflexibility, served to alienate him from his congregation to such an extent that when he departed in 1750 fewer than 10% of the male members supported him.
We have already seen that Edwards' clumsy attempt to expose sexual sins among youthful members of his congregation led to considerable resentment in 1744. Even if this would not have sealed his fate with the congregation, his political insensitivity in the wake of John Stoddard's death in 1748 finished him off. John was Solomon's son and therefore Jonathan's uncle. John was the most powerful person in town, and he zealously honored the name of his father even as he protected his nephew. Political arrangements would definitely have been more complex for Edwards under any scenario after John's death at 66 in 1748, but Edwards chose the months following the death to try to undo one of the choice contributions of Solomon's legacy: open communion.
A word about why this doctrine was so vitally important to Northampton and so vigorously opposed by Edwards is in order. The doctrine of open communion meant that all people, regardless of whether they could testify to a particular experience of grace, were invited to partake of the Lord's Supper. Those who favored "open communion" would do so on two grounds: first, only God knew the heart and for humans to judge another's spirituality or require certain stages of conversion was presumptuous; second, by "lowering the barriers to entry" (as we say in Antitrust law), the pastor could make sure that the church membership was nearly co-extensive with town population. Thus, ironically, the ministry would be able to maintain its influence in direct proportion to how lax it was in allowing people to join the church.
The first few generations of Puritan pastors were able to assume that the church and town membership were nearly co-extensive, and that each town/church person could testify to a time when they felt that God had worked His work of grace in their soul. But as the zeal of the first generation of Puritans waned, there were pressures on the churches to relax standards of membership. The churches seemed to be caught on the horns of a dilemma. If, on the one hand, you continued to push for a unequivocal testimony of saving grace in the soul, your numbers would dwindle dramatically, but you could be assured of a "pure" church. If, however, you wanted a "big" church, you would have to admit to membership and baptism (and then the Lord's Supper), people who might not be able to convince the elders of their saving experience of Christ.
Solomon Stoddard had chosen to relax the standards of church membership, and the people of Northampton had lived with that system for nearly half a century. And the system went unchallenged until Edwards, the year after John's death, decided to press for a return to the old Puritan system--of closed communion, conversion narratives, and a smaller congregation of "visible saints." His timing was terrible and his idea, especially in Northampton, was completely out of date. Anger and bitterness arose, and Edwards seemed alternatively confused and resigned to whatever happened. And, he was dismissed.
Two Paradoxes in the Life of Edwards
One of the reasons Marsden points to for Edwards' falling out with the congregation was his commitment to principle. He simply wasn't willing to blow according to every wind of doctrine, and so he had to deal with the consequences of this. Marsden also mentions the two points I will now mention, which, in my judgment, are more significant than the first. I think that Edwards "fell out" with the church because of two unexamined paradoxes in his own life.
First, he deeply believed in the doctrine of original sin and its effect in people's lives, but he lived as a perfectionist and expected others to be perfect, too. The only way you can understand his not wanting to waste one second of time, his rising to study or work 13 hours a day (though having 10 children), his incessant self-examination, his scrupulous attention and most minute care in all his writing and thinking, his comparative lack of interest in "play," his dozens of resolutions starting as a young man still in his teens, is to see him as a man who believed that he could and must put behind him the lower inclinations of human nature. But, those who strive so hard with their minds and with great acts of personal discipline often don't understand the "mere humanness" of others or themselves. And so they misunderstand and are misunderstood and always end up subject to the whims and decisions of the "less spiritual."
Second, Edwards deeply believed in the affections, those inclinations by which we were able to contemplate the glory of God, act with disinterested benevolence, and live on a higher plane of spirituality but, in fact, he lived as if the mind ruled. He was a controversialist extraordinaire, a logician par excellence. He was skilled in dispute and debate, and often practiced his rapier-quick skills against other less developed intellects. Yet, he was seemingly most fascinated by the affections and how they are stimulated and fostered by a religious awakening.
Perhaps it is somewhere in the intersection of these non-intersecting lines that we can see a potential tragedy in Edwards--of a man whose expectations belied his theology and whose activity belied his heart.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long