Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Opposition Experienced by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

"What were the main forms of opposition Edwards experienced in his ministry?
 What were their motivations? What were his responses?"

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a revivalist preacher of Calvinist and Puritan traditions. His most famous sermon is Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (1741), one of over 1,400 that are recorded (Nichols, 2004, pp. 35-36). His published works continue to be read today for both philosophical and religious teaching and include Religious Affections (1746) and Freedom of Will (1754). He is regarded as one of America’s most powerful thinkers and greatest theologians (Marsden, 2003, p. 369). Despite this contribution and legacy his life would be marked by opposition.

One hundred miles west of Boston Massachusetts, in the New England countryside, lies the small town of Northampton. From 1669 the pastor of the local church there was Solomon Stoddard (Dever, 2004, p. 131). Well known in New England and a regular preacher in Boston, he was an influential leader who became known as the ‘Pope of the Connecticut Valley’ (Dever, 2004, p. 129). He also happened to be the grandfather-in-law of Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards, a Harvard graduate who believed his greatest contribution could be in the intellectual realm, appeared destined for a career in academia (Marsden, 2003, pp. 137-138; Nichols, 2004, p. 39). However, after a 3 month trial (Winslow, 1961, p. 95) he accepted a position as assistant pastor under Stoddard in August 1726 (Dever, 2004, p. 129). When Stoddard died in 1729 he became the sole pastor of the 600 member church (Nichols, 2004, p. 131).
At the time New England was in a vortex of conflict and change. British Protestants, French Catholics, and native Indians all fought for control and influence (Marsden, 2003, p. 3). Life was often difficult with plagues, war, and uncertainties. A man would go into to the woods and be found scalped, or never found at all (Winslow, 1961, p. 108). It was also a time of religious change with the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original pious puritan pilgrims progressively seeing clergy and the church as irrelevant (Winslow, 1961, pp. 95-98).

The ‘Halfway Covenant’ controversy, which would be with Edwards most of his life, predated him by nearly 60 years. The Northhampton Church became one of the first congregational churches in New England to ratify the covenant in 1662 (Dever, 2004, p. 131; Winslow, 1961, pp. 102-103). In essence it allowed all people to become church members enjoying all its benefits except for participation in communion. By doing so, the clergy was able to maintain some hold on the more worldly members within their congregation (Winslow, 1961, p. 101). By 1700 there were more non-covenant members (those not entitled to communion) than covenant members (Dever, 2004, p. 131).
Stoddard thought society should be modelled off the Old Testament example and desired to strengthen the position of the church and clergy within the community, leading him to support the covenant position (Marsden, 2003, p. 31). Moreover, Stoddard, a staunch liberal, extended the principle in 1700 to accept non-covenant members to the communion table. He argued on grounds of practicality and extending grace rather than theology (Winslow, 1961, pp. 103-104). Eleazer (the pastor prior to Solomon) and his brother Increase bitterly opposed this position (Dever, 2004, p. 131; Marsden, 2003, p. 31). Edward’s opposition to this practice would grow throughout his life.
Edwards took Stoddard’s approach of Church authority within the town and added to it religious reform (Nichols, 2004, p. 44). Edwards reversed Stoddard’s decision to allow non-covenant members to communion. Despite the unrest caused by that decision he took it further in limiting church membership to only professing members. This imposed reform was destined to polarise the community, particularly since Edwards practiced the Halfway Covenant for 23 years (Winslow, 1961, p. 225).

The Great Awakening of 1740-41 was a turbulent time of both revival and chaos. A visit by an English Evangelist, George Whitefield was to precipitate a religious upheaval (Winslow, 1961, p. 165). Religious Affections (1746) was a justification to emotional elements of faith seen during revival. The culture of the town was positively influenced with the reduction of night frolics, loose speech and other licentious behaviour (Marsden, 2003, p. 296). The years following were a restless time. Any parish disagreement would serve as a model for mischief (Winslow, 1961, p. 200).
Petty disputes developed. Edwards was forced to spend considerable energy and time maintaining his salary against inflation and ensuring it was paid. After a second increase there was a general uneasiness around town. An expensive locket and chain Edwards bought for his wife became an example for those that wished to accuse him of living lavishly at their expense (Winslow, 1961, p. 201). 

‘The Bad Books Case’ of 1744 would be the catalyst of Edwards’ dismissal from the Northampton pastorate. The case revolved around Edwards’ handling of a group of young men’s ‘scandalous’ behaviour after reading gynaecological text books. Although the offense may be thought of as minor (particularly to a modern audience) it crystallised a brewing conflict between Edwards and the local townspeople.
Over the preceding five years a group of young men aged twenty-one to twenty-nine were using the information within the texts to taunt women about women’s health issues such as menstruation. The ring leaders were local hoodlums Oliver Warner and brothers Timothy and Simon Root (Winslow, 1961, p. 208). The popular medical texts at the centre of the controversy included The Midwife Rightly Instructed (Marsden, 2003, p. 294). Mary Downing, a young lady in the town, testified ‘“They all did so. They laughed and made sport was about girls, things concerning Girls that is unclean to speak of”’’ (Marsden, 2003, p. 294).
In response to this situation Edwards called a vote to form a church committee to investigate and discipline (Marsden, 2003, p. 293). This practice of discipline was not unusual in New England in the eighteenth century with most churches seeing at least one ‘case’ a year (Winslow, 1961, p. 204)[1]. Sociologically it was an outworking of the role of church in town identity which Stoddard worked hard to establish.
Edwards’ political mistake was in the public calling of people required to speak with the committee. His list, which is preserved, includes names grouped and marked by symbols (Winslow, 1961, p. 206). However, at the conclusion of his sermon he announced a list of the youth, some witnesses, some accused, without distinction. By painting all with the same brush he implied the guilt of all. Edwards thus formed tension between himself and some leading families who had children or friends listed by Edwards (Nichols, 2004, p. 132; Winslow, 1961, p. 205).
Samuel Hopkins (1721-1793), who knew Edwards personally and would be his first biographer published in 1765 (Murray, 1987, p. xxvii), records, ‘Mr Edwards was very happy in esteem and love of his people for many years’ but states the turning point was the tactical error of handling the bad book case (Marsden, 2003, pp. 291,293).
During this time Edwards grew increasing passionate that if you profess faith with your mouth you must also profess it with your life. Worse still to Edwards was total indifference to sin and lethargy towards the things of God (Nichols, 2004, p. 44; Marsden, 2003, p. 294). The case was more difficult for Edwards as the young men were spiritual children of Edwards coming to the Lord during the Great Awakening (Marsden, 2003, p. 295).
The motivation of the growingly vocal portion of disgruntled townspeople is complex. Economically, the town was in transition from ‘yeoman society to agrarian capitalism’ with a transition from communal lands to private property (Marsden, 2003, p. 303). More specifically, there been a long standing friction between Edwards and the town over his salary. Culturally, this was symptom of a larger shift in the New England culture (Nichols, 2004, p. 44). There was growing thought that matters that occur in the home, particularly of non-believers, was of no concern and certainly no judgement of the church (Winslow, 1961, p. 209)
The conduct and defence provided by the accused, namely Timothy Root, provides insightful social commentary. In growing defiance of the church Root referred to the book not as the ‘Bad Book’ but ‘the young folk’s bible’ placing its relevance above the church (Marsden, 2003, pp. 298-299). To Edwards he said ‘I will not worship a wig’ (Marsden, 2003, p. 302). This comment is pointed at the class distinction with the committee formed by men who, as was fashion, would wear a white wig.
Edwards, although aloof and awkward at times, was not unaware of the storm in which he walked (Winslow, 1961, p. 204). When criticised for his position he responded ‘“Shall the master of the ship… not inquire when he fears the ship is running on the rocks”’ (Marsden, 2003, p. 294). To Edwards the case represented a spiritual decline of the people, a danger he could not ignore.
Edwards’ justification began in the text selection on the day he called the committee (Marsden, 2003, p. 293). Hebrews 12:15-16 speaks of losing eternal inheritance (which was upmost importance to Edwards) for sexual immorality. Edwards’ concern was not only for the undisciplined boys but their influences on others (Marsden, 2003, p. 296). He also argued the duration and number of people involved made this a public issue (cf. Matthew 18.)
The case dragged on through May and June. The Root brothers eventually apologised not for sexual sins but for “scandalously Contemptuous Behaviour towards the Authority of this Church” (Winslow, 1961, p. 206).

It would take several years after the ‘Bad Book Case’ before Edwards was removed. The town had split into factions, with the majority pushing relentlessly for his removal (Marsden, 2003, p. 357). In opposition, although Deacon Ebenezer Pomeroy and Major Seth Pomeroy were more public, perhaps the most painful objector was Edwards own nephew Joseph Hawley III[2]. In support, Colonel Timothy Dwight and Dr. Samual Mather stood by Edwards (Marsden, 2003, p. 358). His uncle Col. John Stoddard, a popular military leader and local Magistrate who was on the committee and had long supported Edwards, died in 1748 (Nichols, 2004, p. 132).
Edwards, still an advocate of reason, attempted to defend his position through treatise, lecture and debate. Although some would read his treatise and some would listen to his lectures (although these people were predominately from adjacent towns), a public debate was not allowed (Marsden, 2003, pp. 357-359; Winslow, 1961, p. 228). Even after the event in 1752 he would publish Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated (Marsden, 2003, p. 368).
The system of Church government had evolved in such a haphazard way it was not clear who was in charge or how a pastor could be removed (Marsden, 2003, p. 357). It was decided that a committee of neighbouring churches would decide the pastor’s fate (Marsden, 2003, pp. 357-359).
In 1750 the council voted 23 to 207 to remove Edwards as pastor of Northhampton (Marsden, 2003, p. 360; Dever, 2004, p. 129; Nichols, 2004, p. 131). On July 1 1750 Edwards preached his final sermon (Marsden, 2003, p. 361). One month later the townspeople voted to remove his right to the pasture lands that he tendered (Marsden, 2003, p. 363). Despite a clear vote to remove Edwards the council reflected positively on Edward’s character. They commended him for his ‘Christian spirit and temper’ and observed him to ‘uprightly following this dictates of his own conscience’ (Marsden, 2003, p. 361).
The reasons behind his dismissal are complex. Edwards’ intense faith and rigid perspective on its application grew throughout his career. The cumulating of multiple small disputes (Nichols, 2004, p. 131) in the setting of a revolutionary and proud culture (Winslow, 1961, p. 223) made him vulnerable. His personality was to not back down from a fight (Winslow, 1961, p. 226) and he was not willing to compromise on his beliefs to be gentle, pleasing, or popular (Murray, 1987, p. xxi). Finally disagreement on the church discipline and acceptance to the Lord’s Table led to Edwards being sent effectively into exile (Nichols, 2004, p. 132; Marsden, 2003, p. 269).

In 1751 Edwards moved to Stockbridge to minister to Mohican Indians (Marsden, 2003, p. 275). In 1758 Edwards died from complications of a small pox inoculation (Winslow, 1961, p. 292).

Pastorally, his religious fervour coupled with an aloof personality would render him unwelcome in his time (Murray, 1987, pp. xx-xxi). Theologically, his greatest works were born in response to opposition. Believing his greatest joy and obligation was in God he saw no reason to compromise even in the face of opposition and difficulty for himself or family. His defence, like his preaching, was rational and reasoned. Despite rejection and exile in his time, Edward’s remains highly influential today. Mark Noll writes: ‘Edwards’ piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his God-entranced world view’ (Piper, 2004, p. 21).


Dever, M. (2004). How Jonathan Edwards Got Fired, and Why It’s Important for us Today. In J. Piper, & J. Taylor (Eds.), A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
Edwards, J. (1741). Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (Vol. Volume 22). Sermons and Discourses, WJE Online.
Edwards, J. (1746). Religious Affections (Vol. Volume 2). (R. P, Ed.) WJE Online.
Edwards, J. (1754). Freedom of the Will (Vol. Volume 1). (R. P, Ed.) WJE Online.
Marsden, G. M. (2003). Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Murray, I. H. (1987). Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
Nichols, S. J. (2004). Jonathan Edwards: His Life and Legacy. In J. Piper, & J. Taylor (Eds.), A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
Piper, J. (2004). A God-Entrangled Vision of all things: Why we need Jonathan Edwards 300 years later. In A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Wheaton: Crossways Books.
Winslow, O. E. (1961). Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758. New York: Collier Books.

[1] Edwards personally had been involved included three cases of disputed paternity that decade (Marsden, 2003, p. 301).
[2] Hawley’s reasons for siding against his uncle were twofold. First Edwards had made a displeasing decision in Hawley’s brother’s paternity case, ruling that he should marry the lady of lower class to whom he had a child. Secondly, Hawley’s theological views become polarised from Edwards were becoming increasingly influenced by Arminianism (Marsden, 2003, p. 358).

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