Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Northampton Church Gives Edwards the Boot

My latest reading of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life was about Jonathan Edwards getting kicked out of the pastorate at his church in Northampton.  Edwards had pursued a controversial policy of requiring people to demonstrate that they had a heartfelt faith before they could take the sacraments----and even before their infants could be entitled to receive baptism under the covenant.

Edwards was pursuing a middle path between two policies.  First, there was the policy of Solomon Stoddard----his grandfather and his revered predecessor at the Northampton church.  Stoddard held that people could take the sacraments even if they had not experienced grace, since the sacraments could be a means that God could use to draw them to himself.  Stoddard still maintained that they had to demonstrate some morality or commitment to Christian doctrine to be church members and partakers of the sacraments, but he wasn't in favor of requiring them to jump through a bunch of hoops before they could do so.  Second, there was the policy of Edwards' father Timothy, who had rigorous standards for judging whether or not people had truly experienced grace.  Overall, Jonathan Edwards recognized that people were limited when it came to judging the salvation of others, and so he advised against doing so.  And yet, Edwards believed that something was wrong when people were not living according to the vows that they took during the Great Awakening, or when people who claimed to be saved were displaying attitudes of envy and rivalry, as were a number of people in the Northampton church.  Edwards also did not want for the sacred sacraments to be given to those who were not committed to Jesus Christ, for that (in his eyes) dishonored God.  Edwards supported a policy that was stricter than Stoddard's, but not as strict as his father's.

There was overwhelming opposition to Edwards.  On page 360, Marsden said that only 23 out of the 230 male members of the church voted with Edwards.  After Edwards was kicked out of the pastorate, the townspeople voted not to allow Edwards and his family "to use the pastureland that was usually granted to him" (page 363), which hit Edwards particularly hard because he was worried about the finances of his family, which had a lot of children.  Edwards continued to attend the Northampton church, and he was often asked to preach because the church needed someone to preach after Edwards had been removed from the pastorate.  But it got to the point where Edwards was no longer asked to preach----when many people preferred nobody in the pulpit to Edwards.

There was a variety of factors behind the opposition to Edwards.  There was a feeling that Edwards was on a power-trip and tended to make mountains out of molehills, and that he was trying to determine people's right to partake of the sacraments according to his subjective standards.  There was reverence for Solomon Stoddard, even after his passing, and so many did not care for Edwards' attempt to reverse Stoddard's policy.  Edwards' social aloofness did not help him much, either, as Edwards himself acknowledged.  Some have argued that the revolutionary atmosphere that eventually led to the American Revolution could have played some role in Edwards' ousting, but, as Marsden notes, there were supporters and opponents of Edwards who later fought for American independence.

After Edwards was kicked out of the pastorate, he delivered a sermon about God's judgment.  It had some impact on people, but it apparently did not dissuade them from their course of action.  I think that the town should have been more compassionate to Edwards, in terms of his finances, but I do relish the times when congregations are immune to pastors' fear-mongering.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog