Jonathan Edwards was America's most influential evangelical, whose revivals of the 1730s became those against which all subsequent ones have been judged.
The marvelous accomplishment of Philip Gura's Jonathan Edwards is to place the rich intellectual landscape of America's most formidable evangelical within the upheaval of his times. Gura not only captures Edwards’ brilliance but respectfully explains the enduring appeal of his theology: in a world of profound uncertainty, it held out hope of an authentic conversion---the quickening of the indwelling spirit of God in one’s heart and the consequent certitude of Godly behavior and everlasting grace.
Tracing Jonathan Edwards’ life from his birth in 1703 to his untimely death in 1758, Gura magnificently reasserts Edwards rightful claim as the father of America's evangelical tradition.
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By Philip F. Gura
Hill and WangCopyright © 2005 Philip F. Gura
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A Place in Time: The Connecticut Valley (1703)
In 1703 the Reverend Timothy Edwards and his wife, Esther, welcomed their sole male child, Jonathan, into a family that already included five girls and was to grow by five more. For the previous nine years Timothy had ministered to Windsor Farms, the east parish of Windsor (later South Windsor), where he remained his entire career, which spanned another fifty-five years. One of the oldest towns in the colony of Connecticut, Windsor is situated where the Farmington River joins the great Connecticut River, New England's chief northsouth waterway. This region, the Connecticut River valley, is one of the most storied in New England's history, in good measure because of Jonathan Edwards's long association with it.
For millennia the home of New England's native inhabitants, the Connecticut River valley by 1703 had been long settled by European colonists. From its source in a ridge along the present-day United States — Canadian border, the Connecticut, or Long, River flows four hundred miles to the Long Island Sound at Saybrook. In the seventeenth century the river, a half mile wide along its lower reaches, was navigable as far north as Hartford, fifty miles above the Sound and a few miles south of Windsor. Farther north, rapids and falls, most notably at South Hadley, made travel by boat more treacherous and less appealing for trade. Despite such impediments, below the present-day Vermont border the river's banks were low and its current was manageable enough to encourage settlement. Of equal significance, to Native Americans and Europeans alike, the great river and its tributaries offered access to such distant regions as the Hudson River and Lake Champlain valleys.
The fertility of the alluvial meadows was as important to the early settlers as the river's navigability or its salmon and shad. During the spring thaw the Connecticut overflows its banks and deposits on its borders large quantities of fine, rich soil washed from its watershed. These constantly replenished alluvial lands are notably wide — as much as two miles across — as the river slows south of Agawam in Massachusetts to Windsor and Wethersfield in Connecticut, sites of the earliest settlement in the region. In such places the deep soil proved ideal for staple crops like wheat, rye, and corn, and the settlers frequently paid their colony and town taxes with the surpluses from their agricultural labor.
When Timothy Edwards's contemporaries spoke of the valley, however, they meant more than just the majestic river and its fertile interval lands. In the early nineteenth century Jonathan Edwards's grandson Timothy Dwight, who knew as much about the geography and history of New England as anyone, observed that for two hundred years the phrase Connecticut Valley had referred to a series of "expansions" where large tributaries like the Farmington, Agawam, Deerfield, Miller's, and White rivers met the Connecticut, made the terrain less rugged than in other parts of the region, and marked the location of clusters of towns and villages that defined the chief early settlements of the area.
In 1703 the two most important of these subregions had at their centers communities pivotal to the social, intellectual, and religious development of the valley and of New England as a whole: Hartford in Connecticut and Northampton in what then was the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The larger, southern "expansion," where Jonathan Edwards was born, began in the vicinity of present-day Middletown, Connecticut, continuing northward for fifty miles into Massachusetts, to Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom, near the South Hadley falls. This region encompassed Hartford, Wethersfield, Windsor, Suffield, and Springfield, among other communities. The other opening embraced Northampton, Hadley, and Hatfield and terminated on the north in Deerfield, at Mount Toby and Sugarloaf, from whose heights one viewed the Deerfield and Miller's rivers cutting through the rugged terrain to the east and west. Near Northampton, where Jonathan Edwards settled in 1727 as an assistant to his grandfather and made his indelible mark as a clergyman, the valley's breadth was close to twenty-five miles. Virtually contiguous and linked by the great river, these two parts of the valley marked separate spheres of influence. Even as most trade moved up- and downriver, politically Northampton had little to do with the colony of Connecticut. Rather, the upper valley's focus was Boston, 120 miles east and the capital of the province.
The Connecticut Valley was distinguished as much by its complex and volatile religious history as by its unique geography. Like their compatriots along the coast of New England, the vast majority of whom had ventured across the Atlantic to serve their religion, the valley's settlers were preoccupied with their faith. Most were English Puritans, heirs to the Protestant Reformation who had left England in the late 1620s and early 1630s rather than live with what they regarded as the incomplete reformation of the Church of England begun by Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547). After the Catholic Church had refused to grant his divorce from Catharine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII severed the English church's relation to the papacy and installed the archbishop of Canterbury in the pope's stead, but he allowed the Church of England to retain many of Catholicism's trappings, both doctrinal and liturgical. Further change occurred during the reign of Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553), but his successor, Mary Tudor (reigned 1553 — 1558), a Catholic, severely repressed the reformers, executing many of the movement's leaders and forcing others to flee to Europe in what became known as the Marian exile.
Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) restored Protestantism and accommodated reformers as much as she could without jeopardizing the support of those to some degree still attracted to Catholicism. By the end of her reign, however, increasing numbers of clergy and laity, influenced by those who had returned from Europe on Mary's death and who had been greatly influenced by their contact with Continental reformers, were seeking the church's full reorganization. In particular, they wished to abolish the use of clerical vestments and such symbols as the sign of the cross during services. They also objected to the continuing iconic stature of saints that had been canonized by the pope. Meeting resistance from the church hierarchy, they argued as well for a more decentralized church structure and a ministry that spoke more directly to the spiritual needs of the laity. In other words, these English reformers sought to purify the English church of all corruptions; hence their epithet, Puritans.
English Puritans also quarreled with their brethren in the Church of England on doctrinal matters, for their theology still reflected the Catholic emphasis on humanity's ability to repent and turn to God for forgiveness of their sins. On the contrary, Puritans adhered to the tenets of the Swiss reformer John Calvin, who in the early sixteenth century, along with the German clergyman Martin Luther, had fomented what became the Continent-wide challenge to Roman Catholicism. Following Calvin, English Puritans worshiped an omnipotent and finally unknowable God who had irrevocably destined some individuals to heaven and others to hell, action justified because following Adam and Eve's primal transgression of God's law, all humanity was born into a state of sin. Christ's sacrifice on the cross, with his death the punishment for humankind's sins, satisfied divine justice, and now God saved whom he chose through his own freely proffered grace. God made known his intention toward the believer by radically transforming his or her heart, something that the individual recognized as a psychological experience marked by a turn from selfishness to selflessness. To acquire such knowledge of the state of one's soul was to have experienced "saving faith" or "conversion," and Puritans devoted their lives to searching for signs of what they termed their election.
The English Puritans believed that such individual experience was also intimately related to how one joined with others to practice religion and thus sought to reorganize their churches more in line with what they understood as the scriptural injunction for the "communion of the saints." Indeed, their migration to the New World was fueled in great measure by their conviction that membership in the church was not automatic. It did not come, for example, as a result of where one lived, as was the practice in the Church of England, where one's abode in a parish guaranteed membership in the local church. Rather, the Puritans regarded a church as a group of like-minded individuals voluntarily "gathered" from the corruption of the world to pursue a more pure form of worship. The product of vigorous and unresolved debates in England over how such bodies were constituted, the Puritans, when they arrived in the New World, were agreed on little more than the imperative of removal from the utterly corrupt Church of England. In New England they continued to argue many ecclesiastical matters but none more vigorously than how one became a member of their newly formed churches. Was mere assent to Christian doctrine acceptable, or should one have experienced the transforming power of God's grace, implying one's election? Because church membership conveyed with it both religious and political status and privileges, it was central to a New Englander's sense of personal identity.
Many of the settlements in the Connecticut Valley originated in rancorous debates over just such issues. In the late 1630s the region's first outpost, at Hartford, comprised colonists who had left Newtown (later Cambridge), Massachusetts, because of their disagreement with clergy and magistrates in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had begun to require of prospective church members a personal narration of how God's grace had changed their lives. On this matter, Dorchester, Massachusetts's minister John Warham and neighboring Newtown's Thomas Hooker disagreed with the emergent majority so strongly that they resigned their important pulpits and set out with their supporters for the Connecticut Valley across a hundred miles of wilderness. Believing such rules too restrictive, they required only public affirmation of sound doctrine as the requisite to church membership in the new towns they established, Windsor and Hartford, respectively.
Upriver in Northampton, settlement began even more problematically, for this community had delayed installing a minister until 1661, even though their choice, Eleazer Mather, had been preaching there for three years. The largest number of this town's settlers also came from Dorchester, where Mather's father, Richard (who had succeeded John Warham), had had difficulty establishing a church in light of the colony's stringent new membership requirements. When he accepted Northampton's offer to be installed, Mather sought to bring some of his father's disgruntled parishioners with him, and as enticement he pressured the town to guarantee them choice property grants, a request that did not win him any friends among the established prominent landholders. Adding to the volatile mix, the town drew people from Hartford who had become dissatisfied with Hooker and others from Springfield, the commercial center of the upper valley, who viewed the new settlement primarily as an opportunity to further their economic ambitions. Predictably, in the decades immediately following the settlement of the northern part of the valley, disagreements arose primarily from the opposing views of church polity held by settlers from the various Connecticut and Massachusetts churches.
THE HALF-WAY COVENANT
Clearly, there was need for a more authoritative statement on questions of church membership and its attendant privileges, which included participation in the sacraments of the Lord's Supper and of baptism of one's children. In the spring of 1662 the Massachusetts General Court took the unusual step of calling a synod, a meeting to which all churches were asked to send lay and clerical delegates, to sort out who should be given which benefits of membership. At one end of the spectrum were colonists who had acquired membership through what by then had become the predominant practice in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, by making a public profession of the way God, through his free grace, had changed their hearts to see and accept the truth of Christianity. Approved by the minister or a standing committee of church members, such an individual could vote in church affairs, partake of the two sacraments (the Lord's Supper and baptism) that the Puritans recognized, and could bring his or her children to the latter sacrament. Of equal significance, in Massachusetts, where the General Court limited the franchise to males who were church members, this status also conferred significant political privileges.
At the other end of the spectrum were those who, while members of local congregations by reason of where they lived, served what might be termed spiritual apprenticeships. Such Puritans, who had not yet had a change of heart that led to a genuine acceptance of Christianity, came under the church's watch and care but were prevented from voting in church affairs and participating in the sacraments. Because of their intellectual assent to Puritan doctrine, however, they were subject to clerical encouragement and censure. Always constituting a significant portion of any community, such individuals presumably hoped and prayed for God to allow them to accept uncritically the truths of Christianity.
But there was a complication. In the Massachusetts churches the children of church members were themselves guaranteed special consideration because of God's promise, in Genesis 17:10, to bless the seed of Abraham. Thus, as long as one parent was a full member of an established church, he or she could offer a child for baptism. The church nurtured these young people in the hope that as the offspring of those who believed that God indeed had conferred his grace on them and so strengthened their faith, they too would eventually know such favor and advance to full membership. But what rights and privileges did these probationary individuals have when they reached maturity without such an experience? Could their children be baptized?
After 1662 these children, of baptized but still unconverted church members, formed New England's new, third category of church membership, for at the synod a majority of the attendees voted to endorse these children's baptisms, even as they withheld any other prerogatives of membership. Thus, like their unconverted parents, the "half-way" members could neither vote in church or civic affairs nor participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. They occupied tenuous ground in New England society, constantly subjected to pressure to assume full membership.
Practical as this compromise appeared, to many it seemed a sleight of hand. The lack of unanimity among the delegates and of any legal mechanism to compel intractable clergy (or parishioners) to accept and institute the recommendations caused new fissures among the Massachusetts churches. Animosity was noticeable in the upper valley, where both Eleazer Mather and his neighbor John Russell of Hadley openly attacked what they regarded as this unscriptural extension of membership. Mather's resistance to the new policy caused no small consternation among his parishioners as well as among ministers in the eastern part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (including his father, Richard) who sought agreement on the new measures to preserve their influence over the laity.
Mather already had antagonized Northampton's original settlers by his insistence on guarantees of land for his supporters among the Dorchester emigrants, and his difficulties only increased when after the town had requested his compliance with the halfway measures, he refused outright. For five years he held the line, but in 1668, with Mather weakened by what proved a fatal illness, the church voted not only to endorse the result of the synod but also to liberalize church membership by eliminating the need for any personal testimony and opening it to all morally upright inhabitants who assented to the chief points of Christian doctrine. In doing so, they followed the pattern already established in most churches downriver in Connecticut. Mather died before any new church members were added under these revised provisions, but he lived long enough to chastise his community in a series of sermons delivered in the summer of 1669.
Excerpted from Jonathan Edwards by Philip F. Gura. Copyright © 2005 Philip F. Gura. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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Table of Contents
[ONE] - A Place in Time: The Connecticut Valley (1703),
[TWO] - Season of Youth (1716–1727),
[THREE] - Sowing for the Harvest: Northampton (1727–1734),
[FOUR] - The Chief Scene of These Wonders: Hampshire County (1734–1739),
[FIVE] - A great Deal of Noise About Religion (1740-1743),
[SIX] - Northampton in Turmoil (1744–1750),
[SEVEN] - Stockbridge and the Housatonics (1750-1757),
[EIGHT] - Transatlantic Debate (1754–1758),
[NINE] - Princeton (1757–1758),
[TEN] - Coda: Thinking Through Edwards,
ALSO BY PHILIP F. GURA,
A Note on Sources,