by Chris Armstrong
Jonathan Edwards’s church kicked him out after 23 years of ministry, but the crisis proved his greatness was not merely intellectual.
As messy dismissals of ministers go, the 1750 ejection of Jonathan Edwards by his Northampton congregation was among the messiest. The fact that it involved the greatest theologian in American history—the central figure of the Great Awakening—is almost beside the point. The fact that it took place in a New England fast moving from theocratic “city on a hill” to democratic home of liberty is more relevant.
But another aspect is worth a closer look: Friends and enemies alike agreed that in the long, degenerating discontent, Edwards continued to love and pray for—or at least tolerate and refrain from attacking—his people, even when they bared their fangs.
Salary controversies and power struggles marked his ministry during the 1740s. In the infamous “bad book” episode of 1744, some teen boys in the church distributed a midwife’s manual, using it to taunt and make suggestive comments in front of girls. When the culprits were summoned before the church, their response, according to documents of the proceedings, was “contemptuous … toward the authority of this Church.”
Edwards chose to read before the church a list containing, indiscriminately, the names of both the young distributors as well as the purported witnesses. Some parents were outraged at Edwards.
Another issue was Edwards’s personality and style as a minister. At the outset of his ministry at Northampton, for example, he decided that he would not pay the customary regular visits to his congregants, but would rather come to their side only when called in cases of sickness or other emergency. This made him seem, to some in the church, cold and distant.
An Edwards “disciple,” Samuel Hopkins, later wrote that this practice was not due to lack of affection and concern for his people: “For their good he was always writing, contriving, labouring; for them he had poured out ten thousand fervent prayers; and they were dear to him above any other people under heaven.”
Rather, Edwards had made a clear-eyed assessment of his own gifts and decided that he was unable to match the graceful gregariousness of those ministers who had a “knack at introducing profitable, religious discourse in a free, natural, and … undesigned way.”
Thus he would “do the greatest good to souls … by preaching and writing, and conversing with persons under religious impressions in his study, where he encouraged all such to repair.”
Edwards’s ministry might yet have endured, however, were it not for the death of his uncle, Colonel John Stoddard, in 1748. Born in 1682, 21 years before Edwards, the colonel had built a friendship with his nephew. A sharp thinker, a county judge, and a savvy politician, John was a militia colonel who had become commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts western frontier by 1744. Stoddard wore—at least in the secular sphere—the mantle of his father and Edwards’s grandfather, “pope” of the Connecticut Valley, Solomon Stoddard.
Edwards found himself often leaning on his uncle’s influence to navigate the affairs of the church. Thus when Stoddard died, Edwards lost not only an uncle but a powerful ally and confidante.
As Iain Murray put it in his biography of Edwards: “There would be no open criticism of Edwards as long as Stoddard sat appreciatively in his pew beneath the pulpit in the meeting-house Sunday by Sunday.” Once the colonel was gone, however, that changed dramatically.
Stoddard’s heir-apparent as Hampshire County’s leading figure was Edwards’s cousin Israel Williams, a Harvard graduate, imperious in manner and implacably set against Edwards. In his early nineteenth-century biography, descendant S. E. Dwight named Israel and several others of the Williams clan as having “religious sentiments [that] differed widely from” those of Edwards. Their opposition soon became “a settled and personal hostility.” Williams served as counselor and ringleader to Edwards’s opponents. Joining this opposition were another cousin, Joseph Hawley Jr., 21 years Edwards’s junior.
Visible saints, hidden agendas
The same year John Stoddard died, an event finally pushed the hostile faction into open revolt.
For years, Edwards had been uncomfortable with the lenient policy on membership and communion set by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s predecessor at Northampton. Stoddard had allowed almost anyone to join and to partake, hoping that membership and communion might encourage true conversion. In 1748, Edwards changed the policy and told an applicant for church membership that he must first make a public “profession of godliness.”
Thus Edwards rejected the “Halfway Covenant”—the longstanding compromise of the Puritans who had, generations after planting their religious colonies, found their church membership dwindling. That compromise had reversed the traditional Puritan requirement that new church members be “visible saints,” godly in word and deed.
When the congregation saw that Edwards intended to return to the earlier, stricter Puritan position, demanding not only a profession of faith, but also evidence of repentance and holiness, a firestorm arose. Many of the church’s leading members felt Edwards’s innovation was a direct threat.
Two revivals had produced many converts, but, as biographer Patricia Tracy put it, “Men and women who had been recognized as visible saints in Northampton still wallowed in clandestine immorality and flagrant pride.”
Though Edwards knew, as he notes in his letters, that he was likely to lose his pastorate as a result, he stuck to his principles.
A council of the congregation put a moratorium on new memberships until the issue of criteria could be resolved. Edwards told them he planned to preach on his reasons for changing the policy. They forbade him to do so. Edwards began to write a book on the matter. Few read it, and too late to do much good.
In 1750, a council was called to consider whether the congregation would dismiss its minister. No one doubted what the conclusion would be.
Edwards’s friend David Hall noted in his diary the minister’s reaction when on June 22, 1750, the council handed down its decision:
“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good … even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission.”
46 and unemployed
Edwards wrote that he now found himself a 46-year-old ex-minister “fitted for no other business but study,” with a large family to provide for. Although he knew “we are in the hands of God, and I bless him, I am not anxious concerning his disposal of us,” he fretted over his situation in letters to friends. Yet neither the distressing conditions nor the continuing antagonism of his opponents drew him out to open attack.
Remarkably (and partly because of financial need), Edwards agreed to continue preaching at the church while they searched for a replacement. But his Farewell Sermon also indicates he acted out of continued concern for the flock. He continued through mid-November, despite the Town maliciously barring him, a month after his dismissal, from using its common grazing land.
Finally in December 1750, after an anxious autumn during which he had even considered removing his entire family to Scotland to accept an invitation there, Edwards accepted a charge in Massachusetts’s “wild west,” the Indian town of Stockbridge. There he would labor the rest of his life, pursue his theological thinking to its most brilliant heights, and create one of the most enduring missionary biographies of all time, the life story of his young friend David Brainerd.
In 1760, his former enemy, cousin Joseph Hawley, wrote to Edwards’s friend David Hall, confessing that “vast pride, self-sufficiency, ambition, and vanity” had animated his leadership in the “melancholy contention” with Edwards. He repented of his earlier failure to render the respect due Edwards as a “most able, diligent and faithful pastor.”
Hawley concluded, “I am most sorely sensible that nothing but that infinite grace and mercy which saved some of the betrayers and murderers of our blessed Lord, and the persecutors of his martyrs, can pardon me; in which alone I hope for pardon, for the sake of Christ, whose blood, blessed by God, cleanseth from all sin.”
On June 22, 1900, exactly 150 years after Edwards’s dismissal, a group gathered at the First Church in Northampton to unveil a bronze memorial.
H. Norman Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at Smith College and chairman of the memorial committee, characterized Edwards’s ejection as “a public rejection and banishment” that remained “a source of reproach to his church and people.” He noted the “hatred, malice, and uncharitableness which characterized the opposition to him,” for which, to Gardiner, no apology either contemporary or modern could atone.
Edwards would have disagreed, arguing instead that even such deeply wounding actions as the aggravated and wrongful dismissal of a pastor from his pulpit of 23 years are not unforgivable. In that understanding, as in so much else, Edwards was far ahead both of his enemies and of many of us today.
2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 52