Colonial New England: An Old Order, New Awakening
When Jonathan Edwards reached manhood in the 1720’s, New England had been settled by Englishmen for a hundred years. The area was conscious of its historical roots, and Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan preacher, had produced a monumental history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Mather’s work was intended as a religious history of the colonies, but it reports on every aspect of early New England. For the early New Englanders, religious and social history were inseparable. It was assumed since the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620 that the settlers were (or should be) Christians, and that God would bless the building up of a godly commonwealth in the new land.
Needless to say, the churches of New England were no longer persecuted sects: they had become established churches. The religious groups that settled New England left the old country because of persecution, or because they saw the Church of England as a poor model of biblical faith.
They carved out a place for themselves in the New World, with much hardship and discipline. In time the New Englanders realized that they were no longer the righteous remnant running from an apostate English church establishment. They were now an establishment.
The settlers had begun with the idea that the visible church should be identical with the invisible—that is, the gathered congregations should be bodies of true believers. Nominal Christianity is indeed unthinkable among persecuted sects. If one suffers for one’s beliefs, one will either believe strongly or forsake the beliefs. But in the New World, away from persecution and adjusted to life in new territory, nominal Christianity became a reality. Mingled with devout believers were church members who merely paid lip service to Christian belief. The vision of New England as a righteous city set on a hill never died completely, but realistic observers were painfully aware that many church members gave little attention to building up the kingdom in America. They were far more interested in prospering materially in the vast land with its seemingly infinite possibilities.
This drift from spiritual to material interests is not difficult to understand. New England was basically peaceful and comfortable. Most New Englanders were farmers and made an adequate living. Industries—lumbering, fishing, shipbuilding, and others—did well, and artisans earned a good living. The disciplined work habits of the first settlers were passed down to succeeding generations, who, like their forefathers, did not depend on slavery or indentured servants. They worked hard and created an essentially middle-class society with almost no poverty. The level of education was also relatively high.
Such a society was a far cry from the mother country, where poverty, alcoholism, sexual immorality and other social ills prevailed. Yet the Puritan clergy knew that the people of New England were losing their original spiritual drive. (For more information about the Puritan vision of a Christian America, see the article by Harry Stout, "The Puritans and Edwards.")
Worldliness and religious apathy were not the only problems affecting the religious life of New England. Historians often call the seventeenth century the Age of Reason. This is more a description of the philosophical climate of Europe than of America, but the colonies were affected by the intellectual life of Europe.
The Age of Reason was characterized by belief in man’s capacities for good, especially when man acted under the guidance of reason. Many European thinkers rejected the idea of a sinful mankind living under the judgment of a wrathful God. Clergymen were affected by the new thought. Strict Calvinism gave way in many churches to religion that emphasized man’s capabilities.
Of course, Puritanism still dominated New England in the 1700’s. Calvinism was the ruling ideology, but was losing ground. When Jonathan Edwards attended Yale (1716–20), he came into contact with the new skepticism there. Harvard likewise entertained new ideas, so it was inevitable that the two colleges would produce some clergymen who (unlike Edwards) rejected or at least greatly modified the Calvinist theology of their forbears.
The old order was changing. Pastors and people prayed for a revival of spiritual energy. Revival came in the form of a Great Awakening, the first event in North American history to stir people of several colonies with a common religious concern.
In Jonathan Edwards’ parish at Northampton, Massachusetts, awakening began in 1734. Earlier sparks of revival had appeared in New Jersey, where Theodorus Frelinghuysen and William and Gilbert Tennent were attempting to arouse people out of spiritual lethargy. And they were succeeding. Revival gathered momentum in Massachusetts and Connecticut fueled in large part by the first evangelistic tour (1740) in New England by the English preacher, George Whitefield. Throughout the colonies Whitefield brought crowds to a religious fever pitch. No speaker ever drew bigger crowds in colonial America. He made some enemies among liberal clergy, but the people loved him, and many American pastors considered him a great blessing on the colonies. Edwards along with many others stirred their own congregations to spiritual renewal and experienced revivals in the churches they visited.
The Awakening, which had receded from public prominence by 1750, has been likened in some particulars to a Second Reformation. Religion had become formal, head-centered—and dull. The outward forms of faith were there, but the reality was hollow. Many hungered for a religion with heart and soul.
The preachers of the Awakening did not abandon the typical Puritan emphasis on doctrine, but they appealed more to the emotions. This was a welcomed emphasis, as it encouraged the individual’s response to a loving God. Edwards never abandoned his love of logic and reason. But he watched the Awakening carefully and concluded that true religion does indeed consist primarily of (to use his own term) affections.
Because of this emphasis on the individual’s heartfelt response to God—an interest that Puritanism had always had, but which had diminished with time—conversion became important. The idea was not new in Christianity, but here it received a dramatic new emphasis. The preachers of the Awakening wanted people to know that outward morality was not enough for salvation. An inward change was necessary. An individual needed to feel deeply sin and unworthiness before a righteous God.
Because of the preaching of the Awakening, the sense of religious self intensified. The principle of individual choice became forever ingrained in American Protestantism and is still evident today among evangelicals and many others.
Not everyone was pleased with these developments. Some preachers overemphasized the physical manifestations associated with religious feelings. Persons stirred by a sermon might faint, scream, writhe, sing, or otherwise respond physically. Edwards and his colleagues taught that these symptoms might indicate a genuine conviction of sin—or, might be only an emotional response to a manipulative preacher. Edwards claimed that the physical manifestations which were not produced by the working of God did not discredit those that were, in fact, produced by the Spirit.
But many rationalist clergymen—Charles Chauncy of Boston was the most famous—resented the enthusiasm of the Awakening. They saw it as a threat to established church authority. They felt that religious subjectivism appealed to man’s lower instincts, since rational man would not need to have his beliefs substantiated by a warm heart, not to mention fainting spells, groaning, or leaping for joy. The anti-revivalist clergy—called the Old Lights—feared a breakdown of religious order and authority. The New Light clergy—those who supported the Awakening—were as aware as their opponents that something alarming was occurring—the Awakening was dividing churches. Many congregations split, and where many small towns had only one church, they now had two. Those who thought their pastor too dry or formal might, under the influence of revivalism, form a new church—and many did. The Awakening presented a choice between religious styles, church affiliations, and pastors. Religious diversity became a reality in New England, and America has continued to live—not always comfortably, but necessarily—with such diversity.
A movement of such importance needs someone to explain it and interpret it, both for his own times and for later generations. The great interpreter of the Awakening was Jonathan Edwards. Born to a devout Congregational minister in 1703 (the same year as John Wesley), Edwards produced one of the most thorough bodies of theological writing in the history of America. Precocious and pious even as a youth, Edwards took his bachelor’s degree at Yale in 1720. He studied further at Yale, served as a tutor there, and briefly served as minister at a Presbyterian church in New York. In 1726 he became assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, the famous pastor of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards married the devout and charming Sarah Pierrepont in 1727. While at Northampton—he became senior pastor at Northampton in 1729 after Stoddard’s death—Edwards participated in the spiritual revival and bent his mind toward interpreting it as well.
Edwards’ examination of religious psychology arose directly out of his experiences in the Northampton revivals and, later, in the Great Awakening as a whole. A letter to Boston’s Benjamin Colman in 1736 (later published as a Narrative of Suprising Conversions) was the first in a series of works examining the nature of awakened religious experience. This letter analyzed events occurring during the local revival in Northampton (1734–35), but soon Edwards published Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742) to take account of the wider movement. (This work is based partly on the experiences of his devoted wife, who herself had passed through a religious crisis.) Edwards responded to charges by anti-revivalists that the revival was all emotion, froth, and disorder. He conceded that the emotionalism of the Awakening could undercut authentic Christianity, but he also defended the revival by pointing to the more intense worship and to the permanently changed lives it left in its wake.
In 1746 Edwards published his most mature examination of this subject, the Treatise on Religious Affections. It argues that true religion resides in the heart, the seat of affections, emotions, and inclinations. The book also details with painstaking scrutiny the kinds of religious emotions which are largely irrelevant to true spirituality. Edwards’ careful analysis of genuine faith emphasizes that it is not the quantity of emotion which indicated the presence of true spirituality, but the origin of such emotions with God.
Edwards, shrewdly observing the revivals that were going on around him, became a religious psychologist of the first order. He is also known to posterity as a notorious preacher—not because he was a great orator, but because of a famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached in 1741 to a responsive congregation at Enfield, Connecticut. Edwards’ vivid depiction of the agonies of those who do not plead for God’s forgiveness is often given as an example of the Puritan conception of an angry, wrathful God and a vile, despicable humanity. In truth, the sermon is hardly typical of Edwards’ preaching, and the parallel sermons in this issue (See "From the Archives") show that Edwards spoke as often of love as of wrath.
Edwards was indeed a Calvinist who emphasized the sovereignty of God and the inability of man to save himself. But Edwards’ theology is not summarized in the Enfield sermon. Indeed, Edwards the theologian was capable of profound theological reflection. He is regarded by historians as probably the most important American theologian. (Richard Lovelace’s article on Edwards’ theology [See "Edwards' Theology"] shows Edwards’ importance to the world of theology.) Like Edwards’ works on religious experience, his theological works were rooted in the events of his lifetime. He respected the theology of John Calvin and other Reformed leaders, but he did not rely slavishly on their theology. He tried to state the case for God’s sovereignty in a new age.
Edwards spent several hours each day poring over the Scriptures, theological works, and works of secular philosophers. Though diligent in his pastoral duties, he found the time for intense theological reflection. His reflection eventually led to parish troubles, which ironically resulted in his having the leisure to write his greatest theological treatise. Edwards, after much thought, decided to revoke a privilege instituted by his grandfather— the privilege of all persons who were not openly immoral to participate in the Lord’s supper. Edwards decided that only converted persons should participate in the sacrament. He wrote a book Qualifications for Communion ( 1749) stating his case. His Northampton flock ousted him in 1750. Thereupon he became minister and missionary to Indians at Stockbridge. Massachusetts. Here on the New England frontier he produced his monumental Freedom of the Will (1754). In this treatise Edwards painstakingly shows that man is indeed free (a notion gaining ground as the Age of Reason progressed) but that God is still sovereign and still solely responsible for man’s salvation. Edwards tries to show that a sinner—and humans, in the Calvinist tradition, come into the world under the curse of Adam—would never by himself choose to glorify God unless God himself changed that person’s character. Regeneration, God’s act, is the basis for repentance and conversion, the human actions.
It was obvious to Edwards that the Puritan tradition of spirituality might die unless ministers were willing to come to grips with the changing world. Edwards saw the changing philosophical climate of Europe and America, and he knew that religious thinkers had to respond to the new assumptions about human freedom and the power of reason.
He proved himself capable of dealing with the modern world, not only theoretically, but practically. He proved himself to be in many ways forward thinking. In a day when psalm-singing was almost the only music to be heard in congregational churches, Edwards encouraged the singing of new Christian hymns, notably those of Isaac Watts. (Edwards also owned a copy of the Wesleys’ hymns). He advocated harmony or unison singing instead of the (now unthinkable) practice of each person singing whatever note he wished. Edwards was also innovative in Christian education, encouraging the use of different levels of instruction for different age groups. He used catechetical questioning with children, but did so in a casual, conversational style so as not to intimidate the young or to force them into the habit of giving stock answers to questions they often did not even understand. He advocated the use of story-telling as an educational tool, especially among children and youth.
Edwards’ excellence as an educator and his reputation as a theologian and philosopher led to his appointment as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1757. Shortly after he was inaugurated as president in 1758, he was inoculated for smallpox and died a few weeks afterward.
In a relatively short life he produced some of the greatest theological and philosophical writings in America’s history advanced and explained the Great Awakening, and left evidence that traditional orthodox Christianity remains relevant to any age when there are creative and devout thinkers who are aware of the world around them.
Later generations have not always been kind to the memory of Jonathan Edwards. They have often depicted him as an inhuman monster, the stereotyped hell-fire preacher notable for his fanaticism and his contempt for a detestable humanity. They have portrayed him as the essence of Puritanism at its worst—cold, inhuman, completely otherworldly, devoid of any relevance for real people in the real world. In truth, this “monster” was a devoted husband, the proud father of eleven children, and a tireless letter-writer whose favorite words seem to have been love and sweetness. He enjoyed long walks in the Massachusetts woodlands and saw all nature as an evidence of a beautiful loving creator God. He was a diligent pastor and, on occasion, an evangelist who always tempered fiery images with soothing words of the love of God for repentant sinners. He was, to all who knew him a brilliant scholar whose gifts of head combined comfortably with immense gifts of heart. Edwards was no monster and if later American religion has ever suffered from a division of heart and head, it is no fault of Edwards.
J. Stephen Lang is editor of this issue of Christian History and a book editor at Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois. Mark A. Noll is professor of history at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. He is an editor of Eerdman's Handbook of Christianity in America, and the author of Christians and the American Revolution
Copyright © 1985 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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