Tag Archives: New England

Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Mind

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Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many to be the greatest mind that America has ever produced and he is certainly this country’s greatest theologian and was a leading figure in the First Great Awakening and that revival’s learned supporter and advocate.

He was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, CT. His mother was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the famed Congregational church at Northfield, Massachusetts for fifty-seven years. He began study of Latin at six years of age under the tutorship of his father and four older sisters. Before he was 13, he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and he entered Yale at age 13 in 1716 and in 1720 he graduated with the highest honors (at age 17). His conversion took place around the age of 17. He stayed on for two more years at Yale to receive a Masters degrees in theology. In 1722, before age 19, he went to New York City where he preached at a small Presbyterian church for eight months. Edwards then received a call from Yale to become a tutor and he returned to Yale for two years. In 1726, he was ordained a colleague of his grandfather, Rev. Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierrepont, the following year. He then assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729. He would remain pastor there until 1750.

In a sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1733, Edwards described religious knowledge as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God.” Edwards’ all-important distinction is between a “sense” of divine truth and an “understanding” of it. The first concerns the innermost will (the heart), whereas the the second applies to rational speculation (the head). He stressed that unless the heart is affected through regenerative grace, religion is nothing more than what unregenerate man can know through natural reason. 

And religious experience on a large scale describes New England’s Great Awakening (1733-1745) which by 1735 involved not only Northampton but the whole Connecticut River Valley. Edwards saw the revival as evidence of God’s redemptive work in New England. In 1737, he published an account of the revival entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which was widely read in America and abroad. Notwithstanding the dramatic sermons of George Whitefield, who visited in Northampton in 1740, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening if not in all of American history was Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of Angry God preached in 1741, which had a powerful effect upon its hearers. In order to make religious revivalism theologically understandable, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743). 

Edwards believed that God performs saving works, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but he also stressed that vital piety, consisting of holy affections seated in the heart, requires constant self-scrutiny. His analysis of religious experience culminated in a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. It affirms the heart as the locus of religious experience and the integration of the transformed heart and visible acts. 

In 1750, after he had been in Northampton for 23 years, an old controversy concerning the terms of full admission in the church was revived. Edwards opposed the view and practice held by his predecessor and held on to his own views. He was shortly ejected from the pastorate preaching his Farewell Sermon on July 1, 1750.

In 1751, he became pastor at the Congregational church at Stockbridge, MA and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. His years at Stockbridge proved to be his most productive.

In 1754, he published the Freedom of the Will which was a defense of the doctrines of foreordination, original sin, and eternal punishment, a masterpiece of philosophical reasoning. Man’s natural will is free in time but his depraved moral will can only choose grace when divinely inclined. In 1757, he was elected president of Princeton College in New Jersey. Five weeks after his inauguration in 1758, at the age of fifty-six, died as a result of a smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding Calvinist preacher and theologian of colonial New England and the founder and leader of Edwardean or New England theology. One of the brightest minds America’s ever produced, his legacy and influence continues to this day. 

George Whitefield: A Revival Phenomenon

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Local revivals were a part of American culture from the earliest colonial times. But they were always isolated affairs and rarely transcended local boundaries. But in 1739, a young preacher appeared in the colonies whose spiritual zeal was so intense and whose speaking abilities were so finely tuned that he altered the conventions of preaching and religious association. It was George Whitefield (1714-1770), a mere novice of 21 years old, who went on a preaching tour of America that created a mass sensation. 

Whitefield, an ordained minister of the Church of England, was a colleague of the Wesleys, who had showed the Wesley brothers in both preaching outdoors and traveling wherever he could to preach the message of salvation. He came to Georgia briefly in 1738 to establish an orphanage. He came back in 1739 and his dramatic and effective preaching soon made him a national celebration. His preaching tour of New England in the fall of 1740, where he addressed crowds of 8,000 nearly every day for over a month, was most likely the most sensational event in American religion. Wherever he went in the colonies-New England, New York, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah-he left a lively interest in the Christian faith. There were hundreds for whom the big question had become “What must I do to be saved?” and others who wondered what awakened religion would do to the social fabric. Whitefield was in short a phenomenon. 

On November 23, 1740, Nathan Cole from Connecticut went to see Mr. Whitefield and he writes about the experience in his journal: “When we got to Middletown old meeting house it was said to be three or four thousand of people assembled together…I turned and looked towards the Great River and saw the ferry boats running swift backward and forward bringing over loads of people and the oars rowed nimble and quick; everything men, horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life; the land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the twelve miles I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observed the most exact silence….I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he preceded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver and he finished so admirably that i emptied my pocket wholly into the collection dish gold and all.”

Whitefield indeed could preach to mass crowds and could easily be heard from the furthest reaches of a crowd numbering in excess of twenty thousand people. He had a raw power of delivery, dynamic appeal, a commanding pulpit presence and a tremendous speaking endurance. Itinerant preaching was usually a young man’s profession and most seldom lasted for more than one tour. But George Whitefield, from the time he started preaching at the age of 23 until his death 33 years later, he preached several times weekly to mass audiences. In all, he made seven preaching tours of the colonies, each of which lasted for more than a year. He preached more than 15,000 sermons. 

As a man who was unattached to any local church, Whitefield was free to cast his message in the language of the common man. He discovered what politicians would discover later on, that in a mass speaking engagement, you don’t speak down to the audience, but aim the message directly to their hearts and minds and that is exactly what Whitefield did. He won the hearts of the American populace but also had his critics, mainly in the Anglican church and the academics at Harvard and Yale. Nonetheless, unprecedented crowds numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands, appeared out of nowhere to hear the simple and dramatic message of spiritual rebirth and justification by faith alone.

In Newport, Rhode Island, October 5, 1770, Whitefield died suddenly as he hoped he always would, in the middle of a preaching tour. His influence would not cease with his death, but would continue to inspire generations of American revivalists attuned to the simple yet powerful message of the new birth. His simple dramatic presentations can still be read with profit. His sermons stand the test of time and read with remarkable clarity and contemporaneity. And no one in the colonies until George Washington would enjoy such widespread popularity and fame among the American populace. 

 

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.