Monday, October 19, 2009

Undertaking Jonathan Edwards and Charity and Its Fruits

This week we begin our reading here of Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. By way of introduction I thought it would be very helpful to understand as best we can where Edwards was coming from when he set out to lead his congregation through a study of Christian love, and so I've provided a brief introduction of His life and times. I will not pretend that one blog post is sufficient for such a task. Nor will I pretend to be comprehensive; but I do hope that what I've selectively provided will enrich our future study. I also intend, Lord willing, to provide further posts on aspects of the life and thought of Edwards which I have found intriguing.

Over the last five years I've read much from Jonathan Edwards, and listened to several biographical lectures about him, but the information and direct quotes (in italics) I've provided here have been derived entirely from George M. Marsden's biography, Jonathan Edwards, A Life.

First of all, it's best to remember that Jonathan Edwards was not an American, at least not as we think of Americans. He was born and lived his entire life in the Americas, but was entirely British. He lived and died in a pre-revolutionary, British province. He was also a Puritan, a group of Protestant dissenters from the Anglican church – the official state church of England. (His is the sect which is remembered to this day for the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Edwards was a member of the next generation. In his times there would be discussion of the devil, and the anti-Christ, but mentions of witchcraft and the like would be significantly absent. The lesson learned had been a painful one.) Being both British and Puritan meant that his world and its authority structure was characterized by rather strict hierarchies.
“Eighteenth-century Britons viewed their world as monarchical and controlled by hierarchies of personal relationships. On both these counts, their assumptions were almost opposite of those of most Westerners today, who tend to think of society as in principle egalitarian and in fact controlled by impersonal forces. Eighteenth-century British-American society depended on patriarchy. One's most significant relationships were likely to be vertical rather than horizontal. Fathers had authority over families and households, and were the cornerstones of good order. Women, children, hired servants,indentures, and African slaves were all dependent on persons directly above them. Society was conceived of as an extended household. In this arrangement paternalism was a virtue, not a term of opprobrium. Although British people spoke much of 'liberty,' few had personal freedom in a modern sense. Gentlemen ruled largely through a hierarchical system of patronage extending from the king down. Good order, especially for the lower ranks of society, was enforced by strict surveillance and stern punishments. Ordinary life under any circumstance was often cruel, plagued by epidemics, unrelieved pain, and constant uncertainties about life itself. Many essential tasks were painfully difficult and time-consuming. Personal dependency was one way of dealing with a harsh and insecure world and was often taken as a matter of course.”

In New England, Edwards, was considered an aristocrat, with an influential family and powerful connections which essentially ruled the Connecticut River Valley. As a member of the clergy he had an additional degree authority as well as the highest level of education available. He was an intellectual and, being a Puritan, was what we would consider a Calvinist – or Reformed – Christian. (The term Calvinist was not commonly used in that day, as it is now, nor were the Puritans particularly focused on the teachings of Calvin.) Being Reformed meant that,

“The central principle in Edwards' thought...was the sovereignty of God. The triune eternally loving God, as revealed in Scripture, created and ruled everything in the universe. Most simply put, the sovereignty of God meant that if there were a question as to whether God or humans should be given credit for anything good, particularly in matters of salvation, the benefit of the doubt should always go to God. Edwards...emphasized that God's very purpose in creation was the great work of redemption in Christ. Everything in the universe pointed ultimately to the loving character of the triune God

If the central principle of Edwards' thought was the sovereignty of God, the central practical motive in his life and work was his conviction that nothing was more momentous personally than one's eternal relationship to God. Many Christians affirm this proposition, yet most have not followed its implications for personal relationships with utter seriousness. Most who have taken it seriously have been activists rather than thinkers. Edwards was both. He built his life around disciplines designed constantly to renew that eternal perspective. In his sermons and writing he turned his immense intellectual powers to rigorously following out the implications of God's sovereignty for understanding human's eternal destinies.... If there is an emphasis that appears difficult, or harsh, or overstated in Edwards, often the reader can better appreciate his perspective by asking the question: 'How would this issue look if it really were the case that bliss or punishment for a literal eternity was at stake?”
With that in mind we'll move on to a brief outline of Edward's life and family background, leading up to the circumstances surrounding the writing of Charity and its Fruits. I'm going to back up a little and begin with his grandparents, mainly to disavow you of any ways in which you may have unwittingly mythologized the Puritan world. While many, likely most, people in the world think of the Puritans as stuffed shirts, prudes, superstitious fanatics, or just plain 'puritanical', those within the Reformed tradition are inclined to glamorize them, thinking that save for the absence of modern conveniences, we might like to resurrect those “good old days” – “the simpler times” when people behaved themselves like Christians and lived morally upright lives, and everyone held to only the soundest and most biblical of teachings. Let me assure you, those 'good old days' did not exist.

Jonathan was born October 5, 1703, the son of Timothy Edwards and his wife, Esther. Esther was the daughter of Solomon and Esther (Warham, Mather) Stoddard. (It was apparently as common in those times, to name daughters after their mothers as it was to name sons after their fathers.) Esther had been the widow of Eleazar Mather (brother of Increase), and brought with her into the new marriage at least one child, a daughter, Eunice. Solomon Stoddard was the pastor of Northhampton, Mass, and an extremely influential man who “often served as a spokesman for the western half of Massachusetts.” Northhampton was a frontier town, which at that time was subject to warfare and conflicts with the Native Americans (more on that later). In this setting, Stoddard on the one hand advised the governor and legislators, and on the other preached a message of repentance to his congregation. He attributed their failures to prosper in this new land at least in part to the discipline of God for the people's violation of God's commandments. “'We live in a corrupt age, and multitudes of men take a licentious liberty, in their drinking and apparel, and company, and recreations, and unsavory discourses, and ministers living in an infectious air, are in danger to be infected also.' Many people of the land made a profession of godliness.' The clergy must now 'labour after their sincere conversion' more effectively.”

So, while Esther (Stoddard) Edwards came from elite New England stock, Timothy's background was an entirely different story. Though his father's grandfather had been a clergyman in Wales and later a rector of a school in England, his death left his family destitute. Ten years later they emigrated to Massachusetts. Timothy's father, Richard, was born there in 1647 and worked himself from cooper to wealthy merchant.
“Timothy's mother, however, was a scandal and a disgrace. Three months after she married Richard Edwards, in 1667, Elizabeth Tuthill (or Tuttle) revealed that she was pregnant by another man. Richard nonetheless protected her by paying the fine for fornication himself and arranging to have the child raised by her parents. The problem proved to be much deeper. Elizabeth was afflicted with a serious psychosis. She was given to fits of perversity “too grievous to forget and too much here to relate,” repeated infidelities, rages, and threats of violence, including the threat to cut Richard's throat while he was asleep. The Tuthill family was evidence that New England was not the staid place that we might imagine, but rather one where humans suffered the same horrors found in any era. One of Elizabeth's sisters murdered her own child, and a brother killed another sister with an axe. Jonathan Edwards is sometimes criticized for having too dim a view of human nature, but it may be helpful to be reminded that his grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great-uncle was an axe-murderer.”
In spite of all this, Richard remained married to Elizabeth and she bore him six children, her behavior deteriorating all the while. Timothy Edwards was the eldest of these children. Eventually she deserted the family for some years and upon her return stayed “away from Richard's bed”. In 1688 (20 years later!) Richard finally petitioned for a divorce and was refused. After a few years of more of the same, he appealed again and was finally granted his divorce. “Still in his forties, he married a second wife, who bore him six more children.” He prospered well after his divorce, eventually studying and becoming “Queen's attorney.”

In the midst of all this, Timothy's father, a devout man, had been grooming his oldest to study for the ministry. Timothy eventually graduated from Harvard, following an expulsion possibly related to his father's divorce. He was a fine student and managed to overcome the potential stigma of his family – to the extent that the illustrious Solomon Stoddard granted him the hand of his daughter Esther, securing his status in the community. Esther bore Timothy eleven children. Jonathan was their fifth child and the only son. He was named after the first son of Richard's second marriage, who died in infancy.

Within a few months of Jonathan's birth came news of a tragedy. There had been an Indian attack in Deerfield, home of the Stoddard's step-daughter, Eunice Williams, and her seven children whom Solomon looked on as his own grandchildren. “...the Indians killed two of the Williams' children, six-week-old Jerusha and six-year-old John Jr. in front of their horrified parents. Their mother, Eunice (the Stoddards' daughter), recovering from childbirth and now further burdened by inexpressible grief, faltered and fell crossing a river on the second day of the trek to Canada. An Indian warrior put her out of her misery 'with his hatchet at one stroke'. The Reverend John Williams and his surviving children were taken as captives to Canada.” More tragedies followed on the heels of these, but this is sufficient to paint a backdrop for Jonathan's childhood. His own home in Hartford was not so close to the frontier and so was quite a bit safer; but he grew up amid family prayer gatherings held many times a day, and concerns for the lives and souls of his captive cousins and uncle who remained in the hands of Indians and the Catholic French.

His upbringing was one of devout Puritanism, as one would imagine as the son of a well-respected minister who was also a hands-on, even controlling, father. His mother, Esther, was a formidable women (as apparently his sisters were also). Together the parents educated their children, as well as the those of the rest of the town, in a school they operated in their own home. Esther outlived both husband and son and into her nineties continued to welcome ladies into the old schoolroom for the reading of Scripture, and theological works, for which she would provide the commentary. Puritan women, though not college educated, were generally an accomplished and intellectual group. They were encouraged to be so for the sake of faith and understanding the things of the faith. Mary, not Martha, was their favorite biblical model – though they never lost sight either that care of their family and home was their vocation. And it was in a home full of such women that Jonathan grew up. Throughout his life he had a high regard for women.

It's difficult to imagine a world where everyone in a town would be in some way answerable to the church, but that is what the Puritan world was like. No one lived among them who did not know the Gospel of Jesus Christ and at some point sit under the teaching of gospel preachers. Virtually everyone considered themselves a Christian – or at least part of the “covenant community” by virtue of their baptism. As you can probably imagine, hypocrisy in such settings was rife. Never was it the case that every person in the church was converted, but since outward lifestyles were so restricted it was easy enough for one to convince oneself and others of true Christian faith, by one's good behavior, or even merely by the absence of scandal. Puritan ministers, like Timothy Edwards, were well aware that outward conformation to laws was not the same as an inward change of heart. They preached the gospel knowing it is the power of God for salvation to anyone who believes, and when individuals wished to become full communicant members of the church (meaning permitted to partake of the Lord's Supper) they required a careful accounting of their conversion story, usually requiring that certain criterion be met exactly before admitting them to membership. Because of the biblical warnings against those who receive the Sacrament in an unworthy manner, the Puritans were highly protective of it and as a result had honed the evaluation of conversions to a near science. “Yet the object of this science- whether an apparent spiritual experience was a work of god or a Satanic imitation – was notoriously elusive. Satan's favorite device was self-deception. Self-generated religious enthusiasm could look like the real thing for a time but soon would fade away.”

Timothy Edwards and Solomon Stoddard were gifted gospel preachers and both witnessed small revivals over the years of their ministries. Jonathan himself, at the age of nine, experienced a brief “awakening” during one of them. He became very religious for a time, holding secret times of prayer and erecting a little prayer hut in the swamp in which to hold prayer gatherings for his friends. Eventually, however the excitement faded and he “returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in ways of sin.”

This would not be Edwards' only false conversion. As he was turning 13, he went to college at Connecticut Collegiate School, which was a campus of what would soon be known as Yale. (16 was the more common age to begin, but one could begin earlier if the required languages had been mastered.) A lot more could be said about his college years, as it was a difficult time for this young, serious-minded teen “with a difficult and unsociable personality,” who'd been raised in a house full of women and now found himself in an entirely male environment. But I'll skip ahead to his senior year, when he fell ill with pleurisy. He found himself aware that he was in no way ready to face his Creator – and he was terrified. In his fear he cried out and committed himself yet again to God. This gave him a measure of peace which lasted until just a little while after his recovery, after which he fell away once again. But he was not at rest in his sin either and continued to wrestle spiritually for quite some time. His particular struggle was an intellectual one, but with far-reaching spiritual implications. “His heart and his intellect were not separable in the quest.” He kept stumbling over the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, especially as it pertained to the salvation of men. As he later said: “It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.”

In the midst of this dark struggle, he continued on after his graduation to study for his M.A. Degree and it was during that time when he was finally changed. He could give no account for how it happened. There was no precipitating event. One day he just no longer objected to the sovereignty of God. “Suddenly he became convinced that indeed God was just in eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure.”
“This intellectual breakthrough later seemed the work of the Holy Spirit because it soon had an overwhelming spiritual manifestation. At first Jonathan's mind simply 'rested' in his insights, 'and it put an end to all those cavils and objections, that had till then abode with me, all the preceding part of my life.' Then one day came a wondrous response, far beyond what his intellect could produce. He was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, 'Now unto the King eternal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.' ...As he read these words, he recalled, 'there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before.' He was so much enraptured that, as he put it, 'I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.'
Even so the introspective and keenly observant young man remained deeply suspicious of his own affections, having been twice fooled by what had seemed like the strongest spiritual emotions that disappeared when the crisis was past."
But it was different this time. This time his affections remained, and grew. His Christian life thereafter was not steady or smooth, but he did persevere. I've often admired the earthy way in which the Puritans regarded depression. Way back then they considered it a physical illness, but one with effects on the soul. They had great understanding and compassion for those with such a natural disposition, yet did not allow it as an excuse for sin. Melancholy – as they referred to it – was to be contended with, not given over to. Edwards, like so many illustrious saints through the ages, waged many a battle against depression. He also struggled with the types of sins you might expect from one who by his brilliance and self-discipline achieved so much at such a young age – pride, self-righteousness, evil-speaking, irritability.

After completing his formal education he took a position for about eight months as a “supply” pastor for a Presbyterian church in New York. These were very happy days for him and he would have liked to prolong them, but his time there came to an end and he returned to East Windsor and his parents' home. This was a difficult and uncertain time, living with his parents again and uncertain of his future. He was hoping for a pastoral position in New Haven, near Yale. He also may have been pining for New Haven's young Sarah Pierpont, now 13, with whom he'd been acquainted for some years prior and whose evident spirituality had left a lasting impression on him.

New Haven, however, was not where Providence sent him. He was called instead to Bolton, not far from his parents home, presumably by some arrangement of Timothy Edwards. He submitted to God's call and resolved to make the best of it. He'd grown accustomed to strife in college and no doubt found the experience useful for his pastorate in Bolton where the people “were at each others throats.” He had to practically beg his parishioners to try to get along. In May of 1724 (at almost 21 years of age) a way of escape from Bolton was opened. He was offered a tutorship at Yale, back in New Haven. What seemed like a great opportunity, became the beginning of a dark season. Yale was in a state of disorder when Edwards arrived, operating without a Rector after the previous Rector,Timothy Cutler, came out of the closet as an Anglican. Besides that, the students were no better behaved now than when he was one himself, and he'd deplored it back then. For reasons that are unclear, Jonathan sank into a depression. He'd not abandoned his faith, or his hope, but had lost much of the delight of his salvation. Interestingly, it was during this time that his love for Sarah Pierpont blossomed. She was fifteen, and they became engaged, with the wedding planned in two years. She would be a younger than average bride at seventeen, but it was not considered an inappropriate age either.

In 1725, Jonathan suffered the first of several collapses of health during his lifetime. His ascetic lifestyle may have contributed. It is unclear what ailed him at this time, but it was apparently serious enough to require around the clock observation. The illness lasted into December. By spring of 1726, however, things were looking up and he was offered an assistant pastorate at his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard's church in Northampton, and was voted in by a great majority. He was ordained on Feb. 15, 1727. He was twenty-four years old. Five months later, on July 28, he was married to Sarah Pierpont. Somewhere during this time, Jonathan's three year depression lifted. On August 25, one year later, Sarah gave birth to their first child, Sarah – who would be nicknamed Sally.

Edwards would pastor at Northampton until 1750. It was here that he would raise his family, and from here would arise the events that would lead to the writing of the sermons we will be studying. Solomon Stoddard was in his eighties when Jonathan came to serve under him.
“For sixty years, as long as almost anyone could remember, Stoddard had shaped the town by the force of his personality. For sixty years he had had a near monopoly on the most authoritative public speaking. Even in the last two and a half years, when he shared the pulpit with his grandson, the frail retiring young man, however attractive, was clearly the apprentice and protege. In powerful sermons year after year Stoddard had berated the people of Northampton for their sins and fostered their periodic reformations. He had created their identity. 'He being our pastor,' wrote the anonymous eulogist, 'gave a name and a reputation to our town.'

Edwards may have been determined to do the same, but handling the people of Northampton was no easy matter. Though they were sometimes subject to the heights of revival enthusiasm, they were also fickle. As in any dictatorship, however successful, there were strong emotions and some deep resentments. Edwards later wrote: 'The people of Northamption are not the most happy in their natural temper. They have, ever since I can remember been famed for a high-spirited people, and close, and of a difficult, turbulent temper.' Once, during Stoddard's day, a church controversy became so heated that 'it came to hand-blows: a number of one party met the head of the opposite party, and assaulted him and beat him unmercifully.”
There were party ranks in the community based on social status with which I think we in our egalitarian age can easily sympathize, but to which the ruling class of that day would have little sympathy. The hierarchical system was the entrenched means by which their society was held in order and the basic needs of the many were met. Tensions were also created by the new philosophies of individualism and capitalism which were gaining influence and contributing to the transition from the more communal and group centered Puritan society. There were also issues with land availability. Young marrieds were usually given a large tract of land to set off on their own. As available land dwindled, young people were having to wait much longer to get married, well into their twenties.

And this was the nature of the community upon the great Stoddard's death in February of 1729. The torch was passed to Edwards. At age 26, he was now a man of influence and authority, and already somewhat despairing of the next generation. As he said, “'Licentious and immoral practices seem to get the great head amongst young people. And how little appearance is there of a spirit of seriousness and religion to be seen among them? How little concern about their salvation and escaping eternal misery?' Once a generation departs from the old ways, he admonished, there was little hope to reverse the trend. 'They who live loosely while young, and give the reins to their lust, it is to be feared they will not hold the reins very taut with respect to their children. When a people have got into a way of declining, they will be likely to wax worse and worse, to revolt more and more.'” (Wise words, especially from our vantage point of almost 300 years in the future.) You may wonder what he was finding to fret about in the behavior of his congregation back in Puritan years. For one thing, there had developed a youth culture, a tavern culture, and even certain family cultures which took precedence over the church culture in the hearts of the people. If the church truly is the body of Christ and where the life of Christ is found, then it should be first in the hearts of all. Nightwalking became a common practice among the young adults, and the rate of premarital pregnancy was up to about one in ten first babies being born before the eighth month of marriage. There was also no longer any stigma associated with this sort of thing, so long as the young couple married, a fact which Edwards bemoaned.

Edwards was a serious minded man himself, and clearly frustrated with this congregation of about 1300, which he at one point labeled “sermon-proof”. Shortly after Stoddard's death, he suffered another collapse of health. All we know of it is that it involved weakness and loss of voice. Shortly after, Edwards suffered the loss, for the first time of a sibling, his favorite sister, Jerusha. A godly young woman of 19 whom he greatly admired and with whom he was truly a kindred spirit.

It would be another two years before Jonathan would begin to see winds of change in his congregation, and when he did, it began among the youth. He often preached against their inappropriate behaviors, yet his compassion for them was also clear and began to have a softening effect on them. They began to moderate their behavior. Then, in April of 1734 something happened which precipitated the first revival he would preside over. A young man in the congregation fell suddenly ill with pleurisy and was dead within two days. Edwards, never in good health himself, was more than prepared to seize the moment for the sake of his flock. He preached to the mourners from Psalm 90:5-6: “In the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up. In the evening it is cut down and withereth.'...'How unreasonable is it, ' he argued at length, 'for one who is so much like the grass and flowers of the field...to spend away the prime of his opportunity in levity and vain mirth in inconsideration and pursuit of carnal and sensual delights and pleasures.'” His congregation was deeply affected, and several came to a saving knowledge of Christ. This death was followed soon after by another, this time a young married woman, but this one was different, as she died trusting Christ and with great comfort. The awakening continued to spread. Small religious meetings cropped up, with Edwards' encouragement. Women set up their own time apart so they could be free to express their joy and spiritual gifts among themselves, something they could not do in mixed company.
“The town seemed to be made over in his [Edwards'] image, which was no small feat in light of his perfectionist standards and spiritual intensity. Somehow his combination of transparent spirituality and unrelenting crystal-clear logic was winning the hearts of the community. People identified with this demanding young preacher who set before them an exalted spiritual vision. Every day parishioners filled his home, waiting to see him for counseling. Callow youth and callous farmers were coming under the wonderful spell....'All other talk,' Edwards reported, but that 'about spiritual and eternal things was soon thrown by; all the conversation in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people, carrying on their ordinary secular business. Other discourse than of the things of religion would scarcely be tolerated in any company....They seemed to follow their worldly business more as a part of their duty than from any disposition they had to it; the temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion.'” 
Edwards thought as many as 300 people had been “savingly changed,” and rather unusually, as many men as women, and 50 people over the age of forty. News of the revival began to spread as the character of the town was changed. There would be some valid criticism of excessive emotionalism, but true religion, Edwards was convinced belonged not just in the intellect, but in the emotions, and a few excesses did not disqualify the true work of the Spirit.

I should like to note, that throughout all these events, Edwards was preaching, studying, writing, corresponding, and fathering...a new child every two years. During this time he lost another sister, Lucy, for whom he would name his own child born only ten days later. He would eventually father eleven children, including two sons, Jonathan Jr. and Pierpont, and a daughter Jerusha, who like her namesake, was an extremely pious young woman who died in her teens. I should also mention, this revival was not the event that's come to be known as the Great Awakening in which Edwards also played an important role, along with Whitefield and a number of others. Those events were not unrelated to these, but would come about five years down the road.

And now we approach the setting in which his sermons on Charity and its Fruits were preached. As revival was sweeping through the community and changing it, Satan was busy at work as well. One of the elite citizens of Northampton, Joseph Hawley II, slit his own throat and was dead within a half hour. He was a 42 year old successful merchant, and Jonathan's uncle by marriage to one of Solomon Stoddard's daughters. He had become convinced during the revival events that somehow he was beyond grace and, falling into depression, killed himself. Soon after, there was another failed attempt at suicide, by the same method. The revival continued for a time, but now with a dark side. It was haunted and taunted by the evil one. Edwards remarked “that during the summer of his Uncle Hawley's suicide, 'Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner.'...Satan's rage in the summer of 1735 took the terrible form of using the power of suggestion against the revival. Much as awakening had swept the region, so now 'multitudes' were confronted with the horrible temptation to cut their own throats. 'And many,' he recorded, 'that seemed to be under no melancholy, some pious persons that had no special darkness, or doubts about the goodness of their state, nor were under any special trouble or concern of mind about anything spiritual or temporal, yet had it urged upon 'em, as if somebody had spoke to 'em, 'Cut your own throat, now is good opportunity; now, NOW!'...In Northamption and elsewhere in Hampshire County the suicide craze effectively brought the conversions to an end.” This was not the only factor which halted the revival, there was also a distracting and intense Arminian controversy in the fall of 1735 which ultimately had a negative effect and served to “prejudice the country against it, and hinder the propagation of it.”

A year later, after Edwards had written “A Faithful Narrative” - an account of the events of the Connecticut Valley Revival - and had gained some fame as a result of the revival, he found himself in a difficult situation. He'd been “proclaiming to the world that 'God has evidently made us a new people.'” but found himself living in a community in decline. “'...it is a great damp to that joy to consider how we decline, and what decays that lively spirit in religion suffers amongst us,while others are rejoicing and praising God for us.' This gradual decline, he explained, 'appears not so much by a return to ways of lewdness and sensuality, among young or old, as by an over-carefulness about, and eagerness after the possessions of this life' and a return of the heated party spirit that had so long plagued the town.”

In other words, they had degenerated into morally upright, clean living, worldly-minded people. And what an easy road that is to take! They became once again contentious, dividing into political parties, and backbiting. And here we come to the contention that led to his sermons on Charity. It centered around the new meeting house which was just being completed. (The old meeting house had collapsed dramatically during a crowded Sunday morning service trapping many, yet miraculously no one died and not a single bone was broken.) Seating in New England meeting houses was assigned by status, and a new seating plan would have to be devised for the new meeting house.
“...but that was no easy task in a community with some social mobility. The town's seating committee had to rank each family in relation to every other. The town could not agree on whether to continue the practices of seating men on one side and women on the other (with young people in the balcony) or to seat people on the main floor by families. After much wrangling they decided to do both. The new meeting house included thirty-five box-shaped pews around the periphery, some of which were occupied by family units. The rest of the seating continued the traditional separation by gender, women on the opposite side of the aisle from their husbands. [This arrangement] could accentuate family rivalries when one family was seated more prominently than a near rival. That was particularly so when the town, consistent with Edwards' assessment of it, decided to make wealth the primary criterion in determining seating, to consider age secondarily, and to consider 'men's usefulness,' as in public service to a lesser degree. Previously, age had been the primary consideration and wealth secondary.
Because New Englanders prided themselves on regulating their worship on the Bible alone, one might think that they would have taken more to heart the biblical condemnation of those who 'love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues' (Matthew 23:6). That they ignored this instruction reminds us how essentially hierarchical their social assumptions were. Not to honor social distinctions, even in church, was to them as unthinkable as it would be today for persons in the military not to honor differences in rank.”

Edwards hated this controversy and preached against those “'who seek after an high seat in God's house above seeking eminent holiness.'” (Yet “he took for granted that social hierarchies were God's provision for good order.” ) And throughout the ugly course of the conflict it was becoming clear to him that he had overestimated the “extent of genuine awakening”.

There were definitely some true conversions, but it was becoming evident that some of what appeared to be the work of God were merely Satan's counterfeits. It was in response to this realization that he preached three lengthy sermon series, of which the Charity and It's Fruits series is the second. The first was “a nineteen-unit sermon on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins of Matthew 25:1-12....In this picture of the church, Edwards told his parishioners, the wise and foolish were mixed together. Not until Christ arrived would it become fully apparent that only half of them were truly prepared. The crucial issue was how to tell the difference between the wise and the foolish... such a difference between effecting but superficial sentimentality and truly spiritual affections was a subtle one... he advised, 'don't content yourself with that you think you are willing to have Christ for your saviour unless you are willing of free choice and not forced with the threatenings of hell or the desire of 'going to heaven.' Ultimately though it would only be through trials that the genuineness of one's faith would become apparent.

This series was preparatory to Charity and its Fruits (which would be followed up by a series on the mystery of history – the history of redemption). “It was an ideal sequel to the sermons on the wise and foolish virgins because many of the applications dealt with how one might tell if an apparent work of the spirit was genuine. To Edwards the biblical principle was clear: “By their fruits ye shall know them....It followed, then, that evidences of love (or their absence) were the best test by which “Christians may try their experience whether it be real Christian experience.'....The series” was “more positive than negative, and always preached in an appropriately gentle tone.”

I'll not go further with Edwards life but to say that he would eventually, after nearly two decades of faithful ministry and playing a large role in the famous Great Awakening, be finally rejected from the pastorate of Northampton over the issue of communion. He moved on to serve at Stockbridge, a missionary community reaching out to the Indians for several tumultuous years, before being called to preside over the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton. It was there that he died from a primitive form of smallpox vaccination.

You'll notice I've not mentioned Edwards' views on politics, slavery, or the Native Americans and their treatment in the new world. I've not mentioned much of his doctrine, his relationship with David Brainerd, or his view of the end times. I've not mentioned his extensive writings, his consuming fascination with science, or his expansive philosophy. I've completely ignored his role in the Great Awakening. There's much I've not mentioned, for the sake of brevity and to keep us to the point at hand – how he came to spend sixteen consecutive lectures on the study of Christian love. I welcome any questions you may have on any of these other issues, should you have any, or the things already discussed; but for now I'll move on to to my next post, which will address what led me to undertake a study through sixteen lectures on Christian love.

8 comments:

Lisa notes... said...

Wow, Laurie! I just learned so much. I've heard of Edwards for several years, but knew very little about him. This was interesting and informative. Thanks for spending the time to get it together for us. It will prove helpful to me to now have some background.

David Porter said...

Wow! Was your keyboard smoking after this long post?

Marsden is a great read, isn't he?

Laurie M. said...

It is a great read. I'll have more posts on that book, Lord willing. I loved it.

No smoke - except maybe out of my ears. I don't type fast enough for that.

Simple Mann said...

Man Alive! I had to copy that to a doc to print up to read. Talk about serving up big chunks of meat! I look forward to finishing this great "little" introduction. I picked up the Marsden biography a few months ago, but haven't had time to crack it yet. I was wondering if you've seen the Sam Storms DVDs on Jonathan Edwards. I've seen them listed in a few places and they seem intriguing, but I don't know anyone who's viewed them who can tell me if there worth getting. Just wondering. Thanks again for all your effort. There is no doubt that your heart's all in. That's awesome.

Peace & Blessings,
Simple Mann

Laurie M. said...

No, I haven't seen them, but the whole Sam Storms on J. Edwards is on my list of things to check out, especially his sermon on Heaven is a World of Love. I keep hearing about this preacher, but have yet to listen to him.

David Porter said...

I watched a Sam Storms video, some time back, at one of Piper's events.

Here is the link: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/MediaPlayer/2245/Video/

Watch it. You will be glad you did.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and so very interesting introduction to Edwards! I have always been inclined towards Edwards (and C.H. Spurgeon!)and have read a few things, but not this one! Looking forward to reading and catching up to this study. Thanks so much for it!
~K

Laurie M. said...

K -

I hope you'll enjoy your reading, and our little study here. We're moving quite slowly, one half-chapter a week, and already had a month-long hiatus over the holidays. You will likely have little trouble catching up.

Your input is welcome.