Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jonathan Edwards: Part 3

This is part three of a four (or five) part series on the life of Jonathan Edwards. If you would like to read the entire paper including endnotes click here..

Edwards’ Ministry and Life in Northampton

After graduating from Yale in 1722, Edwards took an interim pastorate in New York City for about eight months. In the Spring of 1723, Jonathan reluctantly left New York at the request of his father. Timothy Edwards had arranged for Jonathan to pastor a church in Bolton, Connecticut just fifteen miles from East Windsor. After a few months in Bolton, the younger Edwards was offered a position as a tutor at Yale. He accepted and tutored there for a couple of years. While he was serving as a tutor Jonathan began to sense a call to the pastorate. It is clear from his personal notebooks during this time that his ambition was to be more than just a local pastor; rather “He was determined to be an international figure.” Eventually, in the fall of 1726, Jonathan was called to assist his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, as a pastor in Northampton. A few months later he married Sarah Pierrepont on July 28, 1727. In 1729, Solomon Stoddard died and Jonathan was called to become the full pastor of the Northampton Congregation.

As the pastor of one of the largest congregations in New England at this time, Jonathan found himself in a very powerful position. Jonathan viewed this position of authority as significant and was serious about his vocation. Edwards thought that the best way to fulfill his duties in Northampton and in Christendom at large was to use his intellectual gifts. This meant that Edwards would give himself to study for upwards of thirteen hours per day. In order to maximize his study time “he declined to make pastoral calls on his parishioners” except “in cases of sicknesses and emergencies,” he “turned over the management of the house and oversight of the husbandry to Sarah,” and he made sure that Sarah had an “African woman slave” to help around the house.

During Jonathan’s tenure at Northampton, the congregation experienced two powerful moves of God. The first began in 1734 and continued through the following year. By the following year Jonathan had assumed that “nearly everyone in Northampton had shown hopeful signs of saving grace.” As God began to move amidst his congregation, Jonathan picked up his pen and began to write. He had his account of this work published, and in 1737 this work gained Edwards the international attention that he desired. However, after publishing the work, Edwards began to have serious doubts about whether people had truly been converted or not. These doubts would eventually lead to the publication of Religious Affections in 1746. However, before Religious Affections was written there was yet another powerful move of God in New England.

This second move of God took place in 1741. This time the move of God was not limited just to the Northampton area, but spread throughout all of New England. It seemed to follow on the heels of the preaching of George Whitefield. The entire New England area was experiencing a powerful awakening; so much so, that “ecstatic experiences” and physical manifestations soon became common place in the land. However, the downside of these unique manifestations was that “Parishioners were attempting to outdo each other in enthusiasm, spreading false impression that the more violent the emotions and the more vehement the expressions of zeal the greater the true piety.” Edwards responded in a much more seasoned way than during the first move of God by encouraging his people that “great excitements were not essential to true spirituality—even if they were compatible with it.”

Within two years of this second move of God, controversy was astir in the Northampton congregation. A group of young men in Edwards’ congregation were passing around sexually inappropriate material and making harassing comments to the young women in the congregation. When Edwards found out about it, he read a list of names of the people involved in the incident before the church and asked them to report to his house. Regretfully though, he did not specify between those who were guilty and those who were merely being called as witnesses to the event. Edwards handling of this event was tragic and it was the beginning of the end for any kind of effective ministry in Northampton.

By 1750, Edwards was dismissed from his pastorate in Northampton for seeking to change the church’s long held practice on communion and for “repudiating the half-way covenant.” Edwards’ grandfather had viewed communion as a converting ordinance and in his zeal for evangelism had allowed every one to partake of the elements. Edwards sought to limit communion to those who could “produce the outward signs of regeneration, including a heartfelt profession.” In regards to baptism, Edwards was proposing that Stoddard’s practice be changed and that only the children of professing members could be baptized. These two issues led to his dismissal from Northampton and his eventual relocation to Stockbridge.

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