June 25, 2013

Life Lessons from Jonathan Edwards (2)

Part II: Snappy Book Titles, More Revival, Opposition & Other Stuff

What I particularly like about this biography is that it never seeks to paint Edwards in a sinless light. His weaknesses are laid bare, not least his tendency for hyperbole in some of his writings, but also his penchant for ‘editing’ the opinions of others, most notably in his work on the life of David Brainerd. Both men were, apparently, very alike, given to periods of great depression and spiritual dryness as well as times of spiritual refreshing and intense ‘ecstasies’. (I wonder how well they would survive the ‘psychological assessments’ that mark many missionary organisations and churches in our day and age?)

For all his intellect, Edwards wasn’t one for snappy book titles. Consider this one: ‘An Humble Attempt to Promote an Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People thro’ the World , in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion, and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture Promise and Prophecies Concerning the Last Times’ (1747). Now that is the daddy of all book titles! This was a sort of precursor to his lifelong interest in the apocalyptic writings and the nature of the ‘millennium’. As with all of the Protestants of his day, the pope and the Catholic Church were viewed as the ‘anti-Christ’ of Scripture, but Edwards did have a tendency to interpret the events of his Northampton town through the lens of the biblical prophets and the nation of Israel. Apparently, this led to some bizarre score keeping in terms of the number of French (Catholic) ships sunk, soldiers killed, and forts defeated which he interpreted to be signs of God’s blessing against the ‘Babylonian anti-Christ’s’.

Another literary device that Marsden (the author) employs to good effect is to intersperse the book with little snippets of the personal strife that the Edwards’ family faced throughout their ministry in Northampton. In the midst of war, the death of family and friends, theological battles, and revival, we read of how Edwards dealt with matters of discipline within the church. He particularly fought against the sexual sin of the young men of his congregation. On one occasion, some men were passing about a book on midwifery and the inner workings of the female parts, which caused quite a scandal! (sadly, it is an indictment on our society, and on our churches in particular, that I smiled wryly when I read that bit, more in resignation of some of the stuff that men are viewing these days which is so hardcore that a book on midwifery seems childish by comparison).

Not only that, but he had to deal with the pettiness and jealousy of many powerful and wealthy families within the community. Perhaps most sadly, was his constant battle to receive his salary, which seemed to mark most of his time there until his removal in 1750 (more on that later). Edwards himself seemed unconcerned by what he called ‘worldly things’ and so it was often left to his wife Sarah to sort out the family, the finances, run their smallholding, and to try and live as frugally as possible. (I can imagine what my wife would say if I decided to forgo all ‘worldly considerations’, retire to the study and let her get on with running everything! Not sure it would fly too well!) Anyway, after many years, in 1748, the townspeople voted to improve Edwards’s salary, making it fixed, whilst at the same time making him the highest paid pastor in the whole region.

This peace was not to last long, and after the death of one of his greatest patrons, Colonel Stoddard, things began to rapidly deteriorate between Edwards and his congregation. Marsden cites many reasons for this: long standing feuds, political posturing and, notably, Edwards’ ever-growing demand to place greater restrictions on church membership. Many people thought he was being a bit dodgy in that he waited until one of his most powerful opponents had died, gained a fixed salary for himself, and began introducing new rules and regulations into the church.

Marsden handles the issues skilfully at this point. He remarks on Edwards’ characteristic ‘sticking to his principles’ approach to ministry, but at the same times points out his failings in terms of his ‘brittle, unsociable personality’. Most likely, it was a combination of all, exacerbated by his unrelenting perfectionism, something he demanded of both himself and all around him. Interestingly, and this is only hinted at in the book, this trait seems at odds with his obvious Calvinistic views about human nature and the race in general. Anyway, to be fair, even Edwards saw these failings and more than once felt he would be more suited to a life in the study than the life of a pastor.

Part 3 to follow.

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