June 26, 2013

Life Lessons from Jonathan Edwards (3)

Part III: Sacked, Yet More Opposition, Indians & Other Stuff

In the public arena, at least, the ‘Northampton Controversy’ of 1749 was concerned with Edward’s supposedly ‘new’ view on Communion and Baptism (he denied the charge that it was new). Edwards wanted to restrict communion to believing members only and restrict infant baptism to full members. This caused a scandal in a day when not having your children baptised was considered to be something shameful. Edwards (rightly) thought it ‘stupid’ that people baptised their children into a faith they did not themselves practice (hear, hear). Sadly, his biblical thinking was far too outrageous for the people of his time. In July 1750, Edwards preached his final sermon in Northampton after being voted out by a council of local clergy and their representatives.

Looking back on his downfall, Edwards blamed satanic activity and spiritual pride on behalf of the townspeople—which had its roots in their worldwide fame because of the revivals—and political rivalries amongst power bases. For himself, he blamed his own spiritual pride and arrogance as well as his laxity in dealing with the revival. Interestingly, he came to realise that the number who were truly converted were not as great as had been reported, and there is a sense that he greatly regretted this. He was even offered the chance to come to Scotland, but declined due to his age—he was 48 at the time—and the size of his family. He stayed on in Northampton for about a year and, oddly, was asked to preach at his old church from time to time! That was eventually stopped by his opponents who said, tragically, that they preferred to go without the Word than have him in the pulpit. He continued looking for work, although there was a movement from his supporters to encourage him to start another congregation in the town. He was against the idea, and moved to another church in Stockbridge, more than 40 miles away. It was there, again amid much opposition, that he began to preach and teach among the settlers and Indians alike. He was particularly interested in teaching literacy to the indigenous population and began a successful programme based on teaching children the biblical stories, giving them an overarching history of biblical redemption (sounds like a familiar re-emerging thing!).

By late 1751, Edwards was in serious debt (about 2 grand!) and the family were really struggling to make ends meet. Despite this, his ministry to the Indians and the English was growing, along with a school. Even though his church was mixed, he preached to both groups separately. He preached to the Indians using an interpreter by the name of (wait for it) John Wauwaumpequunnaunt, whom Edwards thought was ‘extraordinary’. (Whatever else, you have to love that name and I was just looking for an excuse to use it!) Edwards used old sermons from Northampton when teaching the English but, when it came to the Indians, he tried a different approach. He used lots of narratives and vivid metaphors, which really seemed to connect with his biblically illiterate audience (again, sound familiar?). “To the Indians he was a plain and practical preacher; upon no occasion did he display any metaphysical knowledge in the pulpit. His sentences were concise and full of meaning; and his delivery, grave and natural.” (p.393) That seems much at odds with many who think that he was boring and stuffy from the pulpit.

The ‘post modern’ planter would learn much from his approach to those who had no gospel understanding. He concentrated on preaching the Gospels and found real success with the parables. He tempered his usually judgement-laden messages with an emphasis on the mercy and compassion of God in sending Christ to die. And yet, this is the interesting part for me, despite these contextual approaches (living among the people) there was no revival, although some Indians did profess faith. Note to self: It just goes to show that all our modern emphasis on ‘missional living’, ‘incarnational ministry’ and ‘contextualisation’, whilst rightly worthy of consideration and practice, are no guarantee of spiritual regeneration. That is entirely a work of God through his Holy Spirit, when and where he deems it appropriate according to his perfect will and sovereign purposes.

More controversy soon followed, this time against a family called the Williamses. They were using the school and other projects for financial gain and Edwards (and most of the town) was implacable in his pursuit to get rid of them. (tell you what, this bloke could have started a fight in a closed down bar!) Sadly, the school later burned down, the Indians left, and so did a man by the name of Gideon Hawley, their best and most respected teacher. He went off to do missionary work further inland among unreached tribes, and Edwards later sent his youngest son to him for training to be a future missionary. Times were increasingly tough.

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