by – The Rev. Dr. Gene Straatmeyer
All my Christian life I have heard about a famous Puritan preacher who lived in 18th century America and whose name was Jonathan Edwards. He preached the infamous sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” during the Great Awakening that occurred between 1730 and 1750. In fact, one source says the Great Awakening started with a revival at his Northampton, Massachusetts congregation in 1734. “The Dictionary of Bible and Religion” says “The awakening was characterized by highly emotional preaching, such bodily effects as weeping and fainting with an emphasis on conversion as a soul-searching experience.”
I recently read a biography titled “Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word” by Douglas A. Sweeney. Nearly everything in this essay can be attributed as coming from Sweeney’s book.
Edwards was born October 5, 1703. His father, Timothy Edwards, was also a minister. Young Edwards graduated from Yale in 1720 and immediately began to study for his Master’s Degree. He delayed his studies in 1722 to take a very short Presbyterian pastorate in New York City and then he returned to Yale to finish the degree. Upon graduation he became a Senior Tutor at his Alma Mater where he lectured until 1725.
During the years at Yale he professed a quickening experience. This was his way of saying his faith became more personal and real. The author of this biography describes the experience as a “new experience of the reality of God.”
His next call was to help his grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, a Puritan pastor in the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard was 83 years old and had served the congregation for 50 years. Edwards spent the next 23 years serving this church. This was the most prominent church in Western New England at the time even though the community consisted of only 1100 people when he arrived.
In 1727 he married Sarah Pierpont whose father James, a Congregational minister, was the founder of Yale University. After marriage, Edward’s salary remained at 100 pounds per year plus a yearly cost of living raise. He was also given 50 acres of land, of which 10 were in Northampton and the other 40 in the country. He received 380 pounds to build the parsonage while the congregation built a barn near his home. His salary was doubled to 200 pounds a year once his grandfather died and he became the solo pastor. He and Sarah had 11 children.
Needing help to run their household of eleven kids and fifty acres of land, the Edwards purchased a total of six slaves.
He was a postmillennialist as were most evangelicals in his day. Postmillennialists believed the world had to be Christian — by 2000 A.D. according to Edwards – before Jesus would return to earth to reign for 1,000 years. Most evangelicals today have shed postmillennialism and are dispensationalists – a rather dramatic change in belief since Edward’s day.
This belief of the end times led Edwards to see evangelism as an important, if not the most important, task of the church. It also gave him a missionary heart for those around the globe who had not heard the Gospel. He was particularly concerned about the aboriginals in New England and was influenced a great deal by David Brainerd, one of the first missionaries to American Indians.
In 1740 he was fired from his Northampton pulpit because he and the congregation differed on the nature of communion. Edwards did not want to allow nominal Christians to come to the table, those who had lost their fervor and passion for the faith. The congregation said as long as a person was baptized, the table was open to them.
From Northampton Edwards became the pastor of Stockbridge Indian Mission and served many years before being called to be the president of Princeton University. However, tragedy struck and Edwards died suddenly in March 1758 after being president for less than three months
Edwards served in both Presbyterian and Congregational parishes, but he was also a Puritan. Puritans were given that name by the Roman Catholics in the 1570’s. Puritans believed in calling people to personal faith based on a detailed knowledge of Scripture, which led to genuine conversion by the power of the Spirit. The Puritans were the forerunners of modern evangelicalism.
Puritans called the church building a meeting house while the pulpit was called the desk. Most Puritan meeting houses looked more like barns than churches with low ceilings. As time went on they added steeples and arched windows. Inside they ruled out crosses, stained glass windows or anything that might appear to be a graven image. There was little liturgy, and there were no musical instruments. The Psalms were sung a cappella.
The clergy preached in academic gowns and a powdered periwig. Their exegetical sermons would be from one-two hours long. The pastoral prayer could be up to a half hour long.
Only men held office and voted in the village and the church. Citizenship was required in Northampton to be a member of the church. The village, not the congregation, paid the pastor’s salary.
Quite a change from then to being a pastor today! However, for those who hear the call to be God’s messengers, the style may not be puritan but the message is the same.