Archive for the ‘historical’ category

Jonathan Edward’s Religion

July 23, 2010

Most people who have heard of Jonathan Edwards only know of him through “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This sermon was included in my 11th grade English literature book in Georgia, and I must admit it did not entice me to read more of his writing. I dismissed him as one of those goth-like puritans from the days when black was the Christian color, and thought little more about him. I still have read very little by him. This post arises from reading Perry Miller’s biography of Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards was contemporary to Benjamin Franklin, though the two never met. They are the two polar opposites of mid 18th century America, the two intellects of their age, the two who together represent the full range of the American psyche as it has unfolded over the centuries. Isaacson’s biography of Franklin left me with a good grasp of a person whom I expected to admire but eventually couldn’t. Miller’s biography of Edwards left me with a good grasp of a person of whom I was skeptical but have now been persuaded to admire.

What I want to do here is reflect on Edward’s spirituality, as I earlier tried to reflect on Franklin’s spirituality. Edwards was as internally complex as Franklin. He was the quintessential Puritan, a Calvinist to the core with never a moment of wavering from that set of convictions. He was one of the chief instruments that brought about the Great Awakening; the notorious sermon so many of us have read was a significant part of that phenomenon. For a brief period of time, Edwards was the leading figure in Massachusetts, and his reputation spread to Scotland and England where such notables as the Wesleys and Isaac Watts admired his writing.

Ultimately, though, a biography is nearly always a tragedy. At least, if the biography is well written and balanced, it will show both the strengths of the great people and their weaknesses, both the successes they are remembered for, and the ultimate failures inherent in their humanity. Franklin was a man who went from glory to glory and his failures were mostly on a small scale, personal, the sort of failures only gossips might talk about. Edwards was the opposite: he went from glory to public disgrace, but his strengths were inward and personal, the kind only those who were close to him might notice.

Franklin and Edwards both had decided what kind of people they were going to become by their early teens. Franklin was repulsed by the Puritan culture he lived in and soon rejected it; he took a while to settle into a qualified deism, but it was as predestined as a personality can make it. Edwards was perfectly at home with his heritage. He loved his traditions; he loved his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who was the great Puritan minister of his day; and he had a direct religious experience with the God whom he believed. But both Franklin and Edwards rose above the life of their day. Both Franklin and Edwards could stand apart from their worlds and see them critically and with some objectivity. Just as Franklin was no typical deist, Edwards was no typical Puritan. Or rather, Edwards was the quintessential Puritan, he was the kind of Puritan that Puritanism was intended to produce and seldom did, in a land that had become Puritan only in name.

The principle determining factor in Edwards’ life was that he was a Puritan living in a Puritan land that was ceasing to be Puritan at all. By the time he came along, mainly only the lip-service to the Puritan tradition was left. Puritan was what everyone had to pretend to be without ever admitting, usually without knowing, they were pretending. Therefore, when the genuine article came along, he came like a prophet, calling people back to their roots from the errors they had drifted into. Edwards lacked the charm and wit of Franklin, and so his prophetic demeanor was not softened by any hint of humor. He was a serious man preaching to serious men about matters of life and death.

He was the pastor of the Northampton church for nearly all of his adult life, until being ignominiously fired by his congregation and sent away to a wilderness post. It took only a few years for him to fall from most revered to most despised, a man who was no longer welcome even to speak at Harvard or at Yale, his alma mater. And it was his integrity as a person that destroyed him.

Ultimately there were four causes of his fall from the high office of public opinion. First was his alienation from his own relatives, the far-flung clan descended from Solomon Stoddard. It was shortly after he took over his grandfather’s church that he began to preach against the tendencies of Massachusetts to forsake their Calvinist heritage and embrace Arminianism. This may require a bit of explanation. In theology, an Arminian is one who emphasizes the freedom of the will as opposed to the predestination of God. In Edwards day, Massachusetts was finally making the transition from a frontier to a settled and prosperous colony. The kind of place that a man could get rich in, provided the inherited rules that restricted the acquisition of wealth could be circumvented.

The original Puritans had had a strict code of economic behavior as well as moral behavior in general. Their economic morality was so strict as to exclude the development of an economy in the modern sense of the word. I believe Heilbroner makes this point in The Worldly Philosophers. The kinds of business practices that were growing up in pagan America would not have been allowed among the founders, but Massachusetts, along with the rest of America, was finding it easy to compromise economic morals in favor of getting rich. Arminians were identified with this process; emphasizing free will they found it to be a short step to emphasizing free enterprise, and by “free” enterprise they meant “free from meaningful ethical or moral restraints”. In the present day, the same traditional Christian scruples about money must be ignored and compromised in order to make free enterprise possible. The real catch was that many of Edwards’ own relatives were involved in the very business practices their forefathers would have condemned. So when Edwards preached he making enemies of his own cousins as well as the powerful people in his region.

So much for the rich. What about the shabbily respectable, the intellectuals, the pillars of the community? These people were drifting into what we call liberalism; out of Edwards generation grew the present day Unitarians. It was the age of John Locke and Isaac Newton; these two were the cutting edge of human thought in the English speaking world. Of all the people in the American colonies, perhaps only two men (that we know of) had the intellectual capacity to read Locke and Newton and understand them:  Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards. Neither Franklin nor Edwards were any good at mathematics, but both of them could absorb the implications of the physical theories of Newton, and both could comprehend the implications of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

I do not know if Franklin ever read Locke’s essay, but if he did he would have found it congenial. In retrospect, Locke was at war with Christianity; certainly the effect his philosophy had was the undermining of belief in the traditions of Christianity. In England, Locke is credited with making the Anglican church utterly insipid in its spirituality for a century. Whether that is true or not, it would be expected that when Edwards encountered Locke’s essay as a student at Yale, a teen, he ought to have found Locke to be hostile to everything he was committed to. Here is where the true genius of Edwards is most visible: Edwards was capable of reading his “enemy” and receiving whatever truth he found there.

And he found a lot of truth in Locke. Rather than finding Locke a subversive influence, he found insights of Locke to be transformative. Rather than being re-created as a crypto-Unitarian, Edwards found his Calvinism rejuvenated by the real wisdom he discovered in Locke. Ultimately, Edwards commitment was to the person of Jesus revealed through the Christian tradition. Ultimately, Edwards saw that Locke’s insights rendered some of the theological baggage that went with the Puritan system meaningless, but that the meaningless baggage was non-essential. He was more grateful to Locke than otherwise, grateful to have theological non-sense pointed out so that it could be jettisoned.

But here, he had to tread a delicate path: he could not openly advocate Locke’s ideas. Not many of his friends were able to make the leap of understanding that Edwards could. They would have seen abandoning the peripheral accretions as being abandoning the center. They could not distinguish what Puritanism truly stood for from what it had come to stand for. Over the century of Massachusetts existence, the theological jargon they used had gradually altered in meaning into something that was really different from the original but which still seemed to be the real thing. Their “fundamentals” had little by little crawled to a very different place and carried them with it. For Edwards to openly say what he thought would have gotten him branded, inappropriately, as a traitor. So he had to try to push the fundamental concepts back onto their original foundation. It made the liberals hate him, and it made those who ought to have been his natural friends suspicious.

As the Christian/Unitarian battle lines were being drawn, a series of sermons on Justification by Faith became the instrument of the first instance of the Great Awakening. Next to Arminianism and Anglicanism, the Puritans feared Enthusiasm, what we would call emotionalism, outward drama. His grandfather Stoddard had encouraged the routine of having revivals, and in his day it was looked on with suspicion except that it worked. What happened with Edwards far outstripped his grandfather. By the end of the year, virtually the entire village had been affected and become communicant members of his congregation. Their long problem of gossip and strife and feuding ended and they enjoyed a time of peace and unity in their community that they had never had. Adolescents became respectful and carousing and swearing nearly disappeared.

And then Edwards’ cousin committed suicide. The records are very silent on the details of why it happened; families did not talk about family secrets. One of his relatives had ordered him to stop preaching the sermons on Justification; too many of the applications challenged their business practices and their privileged social position. Justification by faith is the great leveler of all people, after all. The son of the suicide was a youth and developed a hatred for Edwards and plotted his slow revenge, but when the revenge was finally extracted and Edwards was sent from the town in disgrace and had died, that son wrote a public letter apologizing to the colony for the evil they had committed against Edwards. Thus the most intriguing event in Edwards life remains unknowable.

The suicide, however, ended the renewal at that time and the town went back to its argumentative ways. But the Awakening returned after a little over a year when Whitefield came to town. Again, there were dramatic manifestations of the Spirit, much like the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements of today, but this time the effects on the community were quite different from the year when Edwards had been the vanguard. The internal strife in the community did not decrease but actually increased. In part this resulted from Whitefield’s message which encouraged Christians to judge their ministers and leave churches in which, in their opinion, the minister was unconverted. Churches split around the colonies wherever Whitefield preached and a spirit of judgmentalism grew . But this spell of Awakening also involved a dramatic increase in promiscuity and in illegitimate pregnancies. By the time the tendencies of this Awakening were obvious, Whitefield had moved on and Edwards was left holding the bag.

Edwards was appalled at the direction things were going and decided that he would have to now turn his preaching against the extremes he saw coming out of the movement, urging people to focus on what was real and what was important, to not be deceived by the flesh. He wrote a book on the true marks of a work of the Spirit. Still to those who were caught up in the excitement of the movement, especially in his own town, he now seemed to be a traitor.

But this was the pattern of the Great Awakening everywhere in the colonies: divisions, quarrels, animosity, and licentiousness, disrespect toward human authority. The situation became so bad that it alarmed even the people involved in the movement. Before long the sanity of the people of Massachusetts made them turn against the Awakening; and the liberal leaders, who had never supported the Awakening in the first place, seemed vindicated. But Edwards, who had been the leader was still imagined as the cause of the problem. In this way Edwards became an outcast to both sides.

There was yet one more strand in the tragedy of his life. He had been installed at his grandfather’s church and was looked upon as his grandfather’s successor. Solomon Stoddard had been legendary in Massachusetts in his day, the “Pope of the West” he was called, and he had hand picked his successor. Edwards had a lot to live up to in a society that revered their heritage. While Edwards was seen as Stoddard’s successor, nothing could hurt him. It was at this point that he stepped outside his grandfather’s shadow and the result was fatal.

Solomon Stoddard had made the unprecedented move of opening church membership to anyone, without requiring them to make a profession of faith. It was called “the Half-way Covenant”. People were admitted to church on the basis of the expectation that they would come to faith eventually. The excesses of the Awakening convinced Edwards that this was a mistake that could no longer be allowed. He re-instituted the practice of requiring a public profession of faith from people seeking church membership, and “all hell broke loose”. Now Edwards became a traitor to their heritage, to his own grandfather. Even the liberals, who only used the words of the Puritan tradition but had long since abandoned the meaning of the words, could point to Edwards as a traitor. His fall from esteem but meteoric and final.

He left Northampton in disgrace, but never betrayed to the people of the village what he must have been feeling. He went on to be the pastor of a white church that had been established as a mission to the Indians in western Massachusetts. It had been successful when it was first established, but by the time Edwards arrived it had fallen into being a spiritual pretense for greed, an instrument to exploit the Indians and take their land. Again, it was one of Edward’s relatives who was the leading culprit and against whom he spent his last efforts. By the end of his few years there the situation was dangerous enough that he sent his children away for their safety. At last, exhausted physically, he was offered the position as President of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton.  He didn’t want the job because he felt that he wasn’t qualified, but his fellow ministers urged him to take it. When he arrived in Princeton, they were in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. He had himself vaccinated, but was too weakened by long grief and age that he contracted the disease and died before he could begin his new duties.

With the right screen play and the right director and the right actors, Edwards’ life could make an excellent film. Therefore I hope no Christian group tries to do this as a project. No offense to Christians in the arts, but making art as an evangelistic tool is to make non-art, and it would ruin the material for anyone else who might think of doing a similar project. Edwards’ life was a tragedy, but exactly the kind of tragedy that Jesus’ life was. The town of Northampton did everything, short of crucifixion, that they could have done to him, as Perry Miller pointed out. On the other hand, his life was exactly the sort of the tragedy that is the highest calling we can have, to suffer in the same way God has suffered. Edwards, of course, was not sinless. He was just an ordinary person, unusually bright, but seriously convinced of certain ideas and principles that he held to. Some of his theology is alien to me, but that cannot hide our kinship, and it cannot ultimately tarnish his final admirability. Well done good and faithful fellow servant.

Benjamin Franklin’s Religion

July 22, 2010

A month or two ago I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. It took quite a long time, it is a hefty book, but if you have been bitten by the history bug it is worth it. I wasted so much of my life avoiding knowing anything about history that now I am making up lost time, but this is not a book review. This is about Benjamin Franklin’s religious views in so far as I understand them from this one book; I did read Franklin’s autobiography but so long ago it hardly counts.

Franklin was raised in a devoutly Puritan home, taught good Calvinist theology, and turned away from it. I spent part of my life rather enamored of the Puritans, and to some extent I still find admirable qualities in their thinking and their lives. I was curious why, of the two great geniuses of mid-eighteenth century America, one – Benjamin Franklin – ran away from it and never looked back, while the other – Jonathan Edwards – became the greatest American theologian of his century. These two men form the north and south poles of the American spirituality that developed afterwards and it seems worthwhile to think about it.

Franklin was at first a Deist. Now Deism is a theological view for which I can find nothing respectable. Franklin, while attracted to its rationalist character, soon realized that Deism was lacking a fundamental quality that he desired in religion: a moral standard. The Deists may have been rational (I’ll withhold my opinion on that one as too big a can of worms), but they had no foundation on which to build an ethical code.  Franklin did not last many years as an enthusiastic Deist and had soon drifted back toward a slightly more biblical framework. Slightly. Franklin was most essentially a pragmatist; what he wanted from a religion was some guidance on the best way to live, and the Deists had nothing helpful on that score.

Franklin was in the center of the religious storm that was raging in that century. It was the time of the Great Awakening, the first charismatic renewal to hit America, and one of the great evangelists of the day, George Whitefield, was a close acquaintance and correspondent with Franklin until his death. Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house, Franklin attended many of Whitefield’s tent meetings, and Franklin thought so highly of Whitefield’s sermons that he occasionally published the entire text on the front page of his newspaper. Whitefield is what today would be called an evangelical. He was his century’s Billy Graham.

But he had little effect on Franklin’s faith. Franklin cast around through his whole youth for what was viable spiritually and did not find it in traditional Christianity. The evangelists, the denominations ranging from Puritan to Congregationalist to Presbyterian to Anglican to Quaker to Deist left him unsatisfied and he filled in the vacancy according to his own abilities.

The result was summarized shortly before he died. Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale, wrote to Franklin asking him to summarize his religious views. His response was brief and to the point. He believed in one God, that God was benevolent, that men ought to worship God, and that the service God expected was that we do good to our fellow man. Franklin’s ethical code put service to mankind at the pinnacle of righteousness and he endeavored to live by his code.

The weakness in a “self-made religion” in Franklin’s case was that it was notably lax in personal morality. I don’t just mean sexual morality; I mean simple kindness toward others. Franklin treated his wife incredibly cruelly, all but abandoning her, leaving her alone for the last decade of her life while she grew old and lonely and died. He had found other more intelligent and interesting women in France and in England that over shadowed his commitment to Deborah. He was cold to his devoted daughter Sally, who always tried to win his approval and never got it. He was positively cruel to his illegitimate son, William, whose wedding he would not attend, whose son he turned against him, for whom he refused to intercede when he languished in a patriot prison for being loyal to the British government and during which imprisonment his wife died, and whom he abandoned in England after the war with no kind word whatsoever. Franklin went so far in his unkindness to William as to insist that the peace treaty ending the Revolution had provisions that would ensure William would get no compensation for losing everything in the war. The practice of taking revenge, of holding a grudge, of refusing to forgive, these are all things Franklin could have been cautioned to avoid in church, as the most basic of Christian ethics, but somehow never heard.

Ezra Stiles did ask him one other revealing question: did he believe in Jesus? Franklin’s response is the revealing part: he told Stiles that no one had ever asked him that question. In the middle of what must be the eighteenth century Bible belt, all through being in the center of the Great Awakening and hobnobbing with the greatest evangelist of his day, no one had ever asked if he believed in Jesus, or what he believed about Jesus. Perhaps it is an indication of my own prejudices here, but isn’t what Christians believe about Jesus the center of everything Christians believe? Isn’t the character and person of Jesus the foundation of all Christian belief and life and thinking and speaking, or shouldn’t it be? The only adequate way to describe my reaction to this bit of information is that I was flummoxed. Franklin went on to respond that at that late point in his life he didn’t think it was worthwhile thinking about the question since he would know the answer soon enough by direct experience.

But now that I think about it, I am not surprised. I grew up in the so-called Bible Belt. Down there everyone was a professing Christian. It only occurred to me recently to wonder why that part of the country was never called, was never in danger of being called, “the Jesus Belt”. Perhaps it is simply a long standing part of the American tradition to emphasize commitment to the Bible and as far as possible leave Jesus out of it. That explains a lot that might otherwise be puzzling about American history. We have invented a “Christianity without Christ”, fundamentalist Christian no less than the more up-front liberal Christian. How else could we get away with calling ourselves a Christian nation while behaving as un-Christ-like as we have? The question as to whether Benjamin Franklin was a Christian or not (which is an absurd question for a Christian to ask anyway) is unanswerable anyway. He had never heard the gospel, the essence of what is most important and basic to the faith. He had neither accepted nor rejected faith, he simply had no idea what it was about. It suggests to me that we have always been a nation of people who didn’t know what was going on, who didn’t know what the questions were. We have never been a Christian nation. At best we have been a Christianish nation.