Jonathan Edwards 6: Division in Northampton
The previous article in this series summarised Edwards’ teaching on revival.1
One day in May 1747 David Brainerd, who for the previous four years had laboured with some success among the American Indians, arrived at the Edwards’ home. Brainerd was ill from tuberculosis and was to spend in the Northampton parsonage most of the brief time — just over four months — he had yet to live. This was a man who could write in his diary: ‘I saw clearly that I should never be happy, yea, that God Himself could not make me happy unless I could be in capacity to please and glorify Him for ever’.2 He was, he said, longing for the holiness of heaven. Edwards wrote to a friend: ‘Mr Brainerd is a very desirable man indeed; I am glad I have had such an opportunity of acquaintance with him’.3 It was a time of division in the congregation and Edwards must have appreciated these days of spiritual communion with the younger man.
The Edwards’ daughter Jerusha nursed him in his illness, regarding him ‘as an eminent servant of Jesus Christ’. And the following year Jerusha herself took ill and died five days later. Brainerd, it seems, had a high regard for her also; he ‘looked on her’, said her father, ‘not only as a saint, but as a very eminent saint’. She was, Edwards said also, ‘esteemed the flower of the family’, and her death must have been a very sore blow. Brainerd had committed his personal papers to Edwards to be disposed of as he thought ‘would be most for God’s glory and the interest of religion’. Here was a man whose religious affections were indeed the result of the work of the Spirit of God, and at once Edwards laid aside the other books he was preparing and began to write Brainerd’s Life, drawing heavily from his diary.4 This volume proved to be the most popular of all Edwards’ writings.
It was when the outward signs of revival had faded away that the biggest trial of Edwards’ life burst over his head. Solomon Stoddard had for most of his ministry admitted individuals to the Lord’s table who made no profession of conversion, provided they had a competent knowledge of the Scriptures and were not guilty of open sin. During most of his time in Northampton, Edwards had followed his grandfather’s example. But over a considerable period, he moved towards a more scriptural view on the matter. At about this time, however, his authority in the community was undermined by a case of discipline which involved a number of young men.
Five years passed during which no one applied for membership in the congregation. But at the end of 1748 there was such an applicant and Edwards told him that he must make a profession of saving faith before he could become a communicant. This the applicant was unwilling to do, although Edwards believed that the man was indeed converted. News of Edwards’ response to this application caused a degree of disturbance in the town. He proposed to the Committee of the Church that he would explain in a sermon the reasons for his change of mind. This was opposed, though it was accepted that it was proper for Edwards to inform the Church of his reasons. Accordingly Edwards at once began to write what was to become a substantial book.
Another applicant for membership, who gave her minister ‘a hopeful account of her religious experience’, was willing to make a profession of faith such as Edwards was looking for, if the Committee of the Church would agree to accept it. But 12 of the 15 members of the Committee argued that to do so would be to prejudge the issue at stake. At this stage Edwards offered to resign if the people still rejected his views after reading his book. Within a few months, Edwards’ book was ready for the printer and by the middle of August 1749 copies were available in Northampton. Almost nobody, however, read the book and the controversy rumbled on throughout the year.
In February of the following year, at a series of five weekday lectures, Edwards presented the case for his new position on church membership. On the first of these Thursdays, not many of his congregation turned up but the Church was full, with people from elsewhere. Edwards seems to have made no impression, at least on the bulk of the congregation. After a number of meetings of a council composed of representatives of nearby churches, a further meeting on 19 June 1750 concluded by a small majority that the pastoral relation between minister and congregation should be dissolved. The council had previously taken steps to ascertain the mind of the congregation — when only 23 of the approximately 230 male members voted to support their minister. A proportion of them, it should be noted, had been admitted to membership without ever making a profession of saving faith and many of them would have felt uncomfortable, to say the least, about admission to the Lord’s table being in future confined to those who felt able to make such a profession. Edwards believed, however, that he had more support among the female part of the congregation, but they did not have a vote.
One member of the council who was sympathetic to the dismissed pastor noted:
That faithful witness received the shock unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future, but a present, good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission.5
Five days after Edwards preached his farewell sermon, he wrote with amazing calmness to William M’Culloch, minister of Cambuslang, near Glasgow, which had itself been the scene of a remarkable revival in 1742:
I am now separated from the people between whom and me there was once the greatest union. Remarkable is the providence of God in this matter. In this event we have a striking instance of the instability and uncertainty of all things here below.6
Looking back on the causes of the trouble, Edwards noted that there were various factors which had combined to foster pride among the people of Northampton. These included their religious knowledge and their increasing outward prosperity. But especially they were
a people that have excelled in gifts and grace and had God extraordinarily among them, which has insensibly engendered and nourished spiritual pride, that grand inlet of the devil in the hearts of men, and avenue of all manner of mischief among a professing people. Spiritual pride is a most monstrous thing. If it be not discerned and vigorously opposed in the beginning, it very often soon raises persons above their teachers and supposed spiritual fathers and sets them out of the reach of all rule and instruction. . . There is great reason to think that the Northampton people have provoked God greatly against them by trusting in their privileges and attainment.7
There can be no doubt that for Edwards to attempt single-handedly to turn around the whole basis of religious profession in Northampton was a massive undertaking, especially in view of the regard in which Stoddard was still held and also the frictions which already existed in the congregation. Indeed the town had been notorious for its party spirit for over 30 years. Edwards believed, as he looked back, that he should earlier have done more to teach the people to distinguish between true spiritual experience and false, for, he said, ‘many of them never could be made to learn to distinguish between impressions on the imagination and living spiritual experience’.8
Nor was the situation helped by the absence of an eldership, which had been allowed to die out in his grandfather’s time. But, besides God’s wise yet often-inscrutable providence, we must bear in mind the words of the Saviour: ‘An enemy hath done this’. Edwards wrote to Thomas Gillespie, another of his Scottish correspondents: ‘I believe the devil is greatly alarmed by the opposition made to the lax doctrine of admission to the Christian church’.
He knew that his conscience was clear in connection with the communion controversy, but with manifest humility he wrote:
God knows the wickedness of my heart and the great and sinful deficiencies and offences which I have been guilty of in the course of my ministry at Northampton. I desire that God would discover them to me more and more, and that now He would effectually humble me and mortify my pride and self-confidence, and empty me entirely of myself and make me to know how that I deserve to be cast away as an abominable branch and as a vessel wherein is no pleasure.9
- This article is taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, December 2006. Other articles in this series on Jonathan Edwards appear on the website as follows:
1. A New Sort of Affection on June 20th 2006.
2. Eager Pursuits after Holiness on August 22nd 2006.
3. A Time of Surprising Conversions on August 29th 2006.
4. A Considerable Work of God on September 19th 2006.
5. Analysing the Revival on December 4th 2006.
7. Stockbridge and Princeton on March 16th 2007.
They are taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine of June, July, August, September, & October 2006 and December 2007.
- Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography, p. 305.
A New Biography
The previous article in this series summarised Edwards’ teaching on revival.1 One day in May 1747 David Brainerd, who for the previous four years had laboured with some success among the American Indians, arrived at the Edwards’ home. Brainerd was ill from tuberculosis and was to spend in the Northampton parsonage most of the brief […]
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 304.
Preface and Reflections by Jonathan Edwards
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 327.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 333.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 341.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 343.
- Quoted in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, p. 343.
- In a letter to Rev. Thomas Gillespie, 1 July 1751 — see The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, p. cxxxii.
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