Solomon Stoddard, minister in Northampton Massachusetts, is viewed as one of the most important ministers of the Eighteenth century. Stoddard's attempts to save New England from a "dying religion" did not go unnoticed. In fact, they created some of the biggest controversies in Eighteenth century New England. These controversies did not only affect his generation of ministers, but the results of these debates would also affect the next generation of ministers. Through his views on communion and the ministry, one regards the importance of Stoddard's reputation, personality, and political influence which may have attributed to the dismissal of his predecessor, Jonathan Edwards, in the next generation of Northampton ministry.
Solomon Stoddard grew up in a prominent family where his father, Anthony Stoddard, was a wealthy aristocrat, and his mother was the niece of John Winthrop. In 1662 Solomon graduated from Harvard college in Boston. From there he spent some time as a Chaplain in Barbados. Upon his return to America, Solomon felt the need to return to England; even amidst all the fighting there. However, as he prepared to depart for the homeland, he received the calling to Northampton Church. Solomon accepted the offer, and in 1670 he arrived in Northamptom where he would marry the recently widowed Esther Mather, and take over her husband's position in the pulpit. But, it was not until two years later that Solomon Stoddard would be assured of his conversion. Upon this assurance, Stoddard ordained himself in the Northapton Church.
In 1677 Solomon Stoddard assured himself of his conversion while administering the Lord's Supper. His sermon at the Table overwhelmed him with emotion as he caught a glimpse of Christ's presence, and His glorious love. Thus, because of his revelation, Stoddard felt that "the place where the soul was likely to receive spiritual light and understanding was at the Lord's Table" (Murray 79). Stoddard's communion controversy, later in life, reveals the importance of this revelation. After his ordination that same year, Stoddard remained in the pulpit for 55 years, where his ideas would not be easily understood, or excepted.
Solomon Stoddard's concepts of theology were not widely excepted either by fellow clergy or laymen, in New England. First, Stoddard felt that ministry was a key ordinance in bringing people to the Lord. Therefore, his main goal, as an evangelist, was converting the hearts of sinners. Solomon believed that the only source of salvation was God's Word and it was most effective when applied to powerful preaching. Furthermore, he felt that if a community continued to remain unconverted, then there must be one of two things happening: (1) the preacher himself was unconverted, or (2) the preacher needed to upgrade his sermons in order to reach the hearts of the unconverted. This, Solomon felt, called for a revision in church policy. Stoddard wanted to develop, what he called, the Instituted Church, in order to preserve purity among the ministers. Each individual church would be instructed through a national church, which would determine the proper qualifications for ministers (Murray 330). The redemption of the sinner's soul proved to be the evangelical purpose of this church. The idea gained no support from neither his congregation or others. Therefore one assumes that Stoddard's popularity and influence in New England stems from his personality, rather than his theological beliefs. Consequently, the other New England Ministers felt that Stoddard endangered the unity of New England's Way with his new ideas.
The second, and perhaps most important debate that Solomon Stoddard faced was the communion controversy. Because of his conversion experience, Solomon stressed the importance of an open communion which would be used as a converting ordinance. So, in 1677 all members of the community who were instructed in Christian doctrine, made a public profession of faith in Christ, were living decent lives, although unregenerate, could participate in communion (Davies 159). Therefore, opening the door for an expansion of the halfway covenant by allowing baptism to unregenerate children. Stoddard justified these changes in Puritan tradition by explaining that the prevailing thought, regarding the church covenant, contained no biblical background for its tradition of allowing only regenerate members to partake of communion (Gilsdorf 141). Furthermore, Stoddard explains that no man can see the heart of another, only God can. God's unconditioned will allows equal rights for every man to be a member of the elect people who participate in communion (Gilsdorf 142). Therefore, no church covenant meant no distinction between sinners and saints, hence, everyone who fit his criteria could take communion. However, Stoddard's change in the Sacraments showed no great increase in the number of communicants.
Because of the lack of increase in communicants, Stoddard made two motions to the Northampton Church in 1690; (1) abolish the public profession of faith in front of the church, and (2) appoint the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. The first passed by a majority and as a result the population of Northampton doubled from 500 to 1000 in twenty years. Also, it brought an increase in the number of communicants from about 70 to nearly 400 (Murray 88). Though, the latter was not as successful and the motion was denied, the younger people in the church were behind it and they supported Stoddard in the vote. Consequently, these members would be those who oppose Jonathan Edwards' ideas later in the century. The elders of the church strongly disagreed with viewing the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. Therefore, these statistics show the significant factors which may have attributed to the dismissal of Jonathan Edwards, and the influence that Stoddard made in the last few decades of his life.
Solomon Stoddard's radical thought, in a time of Puritan tradition, opposed all other thought in the early Eighteenth century. However, Stoddard's influence lived on to affect the next generation. The results of his movements, and his ministry, impact the Northampton church and develop changes in theological ideas for the congregation. Thus, when Jonathan Edwards steps into the pulpit, in 1725, and attempts to purify the church, back to the New England Way, the congregation dismisses him for opposing Solomon Stoddard's way. So, from his controversies, one concludes that Stoddard's personality, reputation, and political influence, attributed to the disunity of the New England Way and the change of theological thought in the generations to come.