The life and struggles of Jonathan Edwards cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of the character and theology of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who preceded Edwards in the Northampton pulpit. Though Edwards now stands alone in history, during his life he lived in the shadow of the great man who had gone before him. Solomon Stoddard was referred to as the "Pope" of the Connecticut Valley and was revered almost as a god in that area. It was when Edwards departed from Stoddard's idea of church membership and the sacraments that he was rejected and expelled from his congregation. Though Stoddard had died more than twenty years before, his ideas were still alive in the minds of the people of Northampton.
Solomon Stoddard was born in Boston, Massachusetts in September, 1643. He was one of fifteen sons born to Anthony Stoddard, a wealthy Boston merchant. Solomon's mother was Mary Downing, Anthony's second wife and a niece of Governor John Winthrop. Stoddard graduated with two degrees from Harvard in 1662. He later served as Harvard's first librarian. In 1667, because of struggles with his health, Stoddard traveled to Barbados to be the local chaplain to the Congregationalists. In 1669, Stoddard returned to Boston and planned to sail for England, but his plans were permanently altered when he was invited to preach at Northampton.
The town of Northampton was a frontier outpost settled in 1654 for economic reasons rather than religious ones. There was no official church until 1661, when the citizens voluntarily decided to become a Puritan community. Eleazar Mather, brother of Increase Mather, was asked to become their minister. In 1664, the Half-Way Covenant was proposed, which allowed the children of non-church members to be baptized. Although Mather disagreed with the Half-Way Covenant, the church in Northampton was one of the first churches to adopt the proposal. When Mather died in 1669, Stoddard was selected as a candidate for the position partly because of his support of the Half-Way Covenant. Stoddard was asked to be the pastor in 1670. He promptly accepted, married Esther Warham Mather, the widow of Eleazar Mather, and settled in to the house of his predecessor. He took care of Esther's three children as if they were his own, and to those three Stoddard and Esther added twelve more. Stoddard was to remain at Northampton for the next sixty years until his death in 1729.
Stoddard was essentially Calvinistic in his theology. He held to the fundamental tenets of Reformed Christianity: "God's arbitrary dispensation of free grace and His command of worship." Although in his basic doctrine Stoddard remained committed to Puritan theology, he shocked the church with his liberal views on church membership, the sacraments, and church government.
With the Half-Way Covenant, baptism was made available to the children of non-covenant members. Generally, though, these children grew up without having an "experience" of grace. Thus, they joined their parents in not being eligible for Communion. When the majority of the town was refused the Table, Stoddard decided to change something. After much consideration, he went beyond the Half-Way Covenant by doing away with degrees of membership. Everyone now was in the category of a "state of education." This included anyone who "owned the covenant," whether they could relate an experience of grace or not. Stoddard did not require an experience of grace because he believed that something of that nature could not be judged by other humans. In his first treatise, published in 1687 and entitled The Safety of Appearing at the Day of Judgment in the Righteousness of Christ, Stoddard claimed that although there are some external signs of grace, the church cannot know for sure if someone has been converted. Only God can see into a man's soul. A church cannot expect someone to profess their faith and then have it inquired into to prove it true. In changing this standard, Stoddard believed that he was protecting the covenant of grace from men who would impose upon it their idea of the experience of grace.
Evangelism was of great importance to Stoddard. He cared deeply about those struggling spiritually. He longed to see everyone as a part of the church body, and he thought that those who had not yet experienced grace but were interested in religious things might receive their salvation if they were brought into the church. The irony of Stoddard's liberal changes was that the Puritans had originally broken with a church that admitted the unsaved. Within a century, the Puritan church had gone full circle.
Since everyone in the church was classified in the same category, Communion was open to everyone. Stoddard thus expanded the Half-Way Covenant by "admitting to the Lord's Supper those who were unable to give a personal 'narrative of grace'" as long as they were not guilty of any heresy or scandal. Stoddard defended his "open communion," as it came to be called, by claiming that the sacraments were a "converting ordinance." Communion was not simply a special privilege for church members; it was also a means God used to reach the unregenerate. It is thought that Stoddard himself received his experience of grace at the Lord's Table after several years as a minister. He was not a member of any church until he joined at Northampton in 1672, three years after he began his ministry there. The story claims that he was giving the Lord's Supper one Sunday when he was overcome with the sovereignty and grace of God. If this story is true, it would help to explain Stoddard's passion regarding open communion.
Stoddard also broke with Puritan tradition in the area of church government. Congregational church government in New England consisted of autonomous churches that settled debates within the church or by asking neighboring churches. Stoddard found this system quite ineffective, and he boldly departed from even the basic idea. The Puritan churches had been founded on the idea of the covenant. They believed that each church was a covenant of the people between themselves and God. In the Doctrine of Instituted Churches (1700), Stoddard declared that individual church covenants were unscriptural, and the church government structure was unfounded. Stoddard defined a church as "a society of saints joined together, according to the appointment of Christ for the constant carrying on of his public worship." He supported a Presbyterian-style of government, where the pastor was elected by the church body but then received almost ultimate power. The pastor was assisted by church elders, also elected by the body. Except for the electing of their leaders, the congregation had basically no power. Congregations were overseen by authoritative synods. These were comprised of both ministers and lay representatives. Together the synods would produce a national church. Stoddard's idea became quite popular in the Connecticut Valley and northern Massachusetts. He and other ministers formed the Hampshire Association, which disciplined churches of the Connecticut Valley, even though the group was never given a legal warrant. Stoddard ended up with great authority and power, both in his local congregation and in New England. This position led to his nickname, "Pope" of the Connecticut Valley.
Stoddard thought that there was generally a long preparation period before someone received salvation. In his mind, those who were interested in religious things were in the beginning stages of this preparation. The pastor's role in this development was to preach terror to the congregation. Stoddard was a very forceful preacher, who strongly spoke the realities of Hell and the judgment of God. He once wrote that ""the word is an Hammer, and we should use it to break the rocky hearts of men. Work of humiliation" was also necessary for someone to realize their complete need for Christ. This "work of humiliation" required that "men should try their best to save themselves, because only by having done so would they really understand that it wasn't sufficient. Once an unbeliever came to recognize his sin and need for Christ's salvation, a pastor was to encourage the unbeliever's soul and prepare it for grace. Stoddard felt vernced great success in Northampton. Five brief revivals (1679, 1683, 1696, 1712, and 1718) occurred during his ministry there. Due to the number of revivals, Northampton was nicknamed the most "enthusiastical" town in the colonies. Stoddard found great respect and reverence within his church. As the intellectual and moral leader, he was characterized as a great Father-figure or Patriarch, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He provided his people with "stern behavioral judgment and gentle emotional support." In Jonathan Edwards' later description the people admired him almost as a deity. Stoddard found great respect throughout New England, though many disagreed with his liberal views. He was invited each year to give the infamous election sermon in Boston on the day following Harvard's commencement. He preached the sermon each year until 1719 when Stoddard was too old to travel the distance. At his funeral, Reverend Doctor Benjamin Colman described him as "a Prophet and a Father not only to the neighboring churches of his own county, but also to those of the whole land." He also stated that there was "none more diligent and laborious in his studies; none more lively, fervent and unwearied in the Pulpit"
Such was the reputation of the man Jonathan Edwards succeeded in Northampton. As the congregation watched Stoddard get older, they prayed that God would bless Edwards as He had blessed his grandfather and that the torch would be passed from Stoddard to Edwards as from Elijah to Elisha. Edwards did faithfully adopt the ministry in Northampton, but he was slowly convinced that the bold stances of his grandfather on church membership and the sacraments were mistaken. He believed that the Puritan founders had been correct in desiring a pure church, where full membership and participation in the sacraments were kept closed to all but visible saints. He demanded a profession of faith and an experience of grace for Communion, doing away with the Half-Way Covenant. His official split with Stoddard came in 1749 in An Humble Inquiry. Although it was no easy decision for Edwards to break away from the man he considered his father-figure, the congregation considered it a direct attack on their Patriarch and an act of treason to the community. They felt like Edwards' last twenty years of ministry had been lived in hypocrisy and a pretended allegiance to his predecessor. In their extreme anger, the congregation removed him from the church within two years.
The turmoil and struggle of Edwards' last years at Northampton were directly related to his differences in theology from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. The legend and character of Stoddard continued to haunt Edwards even twenty years after Stoddard's death. Though history now praises the name of Jonathan Edwards, the people of his day reserved their reverence for his grandfather. When Edwards died, most papers only mentioned it in a sentence, but when Stoddard passed away, all of New England mourned. His eulogy, which was over a column long was published in the Boston News-Letter, saying that he was "too Eminent a Person to be suffer'd to slip into his Grave in silence." He should not continue to rest in silence, either, because a true study of Jonathan Edwards cannot find completion without him.
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