Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Solomon Stoddard: Theology of Controversy

by Katy Shamess

In Puritan history, Jonathan Edwards reigns as America's foremost theologian, but it is imperative that one discover the foundation upon which his theology was built. That past grows most obviously out of the theology and ministry of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. For 55 years, Stoddard held an unprecedented amount of power in the Connecticut River Valley. He was known to many as the "Pope" of the Valley, even though his theology was not widely accepted. Historians remember Stoddard as the pioneer of the Halfway Covenant, but his ideas covered a wide variety of topics and foreshadowed much of modern theological thought. Stoddard's past contributed greatly to the development of his theological beliefs. Those beliefs, although extremely controversial during his lifetime, formed a powerful obstacle to his grandson upon his assumption of Northampton's pulpit. Stoddard's theological beliefs can be most easily identified by their contrast to mainstream Puritan thought.

Solomon Stoddard's life began in Boston in 1643. He was the son of Anthony Stoddard, a wealthy Boston merchant, and Mary Downing, a niece of John Winthrop. This placed him in the highest level of aristocratic New England society, a fact which contributed to part of his later theological twist. He graduated from Harvard in 1662, shortly thereafter becoming its first librarian. For reasons of health, he became chaplain in Barbados from 1667 to 1669. Upon his return to the colonies, he prepared to head toward England, but received a call to a congregation in Northampton, which he followed in 1670. A few months following the death of their former pastor, Eleazar Mather, Stoddard married Mather's widow, Esther, moved into his house, and took over his pulpit. They had twelve children, a circumstance which contributed substantially to the growth of Stoddard's power base (Jones 104-05). Although he began preaching in 1670, he was not ordained until 1672, when he realized the full meaning of communion, and knew that his conversion was complete. "By reason of this peculiar experience of his he was led to think, that the place where the soul was likely to receive spiritual light and understanding was at the Lord's Table" (Murray 79). This incident made a profound impression upon the remainder of Stoddard's life, most notably in his vision of communion as a "converting ordinance" (Jewett 118). He remained minister in Northampton for 55 years, never missing a Sunday service. In 1725, his congregation decided to bring in an assistant to help him (Jones 107). They chose his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, a man who, though remarkable in his own right, lived perpetually beneath "his dominant grandfather's mastery of the congregation" (Levin 43). In addition to the influence of his children, Stoddard's power rested in his personality, political influence, pulpit, and preaching (Jones 107). One man describes Stoddard with a poem:

The shadow of Solomon Stoddard's beliefs and charisma hung over Edwards as he preached under Stoddard's eye until his death in 1729, and continued to haunt him until he was finally dismissed from the Northampton congregation twenty years later.

It is remarkable that a man such as Stoddard could have such an impact upon the person considered to be Puritan New England's greatest theologian. In his theology, Stoddard contradicted nearly every standard belief of his Puritan colleagues. Puritan theology, first and foremost, stressed a strict methodology in salvation. Everyone was supposed to experience conversion in a certain order, but Stoddard rejected this idea. He believed that everyone had to experience God's glory for himself through Nature or through Scripture (Jones 108). When one sees this glory for himself, his will is automatically affected. Stoddard explains, "The gloriousness of God has a commanding power on the heart" (qtd. in Jones 109). According to Stoddard's thought, conversion came experientially rather than through any set process or amount of education. When others claim that God's will draws people to him through a general process, Stoddard replies that people are drawn to God's goodness (110). This belief is reflected in his grandson, who "cared nothing for the spirit of Harvard and he took delight in wishing `to lie infinitely low before God'" (122). As opposed to other theologians of their day, neither Stoddard nor Edwards believed that education was a necessary step in the process of salvation. For Stoddard, there is a progression on the path to salvation, but it is a different progression for each person. First, a man perceives the divine beauty. When he realizes that he can not do anything to merit salvation, he becomes dependent upon God and finally, his will turns to follow God (112). Since it is dependent upon each man's perception of God, Stoddard posited that the experience of conversion could not be reduced to a formula, regardless of the dictates of Puritan tradition.

Stoddard's controversial position was further exemplified through his continuous debates with Cotton and Increase Mather. As leaders of one of Boston's primary churches, Cotton Mather held an enormous amount of influence during Stoddard's lifetime. Stoddard, however, could not be swayed by Mather's arguments. The entire congregational system, in fact, eventually adopted Stoddard's stance on communion. Still, Mather remained a formidable opponent for Stoddard throughout his ministry. One primary way in which they differed was their outlook on Nature. Cotton Mather, first of all, viewed nature as an expression of God's will. Stoddard, on the other hand, believed that nature was simply a pathway through which God demonstrated his glory. The purpose of using this pathway was, of course, to lead to conversion. The Mathers were also obsessed with preserving Puritan tradition, but Stoddard would disregard tradition if it would aid in the conversion of his congregation. He used all of the Puritan traditions as tools for conversion, not as ends in themselves (Jones 113). As Stoddard himself explained, "I have made it my business to gain Souls to Christ, and build them up in Faith and Holiness" (qtd. in Miller 236). Obviously, his methods were successful, judging by his five major periods of revival, or "harvests" (107).

Another stark contrast between Stoddard and the other Puritan leaders of his time was his belief in the strict dichotomy between the converted and the unconverted. This is due, in part, to his belief in the nature of the conversion experience. Stoddard would accept none of the Puritan rhetoric claiming that no one could discern whether or not he or she was saved. To Stoddard, there should be no question about one's salvation. However, assurance was certainly not an issue to be discussed and judged by the entire congregation, or by the minister. Like his own conversion experience, he believed that a person would know when he had been converted, because there exists a wide gap between those whom God had saved and those who were unregenerate (Jones 114-15). Contributing to this dichotomy was his view on the great differences between common and saving graces. Anyone could experience common grace, which Stoddard described as man "making his own salvation his last end" (qtd. in Jones 115). Those who experienced God's saving grace, however, would also experience conversion. Saving grace is "making the glory of God his last end" (qtd. in Jones 115). The motivation of men is another instance of strict dichotomy in Stoddard's theology. This motivation attaches itself closely to the type of grace that man receives. The unregenerate, those who experience common grace, are, according to Stoddard, motivated by self-love. Therefore, they desire salvation for salvation's sake, or in order to avoid hell. The regenerate man, on the other hand, is motivated by his love toward God, which would be inspired by the saving grace bestowed upon him (126). In contrast to the leading theologians of his day, Stoddard would not accept any position that he viewed as a straying from the truth of the Bible.

One of the final notions emphasized by Stoddard was his conviction that the ministry must be converted in order to have a valid effect on their congregations. The popular view of criteria necessary to assume the pulpit was the idea that man followed a progression toward salvation. This progression, for those who were to become ministers, included a Harvard education as a step toward conversion. As already mentioned, both Stoddard and his grandson believed that education was secondary to the experience of God's grace. Stoddard stressed the importance of a converted ministry (Jones 116-17). When people were not being converted, Stoddard blamed low numbers of converts on the shabby preaching styles of his fellow ministers (Lucas 339). Stoddard also insisted upon the necessity of putting God's glory before man's salvation. He went so far as to say that men have to be willing to risk damnation in order to bring glory to God. Like many modern theologians might assert, Stoddard proclaimed, "Yet those that love God prefer his glory before their salvation: they are satisfied in the Wisdom and Justice of God in damning men for his honour; they desire salvation principally that they may honour God" (qtd. in Jones 122). Like the other Calvinists of his day, he emphasizes the sovereignty of God. There is nothing that man can do to earn his own salvation, regardless of how good he is. Like many Puritans, Stoddard completely rejects works-oriented salvation. On this point, the similarity between Stoddard and his grandson is clear. In a vein similar to that of Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Stoddard reinforces the idea that God's control over man is complete. God will extend mercy or judgment to people based upon his own feelings, not upon any other criteria developed by man (125). Therefore, though a Harvard education may aid in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, that sermon is useless unless the minister has experienced God's saving grace.

With such a powerful man in whose steps to tread, it is not shocking that Jonathan Edwards had trouble living up to people's expectations of him. Solomon Stoddard was an incredible preacher, a remarkable theologian, and, most important of all, an idealist committed to his beliefs. His willingness to stand behind his ideas made him respected by everyone he met. Though little known, Stoddard made a mark upon history paralleled by very few of his contemporaries.

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Last updated: 19 March 1998