November 14, 2003
Jonathan Edwards and his Dismissal from the Pastorate:
Was he the Cause or the Victim?
On February 15, 1729, the Northampton parish elected Jonathan Edwards as their head pastor because Solomon Stoddard, their previous pastor and Edwards’ grandfather, had died earlier that year. For nearly four years Edwards had assisted his grandfather in serving the Northampton church. Now, amidst the tensions between the new and old orders in the early American church, Edwards entered the scene, bringing with him revival of the Christian faith and life. Edwards, however, faced many difficulties as pastor – especially in the later years of his pastorate. On June 22, 1750, the board and parishioners dismissed Edwards from the Northampton parish. Edwards’ dismissal puzzles many scholars today. What issues factored into the release of a pastor who had served his parish for nearly twenty-four years following over half a decade of service by his well-respected grandfather? On the surface appears to have been Edwards’ declaration that communion was for those who professed Christian conversion and lived a godly life – a reversal of Stoddard’s practice of allowing unconverted members of the church to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Yet, behind this apparent controversy, there lay other tensions rooted in the social and political atmosphere of the day. Edward’s dismissal from the Northampton pastorate resulted from his response to the social and political atmosphere of his time, rather than from his specific theological beliefs regarding communion.
Issues of church membership and communion had been matters of discord within the church for over half a century. In 1662, the New England Synod introduced the Halfway Covenant to the Puritan churches. The majority of the churches accepted this covenant, with the Northampton fellowship at the forefront. The covenant gave church members who could not profess personal conversion experiences the right to baptize their children into the church. While this continued to exclude them and their children from partaking in the Lord’s Supper until a time when they could profess their own conversions, it allowed them to receive other benefits of church membership – benefits which included a certain level of social and political standing in the community.
The covenant, however, along with the benefits it offered to unregenerate members of the church, also brought problems of disunity. As for the effect the covenant had on Northampton at the time of Solomon Stoddard, Ola Winslow, in her biography on Jonathan Edwards claimed, “The Northampton church had been one of the first to ratify the new membership law, and had therefore been a divided company from the beginning of his pastorate.” This division of the church was evident in other ways. First, a church where only some of the members could commune was far from a united gathering of believers. Second, the church itself was split over whether this covenant was legitimate. Eleazar Mather, founder of the Northampton church, claimed that the Halfway Covenant threatened the conservative base of the still-developing church. Mather, however, died seven years later, and Solomon Stoddard, who supported the covenant, became the pastor. Likewise, the church members were divided among themselves, with some supporting Mather’s view and others supporting Stoddard. Thus, the disunity of the church was evident in two ways: those who were able to participate in communion on Sunday mornings with those who were not allowed and those who supported the Halfway Covenant with those in opposition.
Consequently, when Stoddard put forth his doctrine offering open communion to anyone who professed the doctrines of Christianity, the Northampton church at first found further division. Nevertheless, over time the church became more unified because Stoddard’s practice found support in a new generation of more liberal church members who replaced the older, stricter generation, and it brought together all members of the church in communion. Stoddard introduced his open communion doctrine in his 1907 publication An Appeal to the Learned after securing his position as head of the Northampton Church. He asserted that anyone who professed Christianity to be true and lived a moral life without scandal, regardless of whether they had experienced conversion, could commune. Further, he claimed that the Lord’s Supper could even bring the unregenerate to a conversion experience. Stoddard’s radical view on communion was not readily accepted. Increase Mather, the brother of Eleazar Mather, Increase’s son Cotton Mather, and Edward Taylor, a minister in Westfield, Massachusetts, were a few of the men who staunchly disagreed with Stoddard’s views on communion. In his biography on Jonathan Edwards George Marsden wrote,
To Taylor, Stoddard was demeaning the sacrament by encouraging people to partake, when there was no live coal in their heart that could be so inflamed. Taylor publicly attacked Stoddard’s views and admonished him personally for proposing to open the Lord’s Supper to “all above fourteen years of age, that live morally, and have catechisical knowledge of the principals of religion.”
Also, many of the original Northampton church members left the church. However, this was not the end of the story. Winslow wrote, “The Church prospered; revivals came; a new generation forgot that the Lord’s Supper had ever been denied to anyone of the communion.” Winslow claimed that over time a new generation of church members was raised up under Stoddard’s guidance. They were more unified in their belief of open communion, as well as in their church practice because now every church member could partake in the Lord’s Supper.
Accordingly, when Edwards entered the pastorate in 1727, the members were generally comfortable with the church doctrine and practices they had come to know under the relatively liberal guidance of Stoddard. Thus, Edwards gained the good favor of the parish as long as he stayed within the bounds Stoddard had created – which at first he did. However, when Edwards eventually felt the need to profess his belief that Stoddard had a mistaken view on communion and that the church needed reform, the parish rejected his reform. Winslow addressed two of the tensions that pitted the church against Edwards: the dispute over Edward’s salary, and the church discipline enacted against some youngsters in the “Bad Book” controversy.
The first of these, the salary dispute, had been an ongoing strain between Edwards and the church for over a decade. In the early 1730s, Edwards had written a letter asking for his salary when he found himself in need of the money that they had delayed giving to him. Later, in the 1740s, he had asked that his salary might be raised in order to support his growing family. His request was granted – although some in the parish held resentment toward him because they felt that he lived more lavishly than they lived, or at least than was necessary. In the following years, Edwards requested a fixed salary four times and was each time denied. Finally, in 1747 the church granted his request, but the financial struggles continued, as well as the strain of continually being under the watchful eye of suspicious and jealous neighbors who felt that he had been granted too much. Winslow records, “A letter of his daughter Sarah’s, written in the spring of 1748, indicates that the situation had grown so unpleasant that he had considered removal, ‘if a convenient opportunity present.’” Surely, for a long-standing pastor of over twenty years to consider leaving, the stress must have been great.
About the same time as his financial troubles, Edwards felt the scrutinizing and criticizing eyes of many in the church because of an instance of church discipline. Edwards found himself in a position of disciplining some youth in the church who had been reading and scandalously talking about a book on midwifery – a subject useful for a midwife, but not acceptable for the curious minds of youth. When he became aware of this wrongdoing, he brought it to the attention of the congregation following a Sunday service. It was normal in this day for the pastor to address issues of church discipline. Edwards, however, along with calling for the meeting of a committee to judge the matter at hand, read the names of the youth who were to appear before the committee without distinguishing between those who were accused of the wrong and those who were called as witnesses. A simple mistake, most likely, nevertheless, at a time of unrest and in a society where social and political status were tied up not only in the reputation of the family name but also the church standing, the event caused an uproar. The parents of those who had been wrongly accused were upset at Edwards and concerned about public opinion of their families. Although the episode was handled and then forgotten, questions lingered in the mind of the parishioners as to the pastor's authority in relation to that of the parents. In the eyes of the Northampton parish, Edwards had been more than untactful; he was on a downward spiral in which he would never gain back their favor.
Just as the unfortunate timing of the previously mentioned events factored into Edward’s dismissal, another event seemed to add to the church’s distrust of Edwards by putting him in direct contrast with the man they had revered so highly that in his honor they had called open communion, “Mr. Stoddard’s Way.” Besides the evident fact that Edward’s doctrine opposed Solomon Stoddard’s, the Stoddard name was on the minds of many in the congregation because of the death of his son, Colonel John Stoddard, on June 19, 1748. Colonel Stoddard, a well-respected and loved man, had served the community in another area of unrest in Northampton – the Indian raids. In 1747 and 1748, the residents of Northampton listened to stories as refuges from neighboring communities recounted terrible atrocities committed by local Indians. Colonel Stoddard, along with his good deeds in helping the community against these raids, was respected for the name he bore – Stoddard. Thus, when only a few months later the church became aware of Edwards’ radical views on communion and his plan to see the church reformed, they questioned the timing. Marsden asserted,
Edwards could hardly have picked a worse time to launch his conservative revolution. The dispirited town had lost its leading citizen – the last great Stoddard – and Edwards had lost his strongest ally. Almost immediately the pastor began a campaign that seemed to betray Stoddard’s name and memory. With John Stoddard out of the way, or so it seemed to Edwards’ opponents, he attempted a coup that would abolish Solomon Stoddard’s practices concerning church membership and the sacraments.
Consequently, the timing of Edward’s reform negatively affected its reception in another way – it raised concerns in the community that Edwards’ was disrespecting and challenging the beloved Stoddard.
It is beneficial to look at one further social aspect of the community and how it affected the rejection of Edward’s doctrine. As some of the congregation had felt that their names and status where threatened in the case with the book on midwifery practices, the doctrine of Edward’ communion appeared to endanger their social status in another way. Edwards’ view would repudiate the Halfway Covenant by requiring that members of the church profess a conversion experience and demonstrate evidence of a godly and gracious life in the eyes of the church. Also, only members could have their children baptized into the church, and only members could partake of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, anyone who had been granted membership under the covenant but who had not had a conversion experience would under Edwards’ doctrine be refused communion as well as the baptism of their children. Marsden asserted, “Although infant baptism was not as much a matter of course in New England as in Anglican England, it was by now regarded virtually as a right. For a respectable family to have unbaptized children or grandchildren was a stigma.” As Marsden stated, those who could not profess a conversion experience would in a sense be lowered in the eyes of the society. Likewise, Edwards’ doctrine shook the foundation of even those who had experienced conversion because now they would be judged on their performance – whether they were gracious people and had Christian piety.
Next, in light of the mentioned circumstances surrounding Edwards’ dismissal, it is advantageous to look at Edwards’ doctrine on communion for the purpose of evaluating whether his doctrine perhaps impacted his dismissal to a greater extent than has been represented by these biographers. Upon Edwards’ request, the committee of the church involved with his trial permitted him to publish his position for the public to read. He did this in his treatise: “An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church.” In the preface, Edwards addressed the church’s concern that his doctrine was in conflict with Stoddard’s. First, he honored Stoddard calling him “so great and eminent a divine, and my venerable predecessor in the pastoral office over the church in Northampton.” Then, he admitted that his doctrine was in opposition to Stoddard’s. He claimed, however, that the issue at stake should not be whether the doctrine differed from his predecessor, but whether it was correct. He contented that Stoddard himself believed that some change was good. He quoted Stoddard,
It may be a fault (says Mr. Stoddard) to depart from the ways of our fathers: but it may also be a virtue, and an eminent act of obedience, to depart from them in some things . . . We may see cause to alter some practices of our fathers, without depriving them, without priding ourselves in our wisdom, without apostasy, without abusing the advantages God has given us . . . And there is no reason that it should be turned as a reproach upon us.
Edwards claimed that it was not his desire to undermine Stoddard, but to examine his views, and to show where they were faulty. He continued, “If the practices of our fathers in any particulars were mistaken, it is fit they should be rejected. If they be not, they will bear examination. If we be forbidden to examine their practices, that will cut off all hopes of reformation.” Edwards’ assertion reveals an important realization that perhaps his contenders had not considered – the Puritan Church would not have existed without reform and a break from early church practices. Edwards’ desire for reform was a noble one in that he had examined Stoddard’s doctrine and disclosed his position in the hopes of revealing further truths, not to disrespect those who came before him.
Further, Edwards laid out his position in Part I in the form of a question,
Whether, according to the rules of Christ, any ought to be admitted to the communion and privileges of members of the visible church of Christ in complete standing, but such as are in profession, and in the eye of the church’s Christian judgment, godly or gracious persons?
He then answered this question in the affirmative throughout the remainder of the treatise, explaining himself and supporting his position biblically. The “profession” that he advocated, was not merely a profession of church doctrine such as Stoddard saw fit. Rather, it was a personal profession of a conversion experience that was necessary for all in order to commune. Likewise, his assertion of “godly and gracious persons” was not complete in just living a life without scandal, it was the result of an inward faith that overflowed from a converted heart in the form of “Christian piety” or good works. Edwards did not see biblical support for Stoddard’s position which distinguished between a “moral faith,” the faith that Stoddard required of those who wish to commune that was not based in a conversion experience, and a “gracious faith,” the faith of one who had been converted and accordingly trusted God. Basing his assertion on Acts chapter two, Edwards claimed, “The history informs us of [the apostles] teaching them but one faith and repentance; believing in Christ that they might be saved, and repentance for the remission of sins.” Earlier he supported his assertion,
We have an account, concerning these, of their being first awakened by the preaching of the apostles and other ministers, and earnestly inquiring what they should do to be saved, and of their being directed to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus, as the way to have their sins blotted out, and to be saved; and then, upon their professing that they did believe, of their being baptized and admitted into the Christian church.
Profession, according to Edwards was not a profession of church doctrine. Rather, it was a profession of a personal faith and belief in Christianity as truth, which was accompanied by repentance and therefore always led to acts of graciousness and godliness.
Naturally, two questions follow this assertion that good works will flow from the converted person: who has the authority to judge a person’s godliness, and what is the standard for judging? Edwards answered the first question simply – the Church had the authority, and at the Church’s head and acting on behalf of the whole society was the minister. He wrote, “It is a visibility into the eye of Christian judgment that is the rule of the Church’s proceeding.” He continued, “The minister, in receiving him to the communion of the church, is to act as a public officer, and in behalf of the public society, and not merely for himself, and therefore is to be governed, in acting by a proper visibility of godliness in the eyes of the public.” Clearly, Edwards believed that the minister, because of his guiding position in the church, had the authority to decide who could commune based on whether the person professed conversion and lived a godly life.
The second question – that of the standard for judging if someone was a godly and gracious person – is more difficult to unravel. Edwards wrote effusively on this topic, and yet in all of his writing he revealed no established standard of specific actions that would prove or disprove whether a person was godly. Rather, he expected that the fruits of the converted person would reveal themselves in various outward forms. He spent most of his time writing about the invisible characteristics of the changed man – “that they are convinced of their guilt . . . sins of heart and life . . . and that they don’t evidently themselves look on their conviction as great, and aren’t taken with their own humiliation.” Then, he related this inward change to their behavior, “And also seeing to it that the convictions there are, seem to be deep and fixed, and to have a powerful governing influence on the temper of the mind, and a very direct respect to practice.” From this it is gathered that Edwards expected to see a positive change in one’s life, but it is unclear what form that change would take. Edwards continued to explain his position, yet, it seems that his best explanation was in his earlier work, “The Religious Affections.” Here, he described three principles for the life of a Christian: his “behaviour must be in conformity with Christian rules,” “the practices of religion must be the chief occupation of life,” and he must “persist in practice till the end of his earthly days.” Although it is difficult to interpret Edwards, it is clear that he believed that the Christian must have a focus on Christ that revealed itself in humility and pursuit of Christian rules, and that would remain evident until he died. According to Edwards, the decision of who filled these guidelines ultimately fell into the hands of the minister.
This idea of the minister as the head of the Church and having authority over, and responsibility for, the members of his parish, was not new. In 1731, the Hampshire Association had agreed with the following interpretation of ministerial authority,
What is the duty of ministers, when any under their jurisdiction and government
refuse to come to them when sent for upon account of misbehaviors? Ans. They
ought to look upon them as guilty of condemning Christ’s authority, and to deal
with them accordingly.
Although the authority of the minister was widely recognized a decade before the controversy with Edwards, as earlier mentioned in regards to the “bad book” case, Edward’s pastoral authority was under increased scrutiny. Winslow asserted,
He [Edwards] merely pushed a familiar assumption of pastoral prerogative further
than a restless time could bear, and discovered to his own surprise that it was no longer the current view . . . To the end of his ministry, Jonathan Edwards clung too literally and too tenaciously to this interpretation of ministerial duty for his own good.
Winslow claimed that Edwards’ misjudgment of the relationship between himself, as pastor, and his parish, factored into his later dismissal. Although on its own this controversy probably would not have incensed the congregation to such a great extent, in combination with the earlier conflicts it was another issue underlying the dissatisfaction of the congregation.
In summary, although the emphasis the various biographers placed on specific events differed, each of them recorded that the social and political atmosphere of the age had a greater impact on Edward’s dismissal than the doctrine of communion he embraced. Winslow stated what each biographer implied – that the dispute over the basis of admission to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was only the surface dispute. Consequently, the question stands, was Edward’s dismissal unavoidable because of the surrounding circumstances, or did he bring the removal from the parish upon himself? Samuel Hopkins, in “The Life and Character of Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards” placed emphasis on the chain of events that lead up to Edward’s dismissal and asserted that few of the public even read Edward’s defense of his doctrine. He claimed, “before he was heard in his own defense, or it was known by many what his principles were, the general cry was to have him dismissed, as what alone would satisfy them.” Marsden, on the other hand, attributed the blame to Edwards himself. He stated, “Edwards had some tragic flaws that contributed to his undoing in Northampton, so that the issues can not be reduced to inevitable social tensions or to his being out of step with the times.” He named some of Edwards’ flaws as his perfectionism, authoritarian assumptions, and his conservative views on sexuality. Although the social and political atmosphere of the age was unavoidable, Edwards was also at fault for his dismissal because of his strong reactions to each of the events mentioned. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Edwards tried to anger the congregation or that he wished to leave the parish. It is clear by Edward’s response to the controversies that in the midst of his mistakes he was striving to shepherd his Northampton flock to the best of his knowledge and ability. Human efforts, however, will never be able to measure up to the sovereign plan of God – Edwards himself, in his high view of God’s sovereignty, must have viewed his dismissal as part of God’s will. Perplexing? Most definitely, but also an example of the mysterious work of an omniscient God.
Beales, Ross W., Jr. “The Half-Way Covenant and Religious Scrupulosity: The First
Church of Dorchester, Mass., as a Test Case.” William and Mary Quarterly, (1974). 465-480.
Breck, Robert. “An Account of the conduct of the council which dismissed the Rev. Mr.
Edwards from the pastoral care of the First Church at Northampton.” Early American Imprints. Boston, 1750.
Edwards, Jonathan. “An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God
Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full
Communion in the Visible Church” (1748), “Directions for Judging of Persons’ Experiences” (unpublished), “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” (1746), “A Farewell Sermon” (1750). 10/25/03. <www.jonathanedwards.com>
Edwards, Jonathan. “Misrepresentations Corrected, and Truth Vindicated” (1752).
Levin, David. ed. Jonathan Edwards: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.
Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Pope, Robert G. The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New
England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. 1-74.
Stoddard, Solomon. An Appeal to the Learned: Being a vindication of the right of visible
saints to the Lord’s Supper, thought they be destitute of a saving work of God’s
spirit on their hearts: against the exceptions of Mr. Increase Mather. Early American Imprints. Boston, 1709.
Stout, Harry S. “Covenant Renewal as a Converting Ordinance,” The New England
Soul, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 96-99.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards: A Biography. New York: The Macmillan
Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Jonathan Edwards: A Biography. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1940) 104.
 Ibid 105.
 Solomon Stoddard “An Appeal to the Learned: Being a vindication of the right of visible
saints to the Lord’s Supper, thought they be destitute of a saving work of God’s
spirit on their hearts: against the exceptions of Mr. Increase Mather.” (Early American Imprints. Boston, 1709) 22, 33.
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (London: Yale University Press, 2003) 32.
 Winslow 106.
 Ibid 218. Also recorded in David Levin. ed., Jonathan Edwards: A Profile. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969) 54.
 Ibid 104.
 Ibid 106.
 Marsden 345.
 Jonathan Edwards, “An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God
Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full
Communion in the Visible Church” (1748). 10/25/03. <www.jonathanedwards.com>
 Marsden 355.
 Edwards “An Humble Inquiry” (Preface) 1.
 Ibid 2.
 Ibid (Part I) 1.
 Ibid (Part II) 28.
 Ibid (Part I) 3.
 Ibid (Part I) 4.
 Ibid (Part II) 17.
 Jonathan Edwards, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” (1746). 10/25/03. <www.jonathanedwards.com>
 Ibid. Edwards’ “Religious Affections” (Part III Section XII) gives helpful insight into what Edwards means by a godly and gracious person. The twelfth affection especially sheds light on his understanding of the relationship of the inward change, the invisible qualities, with the outward acts in a converted man.
 Winslow 227.
 Winslow 242.
 Levin 56.
 Marsden 370.