18th Century Theology
November 26, 2013
A Life of Preparation
After a disgraceful dismissal from Northampton in 1751, Jonathan Edwards, one of the premier theologians of his age, found himself without a pulpit. Instead of assuming a new, prestigious position is Scotland or Virginia, he decided to head west to the frontier town of Stockbridge. In this little town on the Western edge of Massachusetts, Edwards was hired as a missionary for the Mahican and Mohawk Indians settled in and around the settlement of Stockbridge. Although seemingly at setback after leaving a respectable church, the seven years spent in Stockbridge proved to be some of the most defining of his career. From 1751 to 1758, Edwards finally had the time to compile and write many of his major works, and through his experiences in the last decade with Northampton and David Brainerd, deal wisely with the crises he faced at Stockbridge. Through his missions work with the Indians in Stockbridge, Edwards reveals his Constantinian view of the role of the state and church, his millennial eschatology, and his understanding of Indian nature and subsequent notions of aboriginal education. First established in 1734, the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts was founded as a missionary hub for the local Mahican Tribe. This unique settlement was an experiment, started as a place where colonists and Indians could cohabit and Indians could be taught the Gospel and English culture (Marsden 5). In 1736, John Sergeant, a missionary pastor, came to Stockbridge to lead the Indian missions. After a few lonely years, the family of Ephraim Williams, who would become vicious adversaries of Edwards, came to town. Sergeant soon fell in love with Williams’ brilliant daughter, Abigail, and wedded her in 1739. His work was met with success and the village began to grow, until he came down with a fever and died in 1749 (Marsden 7). With him gone, the fate of the Stockbridge experiment was uncertain. Due to the absence of such a leader and the rampant corruption from the Williams family remaining, whom the Indians distrusted, turmoil swept the town. Thus was the climate Edwards entered into in 1751. Jonathan Edwards also recently suffered a hard spell back in Northampton where his congregation relieved him of his position as pastor. Still reeling from this event, Edwards sought a place to settle down with his large family. He was offered a position at a church in Virginia, and some of his supporters lobbied for him Scotland, but he ended up accepting a job as a missionary in the backwoods of Massachusetts in relative obscurity. Edwards made this decision partly because of his large family and the logistical and financial difficulties of moving several colonies over or across the ocean, but also because, despite his fame and success, his Calvinism was at war against the Arminian theology that controlled most of Eastern Massachusetts (Gura 168). After Jonathan’s visit to Stockbridge the year before he arrived, in which the Williams’ initial disapproval was somewhat quieted, the Edwards settled into the frontier town. Alongside the practical reasons for moving to Stockbridge, some purpose must be associated with the spirit of David Brainerd. Brainerd, born on April 20th, 1718, in Haddam, Connecticut, despite his immense physical and emotional handicaps, went on to become one of the most influential missionaries in Christianity. Brainerd only spent four of his short, twenty-nine years as a missionary, but his life of love, self-sacrifice, and reliance upon God for strength spurred countless others, even Edwards, to missionary work (MacCormac 227). Brainerd, a close family friend of the Edwards, spent the last months of his short life in their home (Piper 131). There even existed a brief, but deep love between Brainerd and Jonathan’s daughter Jerusha. Edwards describes one of Brainerd’s farewells to Jerusha, just five months before he died, “If I thought I should not see you, and be happy with you another World, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend an happy Eternity together!” (Edwards 234). Seeing Brainerd’s success with the Indians and simply spending so much time with such a missionary minded soul helped lead Edwards to make the decision to begin mission work amongst the Natives. Upon arriving at Stockbridge, Edwards was immediately assaulted by the chaos resulting from Sergeant’s death. The most detrimental issue he dealt with at Stockbridge was the corrupt control of the town by the Williams family (Gura 169). This family would repeatedly clash with Edwards during his tenure at the settlement over various issues. Foremost of these, and “Most irritating to the Indians were the land maneuvers of Squire Ephraim Williams and his adult sons who were building the family fortune by consolidating claims to choice real estate” (Marsden 8). This underhanded practice caused the Indians to seriously distrust the Williams, and many whites in Stockbridge. The widespread self-interest eventually led to more whites coming to town than agreed, resulting in increased hostility between the Colonists and the Indians (Marsden 10). The Indians frequently accused the Stockbridge settlers, especially the Williams, of being just like every other promise-breaking, British man. The unjust appointment of clearly incompetent friends and family to positions in the town served to further alienate the Indians. Fortunately for Edwards, his good reputation preceded him and he was able to win the trust of many of the natives. The Indians also knew him to be a friend of David Brainerd, whom they all highly admired (Marsden 11). Edwards dealt with the Indians differently than a majority of the colonists of his time. Most English viewed Indian culture as belonging “to the tribe of Satan” (Marsden 12). Thus many of their dealings with the Indians were less than civil and almost always politically motivated. Many of the British missions functioned not only to win Indians to Christ, but to establish alliances with Indian tribes and to further the British cause. This utilitarian side of British policy is unfortunately the majority of what the Stockbridge Indians experienced with the Williams’ dealings.
Edwards’ view of Indian nature was much less prejudiced. He believed that the Indians held a high potential for intellectualism, if it could be harnessed (Wyss 51). Although he did possess a general disdain for Indian culture, it lay largely in the fact that it was without the Christian God and therefore morally degenerate. But he viewed this degeneracy in the same way that a non-saved European was morally degenerate. He believed that human depravity was the same, regardless of ethnicity, “It was once with our forefathers as tis’ with you,” “They formerly were in a great darkness… we are no better than you in no respect” (Marsden 12). Although others, such as missionary George Hawley, criticized Edwards for being naēve of the political aspect of British missions (Marsden 426). Hawley, who had witnessed firsthand the atrocities of British “mission” work, developed a healthy dose of realism that Edwards, despite his brilliance, could not see past in his own views of church and state.
Working through his Constantinian perspective, he believed that God uses empires, in the same way He used Israel, to bring about the Gospel (Marsden 425). Coupled with his millennial theology that America was God’s chosen land for the Millennium to start, Edwards viewed frontier expansion as the inseparable work of the church and state being invaluable to the cause of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth (Gura 166). In his sermon, The Latter-Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America, Edwards, referring to the Millennium, states, “we cannot reasonably think otherwise, than that the beginning of this great work of God must be near. And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America,” and also, more specifically to his work,
And if we may suppose that this glorious work of God shall begin in any part of America, I think, if we consider the circumstances of the settlement of New England, it must needs appear the most likely, of all American colonies, to be the place whence this work shall principally take its rise. And, if these things be so, it gives us more abundant reason to hope that what is now seen in America, and especially in New England, may prove the dawn of that glorious day; and the very uncommon and wonderful circumstances and events of this work, seem to me strongly to argue that God intends it as the beginning or forerunner of something vastly great (Cherry 58).
This eschatology was prevalent in mid-eighteenth century theology. Other contemporary, influential ministers, such as Ezra Stiles, who went on to become President of Yale, called the United Sates, “God’s American Israel” (Cherry 83). The idea that the New England, Puritan colonists were the Israelites pressing into the pagan wilderness of Canaan gave credence to the idea that the Native Americans were the evil Canaanites, devil worshippers. Although, as discussed, while Edwards did not accept all aspects of this view, he still maintained the belief that once the frontier was won for Christ, and coincidentally Britain, then Christ would usher in Millennium. Edwards believed the best way to minister to the Indians was, not through their native tongue or translators as Brainerd had used, but by civilizing and teaching them English (MacCormac 226). In a letter to his dear friend Joseph Bellamy, Edwards states, “I would also propose the following things viz that pains be taken with ‘em to teach ‘em the English Tongue to learn ‘em the meaning of English words & what the name of everything is in English” (Edwards 241). As Marsden points out, “Edwards kept the tie close between the light of the gospel education and Indians’ practical interests” (Marsden 12). In a way that would anger George Hawley, Edwards stressed the Indians learn English not just to know the Gospel, but to adhere to British customs and policy. Edwards found Indian language and customs “barbarous and barren,” and thought the best and truest way to evangelize to the Natives was to immerse them in English culture (Marsden 14). However, unlike most British, Edwards’ foremost goal, despite any naēve trappings, was to evangelize to the Indians (Wyss 50). He increasingly lost patience with the current, British form of education for the Indian Children. Most Indians were simply taught the meaning of words, without stressing an actual understanding. Edwards lamented this type of teaching, stating, “the child should be taught to understand things, as well as words,” and “the children learn to read, to make such sounds on the sight of such marks; but know nothing what they say and have neither profit nor entertainment by what they read” (Marsden 14).
What Edwards recommended and implemented at his schools was a much more conversational type of learning, actually being able to understand and meet the needs of the native youth. His model encouraged inquisitive youth to ask questions and engage in conversation to seek actual understanding, upending the hierarchical system that dominated the English world (Wyss 51). He also sought to integrate English children into Indian schools and have Indian girls be educated, as well as boys. His curriculum was much more intensive and well rounded, not only teaching just reading, like most of the schools, but spelling and arithmetic too(Marsden 14). Learning, he believed, should be motivated not by fear of harsh punishment, but by the pleasure of knowledge (Wyss 52). Looking to the broader political spectrum, Edwards viewed the poor Indian education system as a leading cause of the detiorating British-Indian relations. He not only blamed the education, but the British policy of expansion and broken promises that led to rampant distrust of the English settlers. For years, the French faithfully invested in mission work amongst the Indians, living with them and gaining their trust (Marsden 13). The seemingly cold, English policy of making the natives convert to English ways by forcing them to come to British towns and assimilate could not stand up to the French model and came off as firmly utilitarian. The mistrust of the English displays itself most fully at the outbreak of the French and Indian a few years later, in which the British only enlisted one major eastern tribe, the Mohawks (Marsden 416). During his tenure in Stockbridge, Edwards cemented his legacy by writing most of his major works such as the Nature of True Virtue, The End for which God Created the World, and The Freedom of the Will. Without a congregation to look after, Edwards had the time to put his works into writing, despite the volatile environment at Stockbridge. Whereas Brainerd spent much of his time his time dwelling with the Indians, Edwards “was primarily an administer. He was concerned with directing others, who in turn, had direct contact with the Indians” (MacCormac226). This freed up much time he previously did not have in Northampton. Edwards appears, in some ways more matured in Stockbridge. Different experiences throughout his life grew him into the man that dealt with the Williams, persevered through the Indian threats, and sought to reform Native American missions.
While in Stockbridge, Edwards purposes seem to change from Northampton. In Northampton he came across as an aloof theologian, obsessed with abstractions. In Stockbridge he appears “as a missionary deeply involved in the practical affairs of his day.” Marsden proposes that “he always displayed the wider practical interests and that we simply know more about them in the Stockbridge years because he was forced to write letters about them” (Marsden 13). This condensed timeframe in Stockbridge reveals how Edwards grew since Northampton and can be viewed as a crucible where different events forced him to display his character and views to deal with the situations at hand. Due to the situations and issues he was thrust into at Stockbridge, one sees some of his main theological views revealed in various forms. His love of evangelization and showing others the glory of God put him a unique position amongst the Indians where one sees his millennial views as well as his loving view of the Indians that separated him from many other English of his time. Though others question his choice to move to the frontier, Edwards never questioned God’s will for him. Because of this humble obedience, subsequent generations have been blessed by his religious treatises written during this time. After a tumultuous seven years on the frontier he accepted the position of President of Princeton after the death of its former President, Edwards’ son-in-law Aaron Burr, and was dead within a year after being inoculated with the smallpox vaccine. Thus, the years spent in a backwoods, Massachusetts settlement proved to be the climax of his ministry in which a lifetime of ministry had prepared him for.
Edwards, Jonathan, and Stanley T. Williams. "Six Letters of Jonathan Edwards to Joseph Bellamy." The New England Quarterly 1.2 (1928): 226-42. Web.
Gura, Philip F. Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. Print.
MacCormac, Earl R. "Jonathan Edwards and Missions." Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 39.4 (1961): 219-29. Web.
Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.
Marsden, George M. "Jonathan Edwards, the Missionary." The Journal of Presbyterian History 81.1 (2003): 5-17. Print.
Piper, John. The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001. Print.