26 November 2013
18th Century Theology
Assisting the Indians with their Inclination towards Salvation:
Jonathan Edwards’ Work as a Missionary at Stockbridge
Jonathan Edwards served as a pastor, college president, and missionary in New England during the early 1700s. Edwards experienced strong religious convictions and sought to reform church membership practices. The pastor wanted to encourage members of his congregation to receive salvation through Christ by placing qualifications on church membership, including familial commitments to practicing the Christian faith. New England congregations had started to abandon the practice of limiting church membership to the children of baptized, communicant members and began baptizing the grandchildren of members, even if the child’s parents were not part of the congregation. Edwards believed that God had predestined men for salvation or damnation in order to glorify Himself, which also granted men inclinations towards their Creator or sin, respectively. His congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts grew frustrated with Edwards’ diligent efforts to reform church membership regulations. Facing a hostile congregation and struggling to effectively encourage members of the elect to accept their salvation, Jonathan Edwards was dismissed from his position as pastor in Northampton. Hurt and humiliated, Edwards and his family moved to the Stockbridge mission in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to serve a distinct community. The Edwards family lived among the native population at the Stockbridge mission from 1751 to 1758. Edwards worked to educate the Mahican Indian population and preach the Gospel. Through his work as a pastor and missionary in Stockbridge, Edwards hoped to civilize the barbaric Indian culture and assist their spiritual growth. While the pastor’s work among the Mahican Indians did not produce a revival, it did fulfill Edwards’ inclination to spread Christianity. The methods that Jonathan Edwards employed as a missionary, his personal attachment to the Indian community, and his belief in the equal potential for salvation among the races at Stockbridge developed because of his aspiration to serve God.
Missionary villages for Indians were proposed more than twenty years before Jonathan Edwards’ arrival at Stockbridge. The Mahican Indians, also known as the Mohicans or Housatonics, of the Massachusetts colony conveyed their interest in having a Christian missionary sent to live among them and John Sergeant soon became the first to serve the area. From 1736 to 1739, Sergeant and the mission’s teacher, John Eliot, worked to establish a town for the Mahicans and four New England families (Marsden 2003, 5). Sergeant soon married Abigail Williams, a member of a resident Anglo-Saxon family (Marsden 2003, 6). After seven years of serving the Stockbridge mission, Sergeant found that the barbaric Indian customs could be replaced with English culture to promote Christianity. Sergeant emphasized the role that a boarding school for Indians could have in conversions and twelve Indian boys began their schooling in 1748 (Marsden 2003, 7). Sergeant expanded the town’s size to include fifty-three Indian homes and ten New England families by 1749 (Marsden 2003, 7-8). John Sergeant died of a fever in 1749, leaving his wife Abigail and her family among two hundred and eighteen Mahican Indians at the Stockbridge mission, one hundred and twenty-five of which had been baptized (Marsden 2003, 7).
Before moving his family from Northampton to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Edwards visited the town at the end of 1750. Abigail Williams and her family initially opposed the pastor’s invitation to join the community, but later acquiesced to the mission’s desires. The Williams’ concerns centered on Edwards’ personality, lack of familiarity with the Mahicans’ language, and strict adherence to doctrine, all of which they believed were incompatible with the needs of the mission (Marsden 2003, 9). Amidst the Edwards’ arrival to Stockbridge in 1751, the mission had attracted attention from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Local Indians had identified the protection guaranteed by peaceful relations with the Anglo-Saxon colonists and Mohawk leaders approached the mission to negotiate additional boarding schools (Marsden 2003, 10). Focused on his work as a pastor, Edwards used the Mohawks’ visit as an opportunity to preach the Gospel, which demonstrated his aspirations of promoting Christianity among the indigenous population (Marsden 2003, 11). The Edwards family immersed themselves in the Stockbridge community to serve as didactic models of the Christian faith and colonial civility. Their home was built among the other dwellings and at least one Indian child lived with them, demonstrating Edwards’ genuine belief in the Mahicans’ potential for salvation (Marsden 2003, 14). Until the pastor chose to leave the Stockbridge mission in 1758 for the position as president of the institution later known as Princeton University, Jonathan Edwards worked to improve the education, culture, and religion of the Indians. During his seven year tenure at Stockbridge, Edwards gave more than one hundred and ninety sermons, all but twenty-seven of which were original deliveries (McDermott 1999, 549). Despite criticism from some New England settlers in the town, Edwards’ reputation had earned him respect and prevented him from being ousted like he had been from his Northampton congregation.
Jonathan Edwards felt a calling to serve God through working at the Stockbridge mission to meet the religious needs of the uncivilized Mahican Indians. Edwards taught his congregations that God gave all inclinations towards feelings or actions to men so that His will would be fulfilled. Edwards could not himself choose to serve God as a missionary, but was predestined to fill the role in which God had cast him. The pastor believed that Christ called him to work as a missionary because the irresistible grace of God inspired men to perform Christian works. The primary method of serving God was by preaching His Word, which Edwards aspired to do as a missionary in Stockbridge. He believed that individuals must proclaim their Christian faith, educate men with God’s truth, and witness the conversions of others as a requirement of their salvation. These works did not redeem men, but stemmed from the nature of being a true Christian (MacCormac 1961, 220). Being a Christian inspired men to demonstrate true virtue. Edwards’ treatise on The Nature of True Virtue explained that Christianity inclined men to demonstrate “propensity and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will” (MacCormac 1961, 220).
Edwards experienced an inclination towards serving as a missionary and understood that desire to come as a necessary result of his salvation. The exercise of true virtue predestined Edwards to work at the Stockbridge mission because preaching the Gospel pleased God and served God’s plan for the world (MacCormac 1961, 220). Edwards explained his desire to serve God through his efforts as a missionary by writing:
the Heathen nations shall be enlightened with the glorious gospel. There will be a wonderful spirit of pity towards them, and zeal for their instruction and conversion put into multitudes, and many shall go forth and carry the gospel unto them, and then shall the joyful sound be heard among them, and then shall arise with his glorious light shining on those many vast regions of the earth that have been covered with Heathenish darkness for many thousand years, many of them doubtless ever since the times of Moses and Abraham and have lain thus long in miserable condition, under the cruel tyranny of the devil, who has all this while blinded and befooled them, and domineered over them, and made a prey of them, from generation to generation. Now the glad tidings of the gospel shall sound there, and they shall be brought out of darkness into marvelous light. (MacCormac 1961, 221)
Edwards recognized the potential of the Indians to improve spiritually and intellectually. By acknowledging the inclination God had granted him, Edwards exercised his true virtue by seeking to educate the Indians in the Christian faith. He understood that the Word of God could redeem the inhabitants of the Stockbridge mission and bring them into the light of God’s glory from the darkness of sin. God had predestined some Indians for salvation and others for damnation. Edwards aspired to serve his role in glorifying God as a missionary and in the history of conversions prescribed. Although the Stockbridge Indian congregation did not experience a revival of conversions, several Indians continued to be communicant members of the church under Edwards’ guidance and the pastor collected confessions of faith (Marsden 2003, 16).
The dedication that Jonathan Edwards demonstrated towards his missionary work in Stockbridge indicated that he observed great spiritual potential among the Mahican Indians. Edwards believed that God granted men inclinations towards or away from Him to provide the greatest glory, not in accord with their race. The pastor taught his New England and Indian congregations with the same Biblical lessons, spoken in English. Edwards thought that the two populations were equals in their spiritual and intellectual potential, but greatly unequal in their cultures (Marsden 2003, 5). He propagated the culture of the Anglo-Saxon colonists as being more conducive to the pursuit of a relationship with Christ than the barbaric practices of the Mahicans. According to Edwards, efforts to convert and civilize men were inseparable. The pastor had personally suffered from the barbaric practices of Indian culture, as five of Edwards’ relatives were kidnapped and three of his kin were murdered by attacking Kahnawake Indians in Massachusetts in 1704 (McDermott 1999, 542). Colonial experiences like the violence enacted on Edwards’ family contributed to his understanding of Indian culture as inferior. A respect for their spiritual and intellectual potential influenced Edwards to pursue his missionary work at Stockbridge and encourage their education in English civilization.
Shortly following his arrival to the Stockbridge mission in 1751, Edwards described his impressions of the Mahicans’ culture and language in a letter to Sir William Pepperell. Sir Pepperell was a merchant, statesman, and soldier in the Massachusetts colony. Edwards believed that Christian education could positively influence the Indians to abandon their heathen lifestyles. He wrote that the New Englanders in Stockbridge could help influence the Indians “to renounce the coarseness, and filth, and degradation, of savage life, for cleanliness, refinement, and good morals” (Edwards 1751, 4). The pastor did not hesitate to criticize the Mahican culture. His family had been wounded by their violence and he felt an inclination from God to serve as their missionary. Edwards’ aspiration of spreading Christianity required that the Indians be civilized because he found their native state to be incompatible with membership in a New England congregation. While Edwards perceived the Indians as equals to the New England colonists in their potential for spiritual and intellectual improvement, he thought that their progress was stifled by their inferior culture.
One particular problem of the Mahicans’ culture that Edwards noted in his letter to Sir Pepperell was their language. Missionaries delivered their sermons to the Indians with the use of a translator, but Edwards emphasized the necessity of the Mahicans’ instruction in the English language. He believed that Indians needed to be able to read and comprehend the Bible for themselves, not only through the instruction of a Christian missionary. Therefore, the Mahicans had to learn to speak, read, and write in English (Marsden 2003, 14). To Sir Pepperell, Edwards wrote:
The Indian languages are extremely barbarous and barren, and very ill fitted for communicating things moral and divine, or even things speculative and abstract. In short, they are wholly unfit for a people possessed of civilization, knowledge, and refinement. Besides, without their learning English, their learning to read will be in vain; for the Indians have not the Bible, nor any other book, in their own language. (Edwards 1751, 5-6)
The pastor acknowledged the necessity of the Indians’ education in allowing them to embrace Christianity both because of the significance of personally reading God’s Word and his distaste for their comparatively uncivilized language. Edwards encouraged the Indians to seek such an education by openly telling the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy that their linguistic ignorance allowed the colonists to cheat them in trade. Edwards told the Indians at Stockbridge that many of the English, Dutch, and French colonists “choose to keep you in the dark for the sake of making a gain of you” (Marsden 2003, 12). The pastor understood that an education in the English language would best serve the Indians in his attempts to convert them to Christianity, but also fed their economic motivations with his frankness.
Edwards’ belief in the power of proper instruction in the Christian faith motivated the pastor to develop plans for the education of Mahican children. The pastor encouraged the Indians to learn to speak, read, and write in English through delivering his sermons in the language. The schooling given to Indians at the Stockbridge mission taught them English and Edwards emphasized the importance of comprehension over rote memorization. Edwards wrote to Sir Pepperell, “the child should be taught to understand things, as well as words” (Edwards 1751, 2). The pastor proposed a system for the classrooms where the Indian child was explained the meaning of words, then entered into conversation with the teacher about the lesson, and was encouraged to ask questions. Edwards emphasized the education of both male and female students in reading, writing, and arithmetic (Marsden 2003, 14). By using the Bible as a method of instruction in the English language, Edwards hoped that the Indians would simultaneously improve their intellect and adopt Christianity.
Other methods of education proposed by Edwards included singing in the mission’s schools and creating public examination programs with rewards for accomplished students. Edwards thought that music could appeal to the Indians’ culture, but also instruct them for improvement. He wrote, “Music, especially sacred music, has a powerful efficacy to soften the heart into tenderness, to harmonize the affections, and to give the mind a relish for objects of a superior character” (Edwards 1751, 4). Edwards also encouraged the Stockbridge mission to give students incentives to excel in adopting colonial culture, such as learning sewing and church history, and in exercising Christian virtue. He proposed a public examination of students’ skills and knowledge with entertainment provided as a reward for the accomplished Indians (Edwards 1751, 5). These methods, along with integrating New England children into the mission’s school, worked to reinforce the improvement of culture, language, and faith among the Mahicans (Marsden 2003, 14). Edwards’ concern with the education of the Indians followed from his understanding of Indians as being culturally inferior, but equals with colonists in their potential to serve God.
The sermons delivered by Jonathan Edwards to the Stockbridge congregation served his aspirations to instruct them in the truths of Christianity. He possessed a thorough understanding of his audience and their distinctions from the Northampton congregation. Edwards’ sermons did not simplify his previous messages, but created new messages that appealed to the needs of the Indians. Edwards utilized narratives with plain, vivid metaphors and focused his preaching on educating the Mahicans on the Bible’s New Testament passages. For the first year at Stockbridge, Edwards instructed the Indians on their sinfulness, like he had his congregation at Northampton, but then moved on to encouraging virtue and increased knowledge of God. Edwards’ sermons depicted God as loving and merciful, but condemning of men who rejected Him for sin (Marsden 2003, 15).
The preaching that Edwards performed at the mission acknowledged the spiritual potential of the Indians and the inclination that some felt towards Christianity. His first sermon to the Stockbridge Indians in 1751 emphasized the narrative of Cornelius from Acts 11:12-13. Cornelius had felt inclined to pray before learning of Christ from Peter and desired to experience the light of salvation. Edwards explained that Cornelius and his family had been converted through Peter’s preaching, which the pastor cited as his own hopes for the Indians. Edwards’ first sermon told the Stockbridge congregation that he had come to preach the truth of Christianity like Peter, if the Indians were inclined to receive such instruction (McDermott 1999, 546-7). Similar to the educational methods encouraged by Edwards, his sermons sought to improve Mahicans’ culturally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Jonathan Edwards’ service to the Stockbridge mission from 1751 to 1758 followed from his desire to exercise true Christian virtue. Edwards understood that the Indians’ culture was barbaric and antagonistic to Christianity. Through educating Indians in the English language and Christianity, Edwards hoped to utilize their spiritual and intellectual potential, while improving their inferior culture. Edwards desired for the Mahican Indians to embrace his religion as their own. By delivering appealing sermons and instructing Indian children, Edwards served his calling as a missionary. The time that Jonathan Edwards spent at Stockbridge fit seamlessly within the narrative of his life, as his actions continued to seek the glory of God and help less pious men to follow their inclinations towards Christianity.
Edwards, Jonathan. 1751. Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One. In the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1 (accessed November 18, 2013).
MacCormac, Earl R. 1961. Jonathan Edwards and Missions. Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1943-1961) 39, no. 4 (December): 219-229.
Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards, the Missionary. The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997-) 81, no. 1 (Spring): 5-17.
McDermott, Gerald R. 1999. Jonathan Edwards and American Indians: The Devils Suck Their Blood. The New England Quarterly 72, no. 4 (December): 539-557.