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Heavenly Heretics

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978-83-8221-245-7
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TO MY TWO SONS

Talcott Williams Powell and Francis Wilson Powell


© nada 2020

Preface

For more than ten years past it has been my custom to speak now and then from my Sunday evening pulpit, of representative preachers who have profoundly influenced the religious life of their contemporaries. The chapters which make up this little volume, after first finding expression in the pulpit, appeared at weekly intervals in the pages of The Hampshire Gazette, one of the oldest daily papers in the land, and are reprinted here through the courtesy of the editors. Books in abundance have been written about Edwards, Wesley, Channing, Bushnell, Brooks. In some volumes, the facts about the men have been set forth; in others, their place in Church and State has been designated. In no book, perhaps, has there been briefly stated all the average reader wants to know in order to visualise as well as understand.

In attempting a hitherto neglected task, I have realised at every stage the difficulty of both interesting and edifying. To meet this difficulty, I have thought it worth while to make full use of local colour, to call in the testimony of contemporary listeners, to analyse specific sermons, and through the gateway of analysis to lead on to each man’s general philosophy of life, and finally to state the salient facts and illustrative incidents in every instance in order that the rootage as well as the fruitage of America’s best preaching may be evident even to the casual reader.

The selection of an appropriate title for these pulpit essays was a problem. From certain points of view, the five preachers might to some appear arch heretics. But if, as Coleridge says, heresy signifies a principle or opinion taken up by the will for the will’s sake, no one of them ought to be classed as a heretic. Their opinions one and all were taken for the spirit’s sake, not for that of the will. Without denying what was good in the past, they were in the main looking for a larger faith than those around them seemed to hold. That which was said of the men of faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews could as truthfully have been remarked of them by their contemporaries, — they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly. And therefore to satisfy both the conventional and the unconventional, I am venturing to present this little book under the alliterative title of Heavenly Heretics.


L. P. P.

St. John’s Rectory,

Northampton, Mass.,

August i, 1909


„The ordinary heretic is likely to prove a mere crank and eccentric. Still, there arises a heretic every now and then who is simply a surpassing spiritual genius, and leads us into wider and profounder reaches of yet undiscovered truth.”


From A Valid Christianity for Today by the Rt. Rev. Charles D. Williams, D.D., LL. D., Bishop of Michigan

Jonatan Edwards

„The ordinary heretic is likely to prove a mere crank and eccentric. Still, there arises a heretic every now and then who is simply a surpassing spiritual genius, and leads us into wider and profounder reaches of yet undiscovered truth.”


From A Valid Christianity for Today by the Rt. Rev. Charles D. Williams, D.D., LL. D., Bishop of Michigan.


„From the days of Plato there has been no life of more simple and imposing grandeur.”


The West minster Review


„Not only the greatest of all the thinkers that America has produced, but also the highest speculative genius of the eighteenth century.”


A.M. Fairbairn


„He that would know the workings of the New England mind in the middle of the last century and the throbbings of its heart, must give his days and nights to the study of Jonathan Edwards.”


George Bancroft


„He that would understand… the significance of later New England thought, must make Edwards the first object of his study.”


A. V. G. Allen


„His errors, his weaknesses, his great inconsistencies, and what Prof. A. V. G. Allen calls „his Inferno” have had altogether too long a history in New England thought. It is time that his original principle — the absoluteness of God — were allowed logical and unreserved expression.”


George A. Gordon


„Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. Jonathan Edwards, at the age of seventeen. We are to conceive of the divine excellence as infinite general love, that which reaches all, proportionately with perfect purity and sweetness; yea, it includes the true love of all creatures, for that is His spirit, or, which is the same thing, His love.”


Jonathan Edwards


„His work was preaching rather than the cure of souls.”


H. T. Rose, the present incumbent of Jonathan Edwards’s pulpit.

It is Sunday morning in Northampton, June of 1741. The church toward which the people make their way is not uncommon or impressive. There is another somewhat like it in Boston and Springfield, in Hatfield and Longmeadow. It makes no sensuous appeal to the imagination. No dim religious light streams in through stained-glass windows. No long-drawn aisles lead on to any mystery-enshrouded altar. No deep-voiced organ sends rich involutions echoing along a fretted ceiling. The First Church of Northampton was in 1741 conventional. The place and people were, however, less conventional. Far more strategic in its situation in those days of untracked wilderness than now, Northampton was as beautiful. The twin mounts were already keeping vigil over river, meadow, and elm-shaded town. The people were, in spite of (perhaps even by reason of) all the isolation and the hardship of their frontier life, among New England’s best. Thrifty, high-spirited, and self-confident, Northampton folk even at that early day were accumulating wealth, acquiring learning, establishing an aristocracy of brains and piety, and beginning to enjoy a reputation scarcely second to Bostonians for culture and religion.

As nearly always in a strictly Puritan community, the service is a trifle tedious. The prayer is long; the psalm, lined out by the deacon, is unmusically sung. One by one, the congregation file up to the deacon’s high-backed pew and place in the collection box their Sunday offering. About the time a modern service closes, the people settle down to give ear to the sermon. In the old-fashioned pulpit — desk, they called it then — at the side, not at the end as now, the preacher stands beneath the overarching sounding board, the hour-glass by his side, to break the Word of Life. This preacher is well worth the respectful attention of the twentieth as well as of the eighteenth century.


What his people could not know we know beyond dispute, that he was the greatest preacher of his time and clime. A black gown envelops his tall, slim form. The waving wig one sees in all his portraits crowns his broad and lofty forehead. The oval face with its clear, piercing eyes, prominent nose, thin lips, set and frequently severe, is always serious and almost always solemn, in spite of the suggestions of the spirit’s sweetness which play now and then about the mouth. St. Paul and St. John composite look down on us from that highstanding pulpit. The preacher’s text is found in Deuteronomy xxxii., 35 — Their feet shall slide in due time. The sermon, terribly effective now, is to be preached with even more effectiveness in a few weeks at Enfield. He speaks without the arts and graces of the orator. His pupil, Hopkins, says however, that his delivery is easy, natural, and very solemn. His voice, though clear enough, is neither strong nor loud. Calm and pale, rapt and grave, he seldom moves his head or hand. His manuscript, which he deplores, though he is not servile to it, is in his left hand, the elbow resting on the cushion or the Bible, his right hand rarely raised but to turn the leaves, and his person almost motionless.

It is the manner that appeals, unperturbed but earnest, subdued but confident, restrained but authoritative. „This as though a volcano were in eruption according to a law which calls it to activity without uproar. Mental sweep, relentless logic, definite conviction, vivid imagination turning lurid on occasions, large and elevated character, to which the episodic in experience and utterance are alike infrequent, — these and kindred gifts contribute to make this the most effective preaching of the age. He was [says a biographer], almost too great a man to let loose upon other men in their ordinary condition. He was like some organ of vast capacity whose strongest stops should never have been drawn. The immediate effect is indescribable; it would be incredible, were there not abundant testimony to it. Silence, awe, alarm, distress, tears, outcries as of animals in pain, — these are the responses of the congregation to heart-searching and heart-rending preaching, till at last the preacher has, in order to be heard until the end, to speak hispeace, be still to the noise and the confusion. What gospel is it that can so disquiet and distress Northampton’s chosen? The title of the sermon is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Its content is Calvinism at its boldest. Sinners in the hands of an angry God are given a terrifying warning:

The wrath of God burns against them; their damnation don’t slumber; the pit is prepared; the fire is made ready; the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The devils watch them; they are ever by them, at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy, hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back; if God should withdraw His hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.

Now he presses on from general to particulars. Lest some Northamptonian, confident that God has better things in store for him, should be listening unmoved the preacher says:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten times so abominable in His eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.

Then comes at last the application grimly personal:

If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing it would be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a Jonathan Edwards person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But alas! instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell! And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons that now sit here in some seats of this meeting-house in health, and quiet, and secure, should be there before to-morrow morning. Those of you that finally continue in a natural condition, that shall keep out of hell longest, will be there in a little time! … How can you rest for a moment in such a condition?… Let every one that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come…. Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountains, lest ye be consumed.

Shocking doctrine to this age of ours it seems. Where did Edwards learn it? Not from personal experience. Even while a child he had assurance of his own salvation. At an age when other boys were interested in the usual adolescent problems, Edwards in his diary describes his inner life as:

…a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and sometimes a kind of vision or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God.

In adult life he was first and last exemplary in all relationships. Though lacking in social gifts and not wont to visit his parishioners save when the need was urgent, he was in the home and in the town and in the church conscientious to a fault, trying ever to lead the way he pointed out to others, illustrating by his works his own veracious words that:

...the soul of a true Christian appeared like a little white flower, such as we see in the opening of the year, low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing, as it were, in a calm rapture, diffusing around a sweet fragrancy; standing peacefully and lovingly in the midst of other flowers round about.

It was not from observation that he ever learned to speak of human beings Jonathan Edwards as vile insects, filthy worms, firebrands of hell. To be sure, his flock were fond of having their own way. Even in his great predecessor’s ministry wilfulness was apt to lead to a church quarrel, and contentions were the order of too many a day. But his flock were no worse than were other Christians of the time; they were thought to be a little better. As to his immediate family, he had to wife a woman whose wifely worth tempted George Whitefield when he was their guest to abandon his fixed purpose to stay single. His children were almost as remarkable, if not as famous, as their parents, and the Edwards family have, in all the generations since, stood for godly character and extraordinary capacity. Not even of the one black sheep, Aaron Burr, could it be truly said, while he was still a baby in the arms of Edwards’s daughter:

As innocent as children seem to be to us, yet, if they are out of Christ, they are not so in God’s sight, but are young vipers and are infinitely more hateful than vipers.

This babe-damning doctrine lay at the end of a syllogism which started with a misconception of the nature of things and pursued a way as tortuous as it was faultless to an end impossible. Granted his premises, his conclusion followed irresistibly. And his premises were Calvin’s, and before Calvin, St. Augustine’s. There was no departure from the time-worn view of God as everything and man as nothing; of God as absolute and omnipotent and man in consequence even less than incomplete and impotent.

It was to save God’s freedom to Him that Edwards, treading on the heels of Calvin, was quick to take man’s freedom from him and to dismiss man as a vile insect that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of Heaven and earth. In later years he modified this view as much as he dared without impinging on its central principle. He gave it a background new in spots. He emphasised as neither Calvin nor St. Augustine did man’s inner motives and affections. But, to quote Professor Gardiner — as to the general scheme itself, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of life it expresses, there is nothing in that which is essentially original with Edwards. In standing for these doctrines he but champions the great orthodox tradition. He was orthodox from first to last, according to the tenets of New England Puritanism. He had to be. He lacked the special gifts of the originating thinker. He had the logic of the mathematician and the imagination of the poet, but they were rarely found in company with historic sense or common sense or sense of humour. Imagine, if you can, a symmetrical personality of any age gravely declaring that:

...although the devil be exceeding crafty and subtle, yet he is one of the greatest fools and blockheads in the world.

Pushed to its own proper end, the logic of metaphysics sometimes runs foul of the logic of events and pays for its presumption by leading off into a cut de sac, wherein Edwards sometimes found himself, though he never knew when he was there and never knew how to escape. Out of the pulpit there was perhaps one Edwards only, a firm, precise, and pious soul, aloof from all his kind and unaware of his aloofness. In the pulpit there were several Edwardses, and it depended on the circumstances as to which you found there on occasion. The Edwards of the Enfield sermon, preached, tradition tells us, in Northampton a short while before, was:

the flaming revivalist, with pitiless logic and terrible realism of description, arousing, startling, overwhelming the sinner with the sense of impending doom.

But there was yet another Edwards the revivalist, who could plead God’s love as winsomely as in the Enfield sermon he called down the wrath of God upon the unrepentant. It is gratifying to find the preacher saying in another sermon:

God is infinitely good and merciful. Many that others worship and serve as gods are cruel beings, spirits that seek the ruin of souls; but this is a God that delighteth in mercy; His grace is infinite and endures forever. He is love itself, an infinite fountain and ocean of it.

Edwards’s sermons were oftenest perhaps distinctly doctrinal. Religion was to him more than a felt relationship with God: it was describable. It was a scheme of things that could be set down on paper and put into the limits of a sermon and made clear to the darkest understanding that would give attention undistracted. It was more, too, than a mere skeleton: it was a skeleton clothed in the warm flesh and blood of conviction and emotion and imagination. No matter which of Edwards’s sermons you may chance to-day to read you are sure to find it alive. It may be evangelistic; it may be doctrinal; it may be occasional; it may be practical. Whatever it may be, it is never a dead thing. It is always passionately throbbing with a vitality that recks not of the passing years; it is always equal to the final test of preaching, that whatever be the theme, the sermon shall come from the preacher’s heart, not merely from his head. Often as Edwards emphasised the uses of the intellect in the religious life, he never put mind first; he knew that personality has a wider range of vision than the mind can ever furnish. In his exquisite sermon on The Reality of Spiritual Light, where Edwards may be found at his purest, he makes this point:

There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness and beauty. The former rests only in the head; speculation only is concerned in it: but the heart is concerned in the latter.

And then when at last in 1750 he preached his farewell sermon to the people he had loved and to whom he had preached for twenty-three years, he counselled them in tender words to choose for his successor one who, whatever gifts of mind he had, should have the higher gifts of heart, saying:

Nothing else but sincere piety of heart is at all to be depended on, at such a time as this.

Born of good Welsh stock October 5, 1703, fifth in a family of eleven children, Jonathan Edwards was amazingly precocious both in mind and heart. He began to study Latin at the age of six and at the age of eight was deeply interested in spiritual concerns. At ten he wrote, like a philosopher of forty, a quaint and humorous essay on the immortality of the soul, and at twelve an ingenious paper on the habits of the flying spider. Early taught by his distinguished father, the pastor at Windsor Farmes, Connecticut, to use the pen abundantly, he almost from the first was accustomed to study with his pen in hand, making a record of his doubts, his difficulties, and his comments on every subject which came his way in reading or in thinking. At Yale, from his thirteenth to his seventeenth year, he led his class, and yet found time as early as his sophomore year to read Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding with more pleasure, he informs us:

than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handf uls of silver and gold from some newly-discovered treasure.

It was also in those days at Yale that he began to make his series of Notes on the Mind and Notes on Natural Science and to work out the principle of that idealistic philosophy which underlay his life-long thinking. More important far, he was by conscious effort growing all those years in grace, and making spiritual preparation for the two years more at Yale of theological study. February 15, 1727, after eight months of ministry to a Presbyterian church in New York City and two years as tutor at Yale, at the age of twenty-four he began his work in Northampton. The position was not easy even to a man of Edwards’s gifts. The first two years he was assistant to his remarkable grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, a man as strong in some respects as Edwards and in others strong where Edwards was not strong, a man as masterful as Edwards and more practical and tactful and in consequence more popular. To follow his grandfather was all the harder for the man of twenty-six, because he was scrupulously conscientious. While paying all deference to the prestige of his predecessor and nurturing the affection with which his memory was cherished, Edwards made no bid before or after Mr. Stoddard’s death for popularity. Knowing he could not please every one, he was content to endeavour to please God, trusting that the sober second thought of his people would find a place for one who did his work in his own way but did it faithfully.

Humble to the verge of self-depreciation, thinking ill of his own talents in comparison with his distinguished predecessor’s, he yet took himself too seriously to waste himself in what seemed to him unprofitable employments. No one ever was more careful in the use of time. He lived by rule, rising before five, spending thirteen hours in his study every day, reading the Bible and every book of worth he could lay hands on, catching every thought that came to mind and putting it on paper. His habit of note-taking became with passing years so inveterate that even while he was at his daily exercise on horseback he was wont to jot down on scraps of paper stray ideas, pin each scrap to his coat, and come galloping home with papers fluttering to the breeze from shoulders, breast, and coat tails. He was no parish visitor. He had no small talk in his social pack. He was not able — says his pupil, Hopkins to enter into a free conversation with every person he met, and in an easy manner turn it to what topic he pleased, without the help of others, and, it may be, against their inclination. And so, though not disparaging ordinary parish visiting, without which no minister can know his people well, he confined himself chiefly to visiting those in need in body, mind, or soul, and let the others come to him as they pleased and when they pleased. He was first and last the preacher, leaving all his temporal affairs to the good management of Mrs. Edwards, from whom he learned, second hand, by whom his forage for winter wasgathered in, or how many milk kine he had, or whence his table was furnished. The greatest day in his unusual life, was January 28, 1727, when Sarah Pierrepont at the age of seventeen became his wife. Allowing as generously as one may for the well-known rhapsody Edwards the lover left in writing of her character, the fact remains indisputable that she was a model wife. She never tried to duplicate her husband.

She was no preacher in petticoats. She knew how to hold her tongue. It was not she who brought him into his great trouble. No indiscretion either as to word or creed was ever charged against her. She took her place among the women of the church a mother in Israel with her ten children, born in Northampton, receiving with gentle grace and modesty the deference due to her. She deemed it her first duty to give her husband the right conditions for his highest usefulness. She relieved him from domestic care, guarded him from needless interruption, and thus contributed as much perhaps as he to his effectiveness in preaching. She was all the wife of any minister should be, and deserved the compliment one of her husband’s best friends paid her when he hinted that the wife had found a shorter road to heaven than the husband. These two simple-minded children of a Heavenly Father whom they feared far more perhaps than there was need, walked through life together singularly suited to each other, dreaming dreams and seeing visions such as are vouchsafed only in that House Beautiful, of which it has been said that:

Where there is faith

There is love.

Where there is love

There is peace.

Where there is peace

There is God.

Where there is God

There is no need

There in that holy home on King Street lay the source of Edwards’s pulpit inspiration. There in love and prayer the great man grew in grace and in the knowledge of his Lord, and Sunday after Sunday whether he was preaching a doctrinal or evangelistic or practical sermon he gave out what with his helpmeet’s aid he had stored up at home, the week before. As years passed by his preaching gained momentum. With increasing eagerness the people waited for the Sunday morning sermon and then talked about it all the week. While not one perhaps of all his flock ever actually suspected what we know, that Northampton had those days the greatest preacher in the land, there was everywhere increasing assurance that there was no longer any need to go to Boston to hear good sermons. By and by came the Great Awakening. It had been foreshadowed in the days of Stoddard, in whose ministry 630 were admitted to the Church. Throughout New England the fierceness of Puritanism had for years been burning out. Austere living was giving way to carelessness and looseness both in manners and in morals. Piety was languishing and irreligion had grown arrogant. Edwards became more anxious every year.

He grieved and prayed. He called his people back beyond the days of Stoddard to a more exacting Puritanism both in creed and conduct. With all his earnestness he preached on sin and its sure punishment. In denunciation he had never before been so tragically graphic. One who heard him preach about the Day of Judgment said a little later

that he fully supposed that as soon as Mr. Edwards should close his discourse, the Judge would descend, and the final separation take place.

The Sunday morning sermon was soon supplemented by two more Sunday sermons. Then people came in crowds on week-days, too; until at last all business was at certain hours suspended, and everybody asked his neighbours, Brethren, what must I do to be saved? Of the physical and mental phenomena called forth by the Great Awakening there is no need to speak. Of the nervous stress and strain, in which even children shared, the least said possibly the better.

What is chiefly important to note says Dr. Allen — is, that the magnitude of the event was an adequate setting for the greatness of mind and character which Edwards now reveals.

Edwards saw at last the travail of his soul and was satisfied. Here on this supreme mount of spiritual exaltation he would have stayed forever without so much as a tabernacle to remind him of the worldliness below. To make his people fit for the high life he lived he unwisely tried at last to play the role of a dictator. In 1744 he ventured to censor the literature the young were reading with disastrous consequences to his popularity. Then, after four years, from the first applicant in all those years for admission to membership in his church he demanded evidence of conversion and required public profession of faith. Stoddard, with whom Edwards was still compared and by some to his undervaluation, had been wont to let any baptised person come to the Lord’s Supper, and no questions asked. The effort to improve on Stoddardeanism was the last strain on Edwards’s popularity. Everybody — even Edwards — now could see that the First Church was making ready for a change of pastors.

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