Marsden's Edwards XIV
Bill Long 9/28/05
Things Fall Apart--1744-45
Well, once you or others have worked your people into the frothy lather of revival, so that the young people don't hang around at taverns or play cards anymore but are interested in singing hymns and cultivating concern for their souls, what do you do when things return to "normal?" Or, must they return to "normal?" From the perspective of 260 years it is natural to say that things eventually return to normal; stock markets collapse; roller coasters finish their rides; the mountain-top experience is replaced by the laundry that faces you after the retreat. But I believe, now that I am getting to know Edwards more and more, that he truly believed that during and after the times of revival human nature could be permanently lifted to a higher plane of existence (even though he was a Reformed theologian), and that from this higher plane of existence the waves of revival would spread out in concentric circles from Northampton. That is, I think he imagined that the great millennial work of God would break out soon, and the last thing that he and God needed were spiritually backsliding people. So, I don't think he counted on things returning to "normal." Nevertheless, they did.
Another thing he didn't anticipate was the fact that he himself, the pastor, the one through whom the great revivals came, would be the stumbling block for the townspeople and the people in his congregation. Once you pray for perfection (or at least a higher stage of living) and you are temporarily rewarded with apparent indications of this, you tend to expect it as a matter of course. Human that we are, we tend to extrapolate from our best days and multiply by 1,000 and think that we should be able therefore to accomplish 1000X in three years, not realizing that our "best" days are significantly better than the "average" days, and that we should extrapolate at only 600X or 500X for the three-year period. But you have to allow for down time and for the inevitable drag on life itself. With these background observations, we are ready to understand the issue that arose in 1744.
Exposing Sexual Sins
Marsden describes the issue much better and more fully than I can in my space here. Suffice it to say that rumors began to fly and then credible reports surfaced that certain of the young men of the church (single men in their 20s) got hold of a "midwifery" guide (a sort of 18th century equivalent of a pornographic book) and were taunting young women about menstrual cycles and other topics to embarrass or, at least as likely, to titillate them. Edwards unskillfully ended up reading the names of the accused as well as witnesses without distinguishing which was which, leading to rampant speculation in the community about what was up and who was responsible for it. In addition, many of the good people of Northampton just thought that bringing young men in their 20s to book over sexual comments made to young women was stretching it a bit too far. Marsden admirably locates the issues in the world of 18th century morality, but still he seems to think that Edwards' zeal was a little over-the-top.
Why would Edwards have pursued the agenda of reading names publicly and then pursuing a quasi-judicial process to "smoke out" the perpetrators? Well, for one reason, the church folk had solemnly sworn a covenant in 1742 to live lives dedicated to the work of God; this lascivious talk and ridicule was obviously below the standard set in 1742. Again, Edwards had enjoyed signal success among the young people during the revivals of 1734-35 and 1740-42. That they would be turning to this sort of activity might undermine his belief that the young people were duly converted. Finally, sexual sin was not something to be winked at in the congregation. For those of us today that know something about the workings of sexual harassment law, we can recognize that Edwards' desire to nip this in the bud (as he saw it) was driven by a desire to "lay down the law" before things got too far out of hand.
But, ultimately, things blew up in his face. No "convictions" were forthcoming, and the general confessions of a few of the young men seemed to result in more resentment than remorse. From this moment until Edwards actually left Northampton a few years later (a rather unusual move for an 18th pastor to leave his church in the middle of his days), his spiritual authority seemed to have ebbed in the town and the congregation.
I have two conclusions at this point. First, relating to Marsden. He tells this story well, and is particularly helpful in relying on data that shows demographic patterns in Northampton. Because of the large size of families and the scarcity of land, Northampton saw, for the first time, a lot of rootless young men beginning in the 1730s. Edwards was able to capitalize on this through the first revival. He gave an "answer" to their rootlessness by his preaching. Yet, by the 1740s a good number were still rootless, and now the spiritual nostrums of earlier days wouldn't do much good. Thus, the young men were more belligerent and anti-authoritarian. Also, they were single. And, when you have all of those together, with the hormones kicking in quite strongly, you have all the makings of a spiritual "decline," from Edwards' perspective.
My second conclusion relates to the broader issue of revival, which is so much a part of Edwards' life and Marsden's biography. Revival might also be defined as the triumph of grace over nature--where people sometimes deny certain human inclinations to devote themselves in large measure to the work of God. But what happened in Northampton in 1744-45 is that nature finally caught up with grace. Come to think of it. It tends to happen this way almost every time.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long