Friday, March 23, 2007

First Churches, Northampton temporarily closed

Recently, the building of the First Churches, Northampton was forced to close its doors due to a rather dramatic event of plaster falling from the ceiling in the midst of a meeting.

Interestingly, even in his own day, Jonathan Edwards' church was no stranger to architectural drama. On March 19th, 1737, Edwards wrote a letter published in the Boston Gazette about a stunning event which he interpreted as "one of the most amazing instances of divine preservation, that perhaps was ever known in the land." (Works 4, 134) On Sunday morning during the congregational worship, the gallery of the meetinghouse (the "upper deck" of the church's seating area) came loose from its joists and came crashing down upon the people seated for worship below. I will let Edwards tell the story:

"...soon after the beginning of the sermon, the whole gallery full of people, with all the seats and timber, suddenly and without any warning sunk, and fell down, with most amazing noise, upon the heads of those that sat under, to the astonishment of the congregation, the house being filled with dolorous shrieking and crying, and nothing else was expected than to find many people dead, and dashed to pieces."

Bad scene. Now for the preservation bit.

"But so mysteriously and wonderfully did it come to pass, that every life was preserved; and though many were greatly bruised, and their flesh torn, yet there is not, as I can understand, one bone broke, or so much as put out of joint among them all. Some that were thought to be almost dead at first, are greatly recovered; and but one young woman seems to remain in dangerous circumstances, by an inward hurt in her breast; but of late there appears more hope of her recovery."

And of course, Edwardsean preservation demands Edwardsean interpretation.

"There is none can give account, or conceive by what means it should come to pass, that people's lives and limbs should be thus preserved, when so great a multitude were thus imminently exposed. It looked as though it were impossible it should be otherwise, than that great numbers should instantly be crushed to death or dashed in pieces: it seems unreasonable to ascribe it to anything else, but the care of providence in disposing the motions of every stick of timber, and the precise place of safety where everyone should sit and fall, when none were in any capacity to take care for their own preservation...

Such an event may be a sufficient argument of a divine providence over the lives of men. We thought ourselves called to set apart a day to be spent in the solemn worship of God, to humble ourselves under such a rebuke of God upon us in the time of public service in God's house by so dangerous and surprising an accident; and to praise his name for so wonderful, and as it were miraculous a preservation; and the last Wednesday was kept by us to that end: and a mercy in which the hand of God is so remarkably evident, may well be worthy to affect the hearts of all that hear it."

There's so much in this interpretation that is classic Edwards. He draws the reader in with calculated, scientific description of joists and plaster, frosts and the spreading of wood (for more of this, see the whole account in Works 4, 133). He describes with cold precision the procession of a horrifying drama that is by all rights going to result in a massive loss of human life. And then, in the midst of such observation, mystery! wonder! rescue! a word from our Sponsor! Edwards uses this narrative to expose the fulcrum point at which the natural physical laws of earthly existence are being held together by absolute providential attention. Suddenly, in such a moment of rupture, he is able to locate himself and his people with pinpoint accuracy on a cosmological stage in the midst of their mundane experience. For Edwards, when the veil is torn, things can be seen more clearly. (What then does this say about his approach to revelation and his ostensible cessationism?)

Also, and I don't think this is too much of a stretch, Edwards weaves his contemporary narrative with narrative allusions to biblical stories, underscoring the importance of God's merciful choice to spare the people by aligning their fate with that of Christ...and urging them to live lives worthy of their callings.
  1. "...though many were greatly bruised and their flesh torn, yet there is not, as I can understand, one bone broke..." (John 19:36, Hosea 6:1, Psalm 34:20)
  2. "...many thought it had been an amazing clap of thunder..." (John 12:29)
  3. "...the care of providence in disposing the motions of every stick of timber..." (Matt 10:28-33)
  4. "...amazing noise...astonishment of the congregation...dolorous shrieking and crying..." (Matt 13:47-50, Rev 18:12-22, among others)
  5. Regarding the destruction of the timber in the meetinghouse (Hab 2:8-14, Zech 5:3-5, et al.)
For Edwards, there is no difficulty in seeing these narratives of judgment and of mercy running together as streams that inform his typological/meta-narrative understanding of the events in the life of his congregation. God has mercy on his wayward people once again, but there are no guarantees that every day will be such a day of mercy. Edwards writes the story using the language that he does to "affect the hearts of all that hear it" and cause them to draw close again to God.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Nature of True Virtue in Hungarian

As you hopefully know by now, the JEC is co-sponsoring a conference in Hungary this Spring...Jonathan Edwards in Europe.

In conjunction with the conference, Helikon Publishers have published a Hungarian translation of Edwards' treatise on The Nature of True Virtue. Click here to check it out.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Getaway Sermon (Marty on WJE)

We were happy to see Martin Marty's commentary Volume 25 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards edition on the February 20, 2007 MEMO page of the Christian Century.
It is gratifying to see that Marty believes in the enduring importance of JE's life and thought for the 21st century.

We reproduce the article for you below by permission of the Christian Century.

Getaway Sermon
by Martin E. Marty

CHRISTOPHER NIEBUHR of the well-known Niebuhr tribe wrote to me recently. He is celebrating the Yale University Press publication of Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 (edited by Wilson H. Kimnach), 800 pages of transcribed scripts and notes that make up the 25th and final volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Niebuhr sent me a copy of notes
from the last sermon that Edwards preached to the Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Edwards had been run out of Northampton’s “Great Awakening” church in a complicated
“Bad Book” fight over ministry to youth, and preached at Stockbridge from 1751 to 1754, when most of the Indian congregation dribbled away. (Of course, Edwards needed translators—John Wauwaumpequunnaunt for the Mohicans and Rebecca Ashley for the Mohawks.) Then, in
1758, this twice-failed cleric moved from Stockbridge to become president of the College of New Jersey, but died soon after he arrived.

Failed cleric? Yale does not invest decades and top scholars do not give their best years and their eyesight transcribing the scribbles of second-bests.
Edwards was this continent’s prime evangelist, awakener, theologian, preacher and more. He inspired a small library full of large books and articles examining him, molecule of ink by molecule of ink. Volume 25 advertises “additional volumes forthcoming,” a signal that not all the scholars are up to speed on this unmatched publishing venture.

Many ministers have taken comfort from the fact that such a great preacher did not always satisfy his own congregation. Christopher did not tell me why he chose to point me toward Edwards’s “stirrup sermon,” presumably preached the day he galloped away and one week after a more official farewell sermon. (Yale also reproduces a picture of Edwards’s barely decipherable original notes.) But in these days of prosperity gospel, positive-thinking and
hooray-for-our-side “Left Behind” sermons, I thought readers might find it bracing to read how Edwards took leave:

Luke 21:36 “Watch ye, and pray always.”
I. MANY dreadful things are coming upon this wicked world.
II. The righteous, and they only, shall be thought fit to escape those things that shall come.
III. All at last must be called to appear before Christ.
Christ will come. All must see him. All must [be] brought before him.
IV. The righteous shall be thought worthy to stand before Christ and no others.
First. The righteous worthy.
Second. Wicked not worthy.
V. We should watch and pray always that we may be thought worthy [to stand before Christ].
First. Watch.
Second. Pray.
Third. Always.
What must watch against.
How watch.
What need of watching.
What pray for.
How pray.

There is no mention of a champagne toast, farewell gift or word of thanks from the congregation. You can be sure that, given this clear word from Edwards, we will 1) Watch and
2) Pray.

Copyright 2007 Christian Century. Reproduced by permission from the Feb 20th, 2007 of the Christian Century.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Abolition of the slave trade

An excellent paper by John Coffey on William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade may be found here. JE gets a brief mention, though the author doesn't argue that Wilberforce read Edwards. As far as I can recall without looking it up, I'm fairly sure that he did.

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