First Churches, Northampton temporarily closed
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.
- "...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)
- "...many thought it had been an amazing clap of thunder..." (John 12:29)
- "...the care of providence in disposing the motions of every stick of timber..." (Matt 10:28-33)
- "...amazing noise...astonishment of the congregation...dolorous shrieking and crying..." (Matt 13:47-50, Rev 18:12-22, among others)
- Regarding the destruction of the timber in the meetinghouse (Hab 2:8-14, Zech 5:3-5, et al.)