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Posts Tagged ‘puritans’

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Puritan Meetinghouses

Peter Benes, puritan architecturePeter Benes, Meetinghouses of Early New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

This book barely mentions Edwards, but demands to be perused by Edwards scholars nonetheless. It offers a detailed history of the architecture, furniture, ornaments, seating, even the painting of New England’s early, storied meeting houses, more than 2,200 in all, from the time of the first pilgrims to about 1830—including Edwards’ own buildings in Northampton and, later, Stockbridge.

These structures were employed, of course, for purposes other than worship. They housed civic meetings, criminal trials, ammunition, wounded soldiers, and served numerous other functions, spiritual and secular. Their religious purposes, though, proved to be the most important to their design and in the lives of most of the people who would use them.

Benes shows us all of this, telling the history of these buildings and explaining the significance of New England’s “vernacular” tradition of architecture.

Those who have read and used Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 1629-1730 (1990) will appreciate this volume on the material surroundings and supports of Puritan liturgy–and on the things they tell us about their worshipers’ priorities.

Sweeney’s BookNotes: The Sermons of George Whitefield, 2 vols., ed. Lee Gatiss (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012)

George WhitefieldThis handy collection of sermons has been edited by the Rev. Lee Gatiss, an Anglican minister, a doctoral student at Cambridge, director-elect of the Church Society (a Church of England ministry), visiting lecturer in church history at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and editor of the British internet journal, Theologian.

Published first in the UK in the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Library (REAL, which belongs to the Church Society), these volumes feature 61 of Whitefield’s best-known sermons, most of which are taken from the fifth and sixth volumes of The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, ed. John Gillies (1771-1772) and presented in a nearly canonical order. Seventy-nine Whitefield sermons are available in print, in one place or another, but only 57 of these were authorized (and thus revised) for the press by Whitefield himself, who felt that many of his early talks proved much too “apostolical,” impulsive, and judgmental for publication. Gatiss here reissues Whitefield’s 57 favorites, along with two others judged by Gillies to be fit for publication and another two that Gatiss deems too precious for exclusion (“The Method of Grace,” on Jeremiah 6:14, and “The Good Shepherd,” on John 10:27-28).

Gatiss himself has written a helpful introduction to the sermons, placing them in historical and theological context. His footnotes offer further information about the texts and their historical references. Gatiss has updated the sermons by lightly modernizing their grammar, spelling, punctuation, and paragraph breaks, adding numerous subheadings in order to serve the sermons to readers in bite-size helpings. He has modernized some of Whitefield’s English Bible quotations (most of which were taken from the King James Bible), but has not provided an index of any kind.

Gatiss aims these volumes at Christians, mainly evangelical Anglicans, whom Gatiss hopes to inspire to a more bold and faithful witness. Students will also want to use them, but should bear in mind that very little text-critical scholarship has been done on Whitefield’s sermons, few of whose manuscripts survive, and many of which may well be based on auditors’ transcriptions.

It is high time for someone to publish a critical edition of the extant Whitefield corpus. David Ceri Jones of Aberystwyth University is trying to raise funds to pay for a scholarly edition of the correspondence of Whitefield (roughly 4,000 letters, nearly 600 of which have not been published heretofore). May his efforts come to fruition. May they expand, in fact, to comprehend the whole of Whitefield’s corpus.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Race, and Redemption

Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This fascinating monograph began as a dissertation at the University of Kentucky. In it, Bailey, an alumnus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary currently teaching history at Canisius College (Buffalo), highlights the contradictory and sometimes even hypocritical manner in which Puritans like Edwards sought the spiritual redemption of the African and Native American people they enslaved.

Most historians identify the rise of what we call “race,” racialized ways of viewing the world, and the practices of racism, at least in British America, with the late eighteenth century. Bailey shows that the Puritans used racialized categories and expressed racist views much earlier than that—indeed, soon after they rowed ashore.

His book explores what he refers to as “the intersections between the religious frontier that was colonial New England and the racial frontiers pioneered by white colonists as they ordered colonial society,” paying most of its attention “to the ways New England puritans socially, culturally, intellectually, legally, and theologically ordered and attempted to control their experiences with New Englanders of color” (pp. 6-7). Bailey’s thesis is rather vague and usually difficult to follow, perhaps because he is eager to foreground its poignant paradox: “race was created, at least in part, out of the spiritual freedoms offered by New England Puritanism” (p. 7); or, in other words, colonial Americans “constructed race from the spiritual freedoms found in the redemption being offered by puritans of all persuasions, tying race and redemption” close together (p. 14). But the real strength of the book is not its thesis anyway, but the evidence it offers of the racialized perceptions of New Englanders like Edwards.

Those who think that I was wrong, or simply too harsh, for criticizing Edwards as “something of a racist” (Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, p. 180) really need to read this book. I recommend it most highly to anyone interested in Edwards, Edwards’ world, and its socio-cultural legacies.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Dissertation Notes: “The Weather and Theology” in Puritan New England

Darryl Sasser, “The Weather and Theology: The Influence of the Natural World on Religious Thought in Puritan New England” (PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 2010).

Were the New England Puritans eco-theologians? Darryl Sasser, Visiting Instructor of History at Simpson College in Indianapolis, Indiana, explores this question in his dissertation, “The Weather and Theology.” He describes eco-theology as the intersection of God, nature, and humanity, and he finds in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritan theology a recurring interest in the surrounding environment. In short, by probing the influence of the physical environment on the Puritans’ lived religion through a variety of texts, he argues that both weather and place shaped their religious identity. Sasser specifically follows a thread of discussions about the natural world in five New England Puritans: William Bradford, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Jonathan Edwards.

Bradford represents the early Separatist Puritans who launched Plymouth Colony. They faced unique challenges in an untamed “wilderness,” an environment they feared because they were so susceptible to its whims (30). But Bradford also exhibited their corporate confidence in God’s providence no matter how it was manifested in the weather.

Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Samuel Sewall represent a later generation of Puritans living in a tamer New England and seeking to make sense of nature and weather in light of the emerging ideas of the “New Science” (56, 98, 125). They sought to apply the methods of science in their environment: Increase wrote a book on comets, Cotton penned a treatise on natural philosophy and Christianity, and Sewall devoured almanacs and kept notes on the weather in his diary for business endeavors. All three believed, in different ways, that divine providence could fit together with the New Science, thus representing a shifting landscape in Puritan theology.

With Edwards Sasser marks a significant shift in the Puritan approach to nature. While the other four subjects often found divine judgment in weather, Edwards found God communicating himself positively in nature, and he often met God powerfully on his walks through the woods near his rural home. Sasser argues that Edwards’ appreciation for nature and his natural typology led him to elevate nature to the point that he claims Edwards “held nature in equal, if not greater esteem, than the Bible” (164). By making this move, Sasser can cast Edwards as the shifting point toward modern eco-theology. He acknowledges Edwards’ moderate path between pantheism and deism, but states that “[e]ven though an anachronism, Edwards can be thought of as an eco-theologian,” and that “he easily falls within the modern model” (174, 177).

What Sasser’s dissertation does well is remind us that the Puritans lived in a particular place and that that place made an impact on their theology and lived religion. Weather, environment, and nature caused New England Puritans to wrestle with their theology in a world with changing views on science and nature. Insulated from political and philosophical pressures of Old England and influenced by frontier living in New England’s harsh climate, their experience shaded their theology in ways that differentiated them from their counterparts on the British Isles.

Sasser also reminds us of the global-local tension. While many historians are exploring colonial New England in the broader context of Atlantic studies, Sasser calls us not to neglect local influences, showing that the weather and environment of Massachusetts gave the New England Puritans a unique experience of faith.

What remains unconvincing to this reader, however, is Sasser’s interpretation of Edwards on two accounts. First, to say that Edwards “believed nature was equal and possibly superior to Scripture when revealing God” (163) fails to take seriously Edwards’ commitment to the authority of the Bible, which so pervades his work. It is true that Edwards valued God’s communication in nature, but he held that Scripture was a tutor that teaches us the “language” of types, so that we can interpret God’s communication in Scripture and nature (“Types,” WJE 11.150–152). The Bible saturates Edwards’ writings, and he said himself that “[t]he Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature” (“Images of Divine Things,” WJE 11.106), a quote Sasser explains away. Yet the Edwards scholars who best understand his engagement with the Bible—Robert Brown, Stephen Stein, and Douglas Sweeney—all agree that the Scriptures held supreme authority over nature in Edwards’ mind, against the arguments of Perry Miller, a key source for Sasser.

Second, what Sasser does by making nature equal to Scripture is cast Edwards as a proto-eco-theologian. While he rightly shows that Edwards developed a theology of nature, he burdens it with modern notions of environmentalism that were foreign to Edwards. Yet this misreads Edwards. One example may suffice. In a sermon on Rom 8:22, Edwards states, “Natural man should earnestly seek after conversion.” Sasser argues that Edwards defines the “natural man” as “one who seeks conversion and to be in ‘alignment’ with God and nature,” as opposed to the “unnatural man” (173). But for Edwards, the “natural man” is the “unconverted person” who has not yet been affected by the Holy Spirit’s gracious influences. The man in a natural state needs God’s supernatural grace to be freed from the natural state of original sin. Sasser mistakes an environmental focus for Edwards’ perennial gospel-centered revival preaching.

All in all, Sasser is at his best when showing us that weather and place affected the religious experience and thought of the New England Puritans. But his reading of Edwards seems to fit more into his own eco-theological interests than into the thought of Jonathan Edwards, the New England divine.

– David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS