Jonathan Edwards could have stayed quiet. His reputation was beyond reproach and his theological influence was spreading like “wildfire”.
Yet conviction compelled him to do different, to take a different course. This is the testimony of Edwards explaining the issue and his own position:
“A very great difficulty has arisen between my people, relating to qualifications for communion at the Lord’s table (this is the issue). My honored grandfather Stoddard, my predecessor in the ministry over this church, strenuously maintained the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance, and urged all to come who were not of scandalous life, though they knew themselves to be unconverted. I formerly conformed to his practice but I have had difficulties with respect to it, which has been long increasing, till I dared no longer to proceed in the former way, which has occasioned great uneasiness among the people, and has filled all the country with noise.”For Edwards, his Grandfather’s approach was unbiblical and therefore, unacceptable. The next step was to encourage a change in church policy. Did he realize this step might cause tension between him and his people? Absolutely. But he never thought his job would be at stake.
Unfortunately, he was wrong.
Whether it was the policy itself or the people’s lingering attachment to Stoddard or Edwards’ inability to explain his case clearly, the congregants at Northampton went into an angry frenzy.
After weeks of trying to explain his side and correct people’s misunderstandings of his position, Edwards received the news that he was voted out of his Northampton church.
Below is Edwards’ farewell letter to his sheep,
“It was 23 years, since I have labored in the work of ministry in the relation of a pastor to this church and congregation…I have spent the prime of my life and strength in labors for you eternal welfare. You are my witnessed that what strength I have had, I have not neglected in idleness, nor laid out in prosecuting worldly schemes, and managing temporal affairs, for the advancement of my outward estate and aggrandizing myself and family; but have given myself to the work of the ministry, laboring night and day, rising early, and applying myself to this great business to which Christ has appointed me…
A contentious people will be a miserable people. The contentions which have been among you, since I first became your pastor, have been one of the greatest burdens I have labored under in the course of my ministry—not only the contentions you have had with me, but those which you have had with one another, regarding your lands and other concerns—because I knew that contention, heat of spirit, evil speaking, and things of the like nature, were directly contrary to the spirit of Christianity and did, in a peculiar manner, tend to drive away God’s Spirit from a people….
Let the late contention about the terms of Christian communion, as it has been the greatest, be the last. May God bless you with a faithful pastor, one that is well acquainted with his mind and will, thoroughly warning sinners, wisely and skillfully searching professors and conducting you in the way to eternal blessedness.
And let me be remembered in the prayers of all God’s people that are of a calm spirit, and are peaceable and faithful in Israel, of whatever opinion they may be with respect to terms of church communion. And let us all remember, and never forget our future solemn meeting on that great day of the Lord; the day of infallible decision and of everlasting and unalterable sentence. Amen.”Notice that Edwards did not hide his sadness and disappointment from the people of Northampton, yet ‘his words are free of blame or accusation’ (words from Edwards’ biographer). It is clear that America’s greatest theologian was gracious and boldly truthful up to the very end.
But was it the end for Edwards?
Not really….not yet at least.
Edwards’ biographer explains,
“Meanwhile, strange though it seems, Edwards was still supplying the Northampton pulpit on frequent occasions. The manuscripts of twelve sermons which he preached in his former congregation between his ‘Farewell” in July and mid-November, 1750, still survive.”Incredible. The congregants at Northampton not only kicked him out of their pulpit, but then begrudgingly ask him to preach when they couldn’t find a proper preacher to take his place.
Well, you might say….maybe the relationship between Edwards and his congregants wasn’t really that bad.
Sadly, the reader would be terribly mistaken. The account below provides overwhelming evidence of the Town’s aversion towards Edwards.
“Only a month after his dismissal the Town had denied him the use of the meadowland on which he had been dependant for the grazing of his sheep and other animals. At that time yet another committee had been formed and dispatched to the parsonage ‘to convince him (if they can) that he hath no right to that land’. When these men failed to convince Edwards, the Town settled their denial of the meadowland by vote.”Unbelievable. First, they boot out America’s greatest theologian after 23 years of faithful pastoral ministry. Then they force him to give up the land used to feed his animals, which was the only means to sustain his family, both nutritionally and financially (present-day pastors should be thankful for severance pay). Finally, rubbing salt in the wound, they asked him to come back and preach.
And yet he accepted their invitation. Apparently, every time they asked.
What can we learn from this tragic event (in my opinion)?
If you must go, leave graciously.
Oh, how many pastors throughout the ages have failed to do this! Instead of ‘being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:3), they often have an insatiable desire to be right or to be vindicated.
I count myself blessed that God gave me a living example of this, my father-in-law. He served faithfully at the church God had called him to, only to be “shown the door”. This is not to say he was perfect through this process, but not once did he accuse, blame or breed divisiveness. Undoubtedly, his name was “drug through the mud” (especially since he lived in a town of less than 15,000 people), but he sought to ‘entrust his soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right’ (I Peter 4:19).
Bottom line: If God is clapping, what else really matters?