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Review of the Dismission of Mr. Edwards.-Causes.-Conduct
of the Parties.—Designs of Providence.
The facts connected with the dismission of Mr. Edwards from Northampton, so far as they have come within my knowledge, have now been detailed. An event so singular, so unhappy in itself, and so important in its consequences, and in its connection with the ecclesiastical history of New-England, deserves no ordinary attention. In examining its bearing on the character of Mr. Edwards, we are compelled to consider the Causes which led to it, and the Conduct of the various parties concerned.
In reviewing the Causes, which led to this melancholy event, it cannot fail to strike the reader, that, agreeably to the confession of his most violent opposers and most bitter enemies, no solitary instance of misconduct, on the part of Mr. Edwards, is to be enumerated among those causes. No allegation of imprudence, or impropriety, in him or his family, no mention of any unfaithfulness, or neglect of duty, of any fault, either of commission or of omission, is to be found in any of the documents connected with the whole series of transactions, from the beginning to the close. The only charges brought against him, were,—that he had changed his opinion, with regard to the Scriptural Qualifications for admission to the Church ; that he was very pertinacious in adhering to his new opinions; and that, in this way, he gave his people a great deal of trouble. When we remember the great and general excitement, prevailing for so long a time in the town, the acrimony of feeling, and the severity of censure, so extensively manifested; no higher proof than this can be furnished, of uncommon purity and excellence, on the part of an individual or his family.
Among the Causes, which led to this separation, may be mentioned the following : the Existing State of the Church at that period; the attempt to maintain purity of Discipline, in the case of some of its younger members; the personal hostility of the fam y;
and above all, the conscientious scruples of Mr. Edwards, as to the admission of unconverted members into the christian Church. All these, if we mistake not, so far as Mr. Edwards had any connection with them, will be found highly honourable to his character.
The Existing State of the Church of Northampton, at is time,
deserves our notice. It was, and had long been, very large ; embracing almost all the married adults of the congregation, as well as a considerable proportion of the youths of both sexes.
This state of things, considered in itself merely, and without reference to the particular character or condition of any given body of christians, is now, and always hitherto has been, a suspicious circumstance, as to the prevalence of vital religion, in any church of Christ. Where a church includes the great body of a congregation, it must have been for a considerable period, and still is, the fashion, to belong to it; and, not to belong to it, involves, of course, a species of public disgrace. In such circumstances, very strong inducements are held out to irreligious men, to persuade themselves, in some way or other, that they have become christians, and so to attach themselves to the christian church.
In national churches, and in those sects or denominations, which erect no effectual barrier against the incursions of an unconverted world, we find the mass of the population, and among these, of course, a vast multitude of the ungodly, uniting themselves to the visible family of Christ, and, by their numbers and their influence, giving to that section of it to which they belong, as a body, their own worldly character.
In churches, which aim at a more exact conformity to the scriptural rules, in preventing the admission of unrenewed persons into their number, there is, in the state of things we have mentioned, a constant danger from this source. There is so, with regard to the admission of unworthy members. Such churches become thus large, in consequence of powerful revivals of religion. A revival of religion is a season of high excitement in the body of a congregation, even when nothing moves them but the truth of God, applied directly to the conscience; but especially is this true, when, in addition to this, artificial means are employed, as they sometimes unhappily are, to rouse the feelings of the church, and the passions of the people at large. In such a state of things, when the immediate presence and direct influences of the Holy Spirit are generally felt, and universally acknowledged, when convictions of sin are wrought, with a greater or less degree of power, in almost every unrenewed mind, when every such mind is conscious of anxiety and alarm, as to its final welfare, and when great numbers are really pressing into the kingdom of God; those, who have long wished to be in the church, because it is fashionable and reputable to be there, and because, when there, they hope to feel a sense of safety, having heard from those around them the feelings and the language of Zion, easily persuade themselves, that the same change has passed on them, which others, already acknowledged to be cbristians, have experienced, and therefore offer themselves as candidates for admission to the church. In deciding on the question, whether they shall be admitted, both the church and the minister
are in more than ordinary danger of deciding wrong. The feelings of both are powerfully excited, and of course their minds are less likely to make up a judgment, founded merely on evidence. Both are conscious, that the Spirit of God is present in the midst of them, carrying on his own appropriate work of conviction and conversion, with divine power and glory. Both have a lively compassion for impenitent sinners; both wish the enlargement of the church; and the minister, perhaps, is fondly anticipating the time, when he can speak of the scores, if not of the hundreds, of his spiritual children. The individuals examined, speak a common language, and tell a common story—a story sometimes learned by rote. Of a change, all are conscious; and it is a change in their views and feelings, on the subject of religion. They do not discriminate, with regard to themselves, or one another; and the apparent difference among them is usually not so great, as to enable others to make any satisfactory discrimination. All indulge hope concerning themselves, and each has already satisfied numbers of his own conversion. All also, during the months, or perhaps weeks, that have elapsed, since this hope was cherished, have broken off their external sins; and none have had a sufficient length of trial to decide, whether they have gained a decisive victory over the sins of the heart. The time for admission is come; all believe that they have resolved to lead a life of religion; and no very satisfactory reason can be given, why one should be taken, and another left. In these circumstances, when ardent zeal, and lively hope, and tender compassion, are to sit as umpires; it is not surprising that, even in such churches, multitudes of unrenewed men should succeed in their application for admission.
But the danger is at least equally great, with regard to the general state of religion in such churches. As the church embraces the body of the congregation, it is the stronger party, and can carry its own measures, without opposition. Strong in itself, in its own numbers, wisdom, wealth and resources, it loses its sense of dependence, not only on the aid of the congregation, but on the care and protection of its Head. The members of such a church cease to fear the gaze of the surrounding world, and gradually lose the watchfulness and circumspection, which the dread of that gaze usually inspires. This is true even of those, who are thought to furnish evidence of their own piety.
What shall we say then, of the multitude, who have been thus improperly admitted ? When their ardour has once abated, they have nothing left, to lead them even to an external conformity to the rules of the Gospel, except a regard to reputation, a fear of ecclesiastical censure, or of the loss of that mistaken hope, which they cherish of their own safety. The consequence is, that, finding no enjoyment in religion, they relinquish the performance of one external duty after another, and aHow themselves in the prac
tice of one and another secret sin, until their lives are as really, if pot as obviously, worldly and irreligious, as they were before their annexation to the church. Such men, when constituting a numerous body in a given church, unite for common defence, and keep each other in countenance. By their numbers, their example and their influence, they diffuse a spirit of worldly-mindedness through the whole body, oppose every measure designed for its reformation, and effectually prevent the discipline of the church.
All this must have been emphatically realized in the Church of Northampton. The two principal safeguards, against the admission of irreligious men into the church, are, the dread of making an unsound profession of religion, on the part of the candidate, growing out of the firm conviction in his mind, that such a profession involves very great guilt in the sight of God, and leading of course to thorough self-examination; and an established rule on the part of the church, that none shall be received, who do not, when examined, furnish satisfactory evidence of conversion. These two safeguards had now been removed from the Church of Northampton, for forty-five years; and this, under the express sanction, and by the immediate agency, of so wise and good a man as Mr. Stoddard ; and the people had been taught to believe, that, although piety was necessary for salvation, it was not necessary for Church-membership; but that communion at the Lord's Supper was at once the duty and the privilege, of unconverted men, as such, and the most probable means of their conversion. Such had been the actual practice of the church, during this long period; and five revivals of religion, (those in 1712 and 1718, that in 1727, and those in 1734, and F#49,—the first, and the last two, of uncommon extent and power,) during which almost all the existing members of the church had made a profession of religion, had occurred since the practice was introduced. The faithful labours of Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Edwards, during this long period, had indeed been efficacious, in preventing many of the evils which might otherwise have been introduced. But, if it is so difficult to prevent many false professions, in powerful revivals of religion, even in those churches where the candidate is most faithfully examined, and most abundantly cautioned, respecting the danger and guilt of a false profession, and solemnly warned to examine himself with the utmost care, because the chief and ultimate responsibility rests on himself; how impossible must it have been to prevent them here, where the whole body of anxious enquirers were told, under the sanction of a name so much venerated, that it was their duty and their privilege, to make an immediate profession of religion, and, if unconverted, that it would be the most probable means of their conversion ? No one, acquainted with the history of the Church, or with the nature of man, will hesitate to say, that such a church must have embodied within its pale, an unhappy proportion of hypocrisy, worldly
mindedness and irreligion; or will be surprized to find its members, on the first plausible occasion, uniting as a body in opposing the prevalence of truth, and the welfare of real religion.
For this state of things in the church, Mr. Edwards was not responsible. It had been introduced in 1704, twenty-three years before his settlement, by Mr. Stoddard, his grandfather, whose colleague he was in the ministry, after a public controversy with Dr. Mather of Boston; in which, in the view of the churches in Hampshire, he had come off victorious. The father of Mr. Edwards, at East Windsor, had indeed pursued a different course ; but all the churches in that large and populous county, except two, and all the ministers except three, sided with Mr. Stoddard. The subject, except in this instance, had not been made a matter of controversy or of discussion; and the Treatise of Dr. Mather was far less satisfactory and definitive, than might well have been wished from one, who was indeed the champion of the truth. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mr. Edwards, being settled under the auspices of Mr. Stoddard, having never examined the subject for himself, and having nothing to call his attention directly to the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the practice, should have entered upon it of course, and have pursued it, until something should occur to convince him, that it was altogether unscriptural. But, while he thus acceded to the existing state of things, he did every thing probably, which any one man could have done, to promote the piety, the purity and the salvation, of the church and congregation at Northampton.
The united attempt of Mr. Edwards and the church to maintain purity of Discipline, was another of the causes, which led to his separation from his people. The offence, of which some of the younger members of the church were accused,—that of extensively circulating books of an impure and grossly licentious character, among persons of their own age, of both sexes, for the purpose of promoting licentiousness of conversation and conduct,—deserved, if ever an offence deserved, and, in any ordinary circumstances, would have received, the unqualified censure of any Christian church. A complaint being made to Mr. Edwards, as the moderator of the church, against those individuals, and supported by apparently satisfactory evidence; it was of course his duty to lay it before the church. This he did, without naming the individuals; and the church, shocked at the grossness of this conduct, yielded to their own first convictions of duty, and unanimously voted, that the offence charged ought to be investigated, and, if proved, ought to be followed by the Discipline of the Church. With the like unanimity, they appointed Mr. Edwards and several of their number a Committee, to pursue the investigation. The manner, in which Mr. Edwards invited the young people to meet the Committee, without distinguishing the witnesses from the accused, whether a matter of inadvertence on his part, or not, was the very nianner, in