A few weeks ago in small group we read several quotes from Jonathan Edwards, the pastor who gave the most infamous American puritan sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” Rather than considering Edwards’ thoughts, we began discussing whether or not he (or any other Puritan) is worth listening too.
I assure you, he is.
Authors spend entire books explaining the history of the puritans, so I won’t even attempt to tackle that question other than to say this. The Puritans either participated in or led the charges that transformed the political climate of England and North America (and thereby the world). They wrote poetry, fiction, and theology prolifically and still claim two of the most widely read English texts ever written–Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. In the early 1700’s Jonathan Edwards stood at the helm of the first great awakening, during which enormous spiritual transformation swept across America (and even England, with fiery speakers like George Whitfield).
Obviously the Puritans weren’t perfect. Judgmentalism, pejorative language, and racial insensitivity against the indiginous races in North America in some Puritan communities marrs the face of dynamic Puritan spirituality. It’s wrong to make excuses for their mistakes, but this is the nature of history.
For example, the transcendental age of romanticism was also the age of slavery. The gilded age of industry was also the age of child labor and deathly urban slums. The modern age of penicillian produced the A-Bomb. We, like the Puritans and everyone else, will not escape history’s unforgiving sythe.
However, history in the hands of contemporary academics cut Puritans down to impish moralists hellbent on destroying all joy and life.
Today we memorialize Puritans with mocking words like “Puritanical” which imply strict, moral, and prudish religious expectations. In English anthologies Jonathan Edwards is represented devilishly by editors who typically include one text, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”
During my English education, I heard people describe the Puritans as “Hellfire and brimstone preachers,” “fear mongerers,” and “backwards.” Moreover, teachers require students to read plays like “The Crucible,” and books like “The Scarlet Letter,” (texts that charicature Puritans primarily as hypocritical, dangerous, and hateful) and then pawn it off like everyday Puritan lifestyle.
So why do we love to hate the Puritans? I think there are many reasons. First, the Purtians’ honest trust in biblical teaching insults our modern tolerant sensibilities, therefore we call their strong language arrogant. Second, their serious view of sin and salvation frightens us, because it makes heaven and hell feel real.
But I think the we hate puritans mostly because, ironically, we are moralists.
In Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero’s book, Religious Literacy, he argues that in the nineteenth century Americans traded religion for morality in an effort to find common ground amongst dissenting religious groups. Today, he argues, most Christians “have collapsed religion almost entirely into its moral dimension” (citing Gallup surveys to back it up).
If Porthero is right, then most people think religious teachers should stick to vague uplifiting moral messages. The Puritans do the exact oppisite, because they were anything but moralists. Their sermons used grand sweeping terms to capture Christ’s all encompassing redemptive work–they saw the grand narrative of the Bible, creation, fall, redemption and restoration in all things. Do you see how these two versions of teaching grind against one other? Moralists say “simply do good,” but Puritans (and the Bible) say, “repent, turn to Jesus and live the life you were meant to live!”
Moralists speak only to a fragmented, private section of our lives. Puritans speak into the whole.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that English anthologies only include sermons like “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God,” but leave out sermons like, “Heaven is a World of Love.”
With what dynamic wonder and joy did Edwards see heaven? More than you and I, probably, because he saw it in the grand narrative of Christ’s work. He said, ‘Christ saved us that we might taste heaven.’ While moralists chide, ‘live a good life so that you don’t go to the bad place.’ So is it a surprise that he saw hell with horror, and preached it as such in “Sinners”?
To this arguement many people reply, “I don’t have a problem with hell, I just have a problem with Edwards’ God, who holds people over it like spiders.”
Yet again, this is the problem of the moralist.
Edwards points people to Jesus in this sermon, the only person who can save men and women from the rightful wrath of God. He deals faithfully with New Testament passages like Rev. 14:9-10, “If anyone worships [any idols] … he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Edwards took this seriously, and shouldn’t we? I suspect it only amplified the joy of Christians already saved (and those being saved) the morning he preached this, for they saw more truly what Christ saved them from, by taking it upon himself.
The moralist fails to see the grand salvation narrative, and feels disgusted when the moral of Edwards’ sermon is not “live a good life.” In truth, moralists are upset because Edwards attacks their idol: pride. People want self-empowerment; they want to be told, “You can do it! You are strong enough!”
Edwards says, “You can’t do it! You deserve hell! Only Jesus can do it!”
I want to end this post with a quote from Edwards, about the joyful, awesome life promised for us in Christ alone:
There is a twofold knowledge of good of which God has made the mind of man capable. The first, that which is merely notional …And the other is, that which consists in the sense of the heart; as when the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it. In the former is exercised merely …the understanding, in distinction from the… dispositionof the soul …Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.
I think the Puritans have a lot to teach us wretched, prideful moralists.