Jonathon Edwards and the Destruction of the Puritan Canopy in Early US History

As is well known to students of American history, the “Puritan Canopy” was a reflection of the New England Puritan’s desire to construct a society based on what they had found in the scriptures by their covenantal compacts between and within families at the foundation of their settlements:

“Puritan theologians assumed there was a given (rather than a constructed) character to human nature, the world, and God’s way of reaching out to the world.  They took for granted that the central religious task was to orient the self to the prerogatives of God as those prerogatives had been revealed in Scripture”. (Emphasis added).

However, the canopy had begun to fragment by the 1750s ironically under the stress of the Great Awakening centered around Jonathan Edward’s “subtle and most able restatement of [the] inherited Calvinist convictions”.  Edwards was a revivalist in the literal sense of the word, he was seeking to revive that which, like Eli the High Priest during the time of King Saul had become old, fat and blind in its old age.  However, his ecclesiological innovations of prohibiting the openly unregenerate from partaking of the Lord’s Supper and his growing doubts over the theological validity of a localized covenant as envisaged by the New England Puritan orthodoxy and social organization, had in them the seeds which grew in freshly ploughed Arminian soil on the new frontiers.  Additionally, however unintentionally or indirectly, Edwards’ work opened the door to political republicanism, Noll sees in this the transition: “[a] move from theology to politics, and intellectual leadership…from the clergy to men of state”.

Edwards began to react to the admission to the Lord’s supper those from covenant families just on that basis even though they had a lifestyle that showed no interest in piety or the things of God.  The Calvinist insistence on “total depravity”, “unconditional election”, “limited atonement of the elect”, “irresistible grace” and “the perseverance of the saints” (TULIP) most controversially encapsulated as “predestination” for the hyper-Calvinist, placed human salvation purely as an act of God’s grace, the will and/or lifestyle of the individual could not frustrate the will or purposes of God.  Thus, the sacrament of baptism was seen as a covenant declaration recognizing what God would do in the life of an individual and on that basis, they could partake of the Lord’s Supper.  This was distinct from the Romanist view (and maintained in High Church forms of Anglicanism and similar denominations) that one was joined to Christ’s church by baptism but also distinct from the later evangelical insistence that baptism was for believers only (though dedication of infants was permitted).

Edwards’ increasing rejection of the logic of these “covenantal” practices found fertile soil in ministers like John Wesley (1703 –1791) who became highly influential in the Evangelical (Arminian) revival that effectively displaced Calvinism as the dominant theology of Protestant America.  He concluded that if the love of God reigned within a human heart, the sanctification should be evident as an outward holiness.  Although Wesley is often characterized as “Arminian” he came to broadly the same conclusions as Arminius independently of him but indicated in later publications that he basically agreed with the positions of Arminius.  George Whitfield, Wesley’s ministry partner and friend (though at times the friendship was strained because of their theological differences) became the founder of the Calvinist Methodists.  In a similar fashion, other post-Reformation denominations such as the Baptists and the Congregationalists would have Arminian and Calvinistic wings.

It must be noted that Arminius himself was probably much less Arminian than his followers became (as Calvin much less Calvinist than some of his hyper-Calvinist heirs), he actually defended infant baptism as a covenant sacrament whilst maintaining that the Anabaptists should be permitted in their practice of adult baptism.  Needless to say, in just this brief excursion, this is a far more nuanced argument than is sometimes encountered in Reformed circles – Edwards seeking after evidence of piety and a renewal of Puritanism, was influential in its dissolution.

Further Reading

Noll, M. A. (2002). America’s God – From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.