[note: This was an essay that I presented in several venues before finally publishing a version of it in All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, ed. Robert Peterson and Sean Michael Lucas (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2006), 117-36.]
Charles Chauncy, the stout Old Light polemicist, responding to the apology for the Great Awakening set forth by Jonathan Edwards, opened his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England with a thirty page historical preface, referring to the “antinomians, familists and libertines, who infected these churches, above a hundred years ago.” Why did Chauncy review an event that occurred a hundred years ago? Aside from the fact that Chauncy attempted to implement the effective debate technique of “guilt by association,” the charge he raised, that “the like spirit and errors, prevailing now as they did then,” provided a clue to the larger American Puritan context in which the battle over the Great Awakening’s meaning took place.
This battle for the Great Awakening’s meaning, the determination whether or not it was a “work of God,” focused on two questions. The first question was, “Are you ‘saved’?” This was the question of the “third person” view, how one person perceived another’s spiritual state. Around this question revolved the propriety of simply asking this question, particularly of ministers, decrying those who did not have an “experimental Christ.” The second question was, “Am I ‘saved’?” This was the question of the “first-person,” of introspection. It focused the individual upon her own salvation, the assurance of her own faith. How these two questions were answered and the evidence used to support the answers determined whether one stood with the Old Lights or the New.
Even more, Chauncy’s reference pointed up the fact that New England divines had debated questions related to salvation and assurance for over a hundred years. With their emphasis on “experimental” religion, the Puritans were well-known for their writings in the area of casuistry, or cases of conscience, where they sought to discern pastorally whether one had experience salvation. It was fitting that the last great representative of the Puritan mind, Jonathan Edwards, struggled to determine for himself and for other New Lights what true religion was, and how it could be found in oneself and in others. The crown jewel of Edwards’ thought on this issue was his book Religious Affections (1746).
Many historians, led by Perry Miller, misread Religious Affections by forcing it into the context of the eighteenth century empricism of John Locke and Isaac Newton and by claiming that the Affections represented Edwards’ contribution to the psychology of religion and to the modern American “mind.” However, I would suggest that Locke and Newton are the wrong intellectual context for Affections. To interpret Affections solely in terms of Lockean empiricism is to interpret Edwards’ argument wrongly. The proper intellectual context for Affections was not Lockean, but Puritan, specifically American Puritanism. Therefore, I argue that Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections must be interpreted in its American Puritan context.
In order to recognize the proper context for Affections, we must return to Charles Chauncy and his historical preface. Chauncy tried to connect Edwards with the Antinomians who captured the attention of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638. This specific historical context held incredible sway in New England; from that point on, by the very mention of “antinomianism,” one minister could blacklist another, sullying his reputation with the extremism associated with Anne Hutchinson.
Moreover, Chauncy’s reference also revivifed the theological fisures first brought to light by the Antinomian Controversy. As historian Janice Knight demonstrated, the Antinomian Controversy was a fissure in the Puritan coalition at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This coalition was made up of the “Intellectual Fathers” on one side; their party included John Winthrop, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, and Thomas Hooker. The Intellectual Fathers stood, according to Knight, in the line of William Ames; they, in particular, “insisted on the usefulness of Christian works as an evidence of salvation.” In the Antinomian Controversy, their champion was Shepard, who from his Newtown (later renamed Cambridge) parish preached a series of sermons over four years entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which he sought to refute the claims of the opposition.
That opposing party, whom Knight dubbed “Spiritual Brothers,” were in the intellectual line of Richard Sibbes and John Preston (and they would claim, John Calvin) and included John Cotton, John Wheelwright, and Henry Vane. This party “presented a vibrant alternative within the mainstream of Puritan religious culture”; and in the Antinomian Controversy, the Spiritual Brothers, led by Cotton, believed that “the transformation of the soul was neither incremental nor dependent on exercises of spiritual discipline. In this piety there are no steps to the altar.”
The coalition that had been maintained between the Spiritual Brothers and the Intellectual Fathers was shattered with the arrival of Anne Hutchinson. The crisis which resulted shook New England to its very core. The tradition that became the dominant theological position, both in Boston and in the history that followed, emphasized the primacy of sanctification in assurance. However, significantly, though Cotton agreed to keep the peace, he did not change his position; he maintained that assurance must come first without any evidence of sanctification, leading Shepard to fume, “Mr. Cotton repents not, but is hid only...He doth stiffly hold the revelation of our good estate still, without any sight of word or work.”
Further, the political aspects of the theological debate—both in 1636 and 1742—should not be missed. As historian Louise Breen recently argued, the Antinomian Controversy of 1636 was about politics and economics as much as theology. The Antinomian party, coalescing around the leadership of Henry Vane, challenged the standing political authority of John Winthrop and other “original” Massachuesetts Bay founders. Importantly, ministers, such as John Wheelwright, were not charged with heresy alone; they were also charged with sedition, a political charge that struck at the disordering nature of this theological division. The party headed by Winthrop and Thomas Shephard was the party of order as well as orthodoxy.
The situation had changed little by 1742; the danger of disorder in the British colonies brought by the New Lights threatened the disintergration of British culture in the new land. Added to this threat of internal disorder was the threat of the French and Native Americans on the western edge of the Atlantic seaboard, a threat that will be realized in the Seven Years War. By making reference to the Antinomian Controversy and attempting to side the New Lights with the earlier antinomians, Chauncy tried to claim the position of Shepard and Winthrop and to pose as the restorer of order and good sense.
Edwards would not choose between Cotton and Shepard, the Spiritual Brothers and Intellectual Fathers. Rather, in Affections, Edwards held the two Puritan positions in tension, the new sense of the heart and the holy walk of the life. Even though quotations from Shepard account for over half of all the footnotes in Affections, there is clearly a Sibbes-Cotton influence, particularly in the development of Edwards’ new spiritual sense. Though not to be argued in this essay, it could be suggested that after Edwards’ death, the synthesis that he developed fragmented. In response to the Separate Congregationalists, the New Divinity men, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, and Jonathan Edwards, Jr., emphasized the evidentialist stream in the Edwardsean synthesis; their appropriation of Edwards’ dissertation The Nature of True Virtue contributed to his disciples’ sometimes rationalistic neonomianism. In response to the Old Calvinists and the Unitarians, the Revivalists (made up of Separate Congregationalists and Baptists primarily) emphasized the experiential stream in the Edwardsian synthesis; this stream tended to be subjective and somewhat antinomian. Sadly, the synthesis, which Edwards’ struggled to develop, collapsed in the short years after his death.