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New England's Covenant with God

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher

That means beginning with New England Puritans. While Anglicans and Methodists in the South and Quakers, Presbyterians, or Lutherans in the Middle Colonies may have been as numerous and socially important, they generally sought to preserve the religious traditions of the "old country." The Puritans of New England consciously sought to make something new.

Puritanism itself, of course, did not begin in New England. Many in England had opposed ceremonialism, episcopacy, and moral decay in the Church of England. Some "Puritans" (in a narrow sense of the word) wanted to purify the church from within. Others-the Separatists-broke off to form independent congregations.

Both groups came to New England-Separatists to Plymouth in 1620 and Puritans to Boston in 1630, for instance-but with an ocean separating all of them from the English hierarchy, the distinction between them tended not to matter very much. Similarly, conflicts between Presbyterians, with their regional assemblies, and Congregationalists, who insisted on the independence of each local congregation, mattered less on the western side of the Atlantic.

"Puritan" can serve as a general term for all these groups, for they shared a common dream. During the voyage of the first Boston settlers in 1630, their governor, John Winthrop, wrote:

Thus stands the case between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work; we have taken out a commission.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us.... For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

They had not come for the sake of religious liberty, but for religious purity-to set up an ideal commonwealth according to God's laws, an example to inspire the whole world.

The idea of "covenant," an agreement freely entered by both parties (we would probably say "contract " today), played a crucial role in their thought, shaping their thinking in two different areas. First, they rejected the idea that a person belonged to a church simply by being born into its territory.

A church consisted only of those who had made a commitment-entered into a covenant-to join it. Second, they defined a person's relations with God in terms of covenant.

Calvin's view was that God saves whomever he chooses without regard for merit. That implied the terrifying thought that nothing one could do has any effect on salvation. Some English and Dutch Calvinists had looked for some modification of this doctrine that would still preserve God's freedom, and they hit upon covenants, In a contract, after all, the parties freely choose to sign, but once they sign, the contract binds them.

So it is with God, according, to these "federal theologians" (from foedus, the Latin word for "contract"). God is indeed absolutely free, but "it has pleased the great God to enter into a treaty and covenant of agreement with us his poor creatures',"3 and if we fulfill our part of the agreement by believing in him, he will reward us with salvation. As Thomas Hooker, the first minister at Cambridge, Massachusetts, declared, "We have the Lord in bonds, for the fulfilling of his part of the covenant: He has taken a corporal oath of it, that He will do it."

Both these uses of the idea of covenant soon generated controversy in New England. The idea of our covenant with God produced conflict first. John Cotton, the first minister at Boston, rejected federal theology in favor of pure Calvinism. No human efforts, he said, can prepare one for grace, and nothing about the moral quality of one's life indicates whether or not one stands among the saved. The other ministers, led by Thomas Hooker, favored federal theology.

They believed that God follows rules in the process of salvation. First, we must recognize our sin and repent before God will send grace. Second, once we receive grace, it will make a recognizable difference in our lives. We will be morally better. As Hooker said, "Wherever fire is, it will burn, and wherever faith is, it cannot be kept secret.... There will be a change in the whole life."

A woman named Anne Hutchinson came to Boston from England with her husband and twelve children to hear Cotton preach pure grace. She was horrified at the views of the other ministers. Grace follows no rules, she said. It may come to the town drunk or a prostitute as likely as to the most respectable citizen.

Attacked by her opponents, she began to report prophecies and visions confirming her views. In 1637 a synod of the colony's ministers exiled her to Rhode Island, where she died in an Indian massacre six years later. John Cotton compromised with federal theology, and pure Calvinism had lost the day.

The New England dream was to produce that city on a hill as an inspiring example of a proper Christian community. That required a discipline that the preaching of unpredictable grace seemed to threaten. "I know there is wild love and joy enough in the world," Hooker wrote, "as there is wild thyme and other herbs, but we would have garden love and garden joy, of God's own planting."

Soon the other sense of covenant, the covenant of church membership, produced another crisis. To preserve the ideals of this religiously based community, only those who could testify to a conversion experience were counted as full church members, with the right to vote, take Communion, and have their children baptized.

The rigors of the ocean crossing ensured that the first generation would consist mostly of the truly committed, but the next generation included many whom were New Englanders only by accident of birth. The percentage of members kept dropping, and the children of non-members could not even be baptized. The dream of New England as God's special commonwealth seemed about to collapse.

New Englanders sought a variety of solutions. In 1662 a synod of the churches of eastern Massachusetts approved what came to be called the "Half-way Covenant." If you affirmed the church's doctrines and tried to lead a good life, you could come halfway into the church even if you had never had a conversion experience.

You could not take Communion or vote, but your children could be baptized. At about the same time, at Northampton in western Massachusetts, Solomon Stoddard abandoned federal theology for a purer Calvinism and decided that, if "the mere pleasure of God" decides who will be predestined to salvation, this "cannot be made evident by experience to the world." We cannot identify the elect, and Stoddard therefore let everyone into Communion. Let God sort out the saved.

Both approaches began to compromise the earlier rigor, and by around 1700 the whole issue seemed to be fading away. Standards of church membership grew more lax, and some New Englanders began admiring the greater sophistication of England, which their forebears had fled as a place of corruption. Puritanism seemed to be slowly yielding to rationalism.

Then in the 1740s the Great Awakening changed the shape of American religion. Its story is intertwined with that of America's greatest theological genius, Jonathan Edwards.

Born in Connecticut in 1703, Edwards proved precocious, writing a scientific study of spiders as a schoolboy and studying Locke and Newton as a teenage student at Yale. His faith grew out of both his father's Puritan sermons and his own meditations on nature. One day, after talking with his father, he tells us, "I walked alone, in a solitary place in my father's pasture, for contemplation.

And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express .... There seemed to me ... [the] appearance of divine glory in ... all nature.... I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the meantime, singing forth, with a low voice my contemplation of the Creator and Redeemer."

In 1729 his grandfather Solomon Stoddard died, and young Edwards took over the most famous church in western Massachusetts. Many of his contemporaries thought that the new scientific discoveries called for the modification of a good bit of traditional theology. Edwards argued that in fact the most orthodox Calvinism fit best with modern science.

For example, to many science implied materialism. The scientist talks about the world we can see and touch, and that is the most clearly real world.

Spirits and souls and God came under suspicion as perhaps only imaginary. Edwards, however, insisted that science, as represented by John Locke's philosophy, taught that all our knowledge begins with experience.

It is experience-ideas and the minds that have ideas-of whose existence we are most sure. A really consistent empiricist will rather have doubts about the existence of matter. (The philosopher Bishop George Berkeley was developing a similar view in Britain at about the same time. His influence on Edwards remains unclear pending the clear dating of Edwards' early works.)

Similarly, many of Edwards' contemporaries concluded that a reasonable God just would not predestine some to hell, and therefore modern theology must give up predestination. On the contrary, Edwards maintained, Newton's philosophy implies that the universe is a system in which everything follows necessarily from prior causes.

Therefore, the choices of people who live in the universe as described by Newton must be predetermined from the beginning of time. This does not imply that humans lack freedom, for freedom means doing what you want, and if what we want is determined (Edwards believed this to follow from both Calvinism and Newtonianism), we nevertheless remain free.

His opponents protested that it would be unfair for God to send some to hell. Edwards replied that we all deserve hell, for we all inherit the consequences of Adam's original sin. God simply gives some better than they deserve. But is it fair that we should suffer the consequences of something Adam did? Edwards replied that for modern empirical philosophy the way one thinks about something defines the identity of an individual.

Sometimes I think of my arm as one "thing," my leg as another; other times, I treat them both as "parts" of my body. One of the implications of the empiricist rebellion against earlier metaphysics is that neither is wrong; both define the individual for a particular purpose.

Now, "God in each step of his proceeding with Adam, in relation to the covenant or constitution established with him, looked on his posterity as being one with him. "9 God thinks of humanity as one individual in this context, and individual identity is something that can be defined in any consistent way. Therefore it makes no sense to protest that we get punished for the deed of someone else.

These ideas suggest how radical Edwards could be in "defense" of Calvinism, setting traditional doctrines in a new metaphysical context. He believed in a God so powerful he left no room for anything else. God was not, he kept saying, one agent, one entity among others. A stone or a horse or a human being is "nothing but the Deity, acting in that particular manner, in those parts of space where he thinks fit."10 "But I had as good speak plain: I have already said as much as that space is God."

Edwards was usually an intellectual and unemotional preacher, but in 1734 his people in Northampton experienced a great revival, a burst of conversion experiences. That proved only a prelude. In 1740 George Whitefield traveled the length of the colonies, inspiring a "Great Awakening" marked by conversions from Massachusetts to Georgia-perhaps the first "national" experience shared by all the colonies. It soon generated opposition from those who found the shouting and weeping undignified and the attacks on "unconverted" ministers disruptive.

Edwards rose to the revival's defense with a detailed empirical report. He described the experiences of conversion and the changes in people's lives and concluded, "We must throw by our Bibles, and give up revealed religion; if this be not in general the work of God."12 The Great Awakening, he proclaimed, led people from theories about religion to the experience of it.

The story ended in tragedy. Excesses of emotionalism gave the Awakening a bad name. A young minister named James Davenport traveled about screaming, moaning, and stripping himself half-naked as he preached, ending up judged insane by a Boston court. Even in Northampton, long-simmering frustration boiled over when Edwards reversed the practice of his grandfather Stoddard and admitted to Communion only those who could establish a conversion experience.

The causes of tension between Edwards and his congregation ran deeper. Practical people out to cut down the forests in the name of progress could not understand his wonder at the divinity of nature. Practical people who wanted results could hardly understand a theology that left everything to unmerited grace.

In 1750 they fired him, and he went into a kind of exile at Stockbridge on the edge of the wilderness. In 1758 the trustees of a new college in New Jersey-later to become Princeton-called Edwards to be their president, but he caught smallpox and died about a month after taking office.

His followers tried to defend predestination and revivalism, but they ignored most of the philosophical underpinnings Edwards had developed. Edwards combined a defense of religious revivals with appeals to the most advanced philosophy. In subsequent generations in the United States, intellectual sophistication and revivalistic passion tended to go their separate ways.

The following extracts are presented for educational purposes only. The owner retains all rights. This has been broken into individual sections for easier reading.

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher