17 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737)

Following the Northampton and Connecticut Valley revivals of 1734 and 1735, rumors spread that the conversions had been sensationalized. Opponents of Edwards suggested that the overzealousness of participants was actually the work of Satan. To set the record straight, Benjamin Coleman requested that Edwards write an account of the revival to be distributed throughout New England.[1] Edwards’s account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, argued that there was nothing about “this great work of God” that was new or extraordinary except its universality. The awakening included men and women, young and old.[2] Edwards’s account particularly stressed the awakening of the young people. According to Edwards, “The young people also have been reforming more and more.”[3] Notably, “near thirty [youth] were savingly wrought upon [awakened] between ten and fourteen, and two between nine and ten, and one about four years old.”[4] God bestowed his grace on children just as easily as He bestowed it on adults. As evidence of the operation of God’s Spirit in the awakenings, Edwards included in this account the conversion narratives of Abigail Hutchinson, a woman who died young, and Phebe Bartlet, a four-year-old girl.[5] This review will only focus on Phebe’s narrative since it relates most closely to my other projects about children in religion.

Edwards relayed Phebe’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Phebe’s parents had not talked to her about religion because they thought she was too young and “not capable of understanding.” Nonetheless, Phebe’s eleven-year-old brother “seriously talked to her about the things of religion” and she was “greatly affected.” Five or six times a day Phebe secretly prayed in a closet. One day while observing Phebe in the closet, Mrs. Bartlet heard Phebe say, “Pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins!” When Phebe came out of the closet, she sat by her mother and cried. Mrs. Bartlet tried to comfort her, but Phebe began “wreathing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit.” When asked what was wrong, Phebe shouted, “I am afraid I shall go to hell!” She began crying, but suddenly stopped, smiled at her mother, and exclaimed, “Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!” Phebe explained to her mother how three passages from her catechism had come to her mind and enlightened her thoughts.[6]

Phebe returned to her closet, prayed, and on exiting declared, “I can find God now!” Phebe told her mother that she loved God “better than anything,” even her father, mother, and sisters. She was not even afraid of going to hell now. Phebe’s mother asked her if she thought God had given her salvation. Phebe replied, “Yes…Today.” For the rest of the afternoon, Phebe appeared “exceeding [sic] cheerful and joyful.” That evening she witnessed to a male cousin that “heaven was better than earth.” The next day Phebe resumed crying and her spirits were low. She explained to her mother and a neighbor that “she cried because she was afraid they [her sisters] would go to hell.”[7] Phebe urged her sisters to turn their hearts to Jesus that afternoon.[8]

After speaking with “a certain minister” [Edwards] on the Sabbath, “there appeared a very remarkable change in the child.” Phebe longed for the Sabbath so she could visit God’s house and hear Mr. Edwards preach. She also attended private religious meetings, prayed at home, and never missed her catechism before bed. Once, when she unknowingly stole Plums from a neighbor, Phebe was so overcome with her sin that she cried for “a considerable time” and formed an aversion to the fruit. Phebe appeared “greatly affected, and delighted with texts of Scripture.” She also continued to witness to her sisters. She said to her mother, “I told ‘em they must pray, and prepare to die, that they had but a little while to live in this world, and they must be always ready.” Phebe even encouraged her mother to pray with her sisters. By and by, Phebe “discovered an uncommon degree of the spirit of charity.” When a poor neighbor’s cow was lost, Phebe urged her father to either give the neighbor a cow, or allow him and his family to live with the Bartlets. Phebe also “manifested a great love to her minister.”[9]

While Phebe was hopefully converted, she proved humble when asked about her salvation. Edwards wrote “She sometimes appears to be in doubt about the condition of her soul, and when asked whether she thinks that she is prepared for death, speaks something doubtfully about it. At other times [she] seems to have no doubt, but when asked replies ‘Yes’ without hesitation.”[10] For Edwards, Phebe was a model convert because she recognized her sinful nature, feared punishment in hell, prepared to die, and loved God, Jesus, and her minister.

Although Phebe’s conversion narrative embodied Edwards’s theology of childhood, A Faithful Narrative was not widely published in America until the Second Great Awakening.[11] The unpopularity A Faithful Narrative was likely related, not to its grim view of the destiny of unconverted children, but to its inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson and Phebe Bartlet’s conversion narratives. Two of the three 1738 American printings of A Faithful Narrative included the 1737 preface written by Isaac Watts and John Guyse. The preface endorsed the Northampton and Connecticut Valley awakenings, but it also included a harsh critique. Watts and Guyse deplored Edwards’s inclusion of the narratives of Hutchinson and Bartlet. They suggested that Edwards “might have chosen others perhaps, of more significancy in the eyes of the world, than the woman [Abigail] and the child [Phebe] whose experiences he relates at large.” Of Phebe’s narrative Watts and Guyse wrote, “those who were present, and saw and heard such a remarkable and lasting change on one so very young, must necessarily receive a stronger impression from it, and a more agreeable surprise than the mere narration of it can communicate to others at a distance. Children’s language always loses its striking beauties at second hand.”[12] Phebe’s preparations for death and hell, and her yearning for God and her minister did not impress Edwards’s eighteenth-century critics. Phebe was too young to experience a hopeful conversion. She had not reached the age of reason and could not properly relate her account to others. Eighteenth-century adults, generally, accepted the age of reason to be no less than seven-years-old. Phebe’s mutterings were the incomprehensible musings of an irrational child.[13] Moreover, like Abigail, Phebe was a female. It was inappropriate for Phebe to witness to others and gain recognition for her piety.[14] This honor was reserved for men. Watts and Guyse relegated the conversion narratives of Phebe and Abigail to the recesses of the eighteenth century Protestant imagination.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 172-73, 201-202.

[2] Jonathan Edwards and C.C. Goen (ed.), “A Faithful Narrative,” in The Great Awakening (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 4), 160.

[3] Unpublished letter of May 30, 1735 from Edwards to Coleman, WJE Online, http://edwards.yale.edu.

[4] Edwards and Goen (ed.), A Faithful Narrative, 158.

[5] Ibid., 199-205..

[6] Ibid., 199-200.

[7] Ibid., 200-202.

[8] Ibid., 202-205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 45.

[12] Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 130-143.

[13] See Chamberlain, “Edwards and Social Issues,” 331.

[14] See Watts and Guyse’s critique of Edwards’s inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative in: Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 136.

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