07 Apr

Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture (1977)

The Feminization of American Culture examines how American religion transformed in the nineteenth-century from New England Calvinism to Protestant sentimentalism. Douglas argues that American religion was feminized by sentimentalism. This feminization was detrimental to American culture because it did not aid in the progress of America or promote feminism.


Douglas traces the emergence of sentimental Protestantism to the decline of Calvinism and disestablishment. Ministers experienced disestablishment as states stopped supporting official religions. Evangelicalism rose to popularity and supported less-well trained and less theologically focused clergy. Calvinist ministers experienced a decline in their social, economic, and religious statuses. At the same time, women experienced disestablishment as production and labor were increasingly moved from the home to the marketplace. Women lost control of their homes, families, and American culture. They experiences a loss of social status. They attempted “to gain power through the exploitation of the feminine identity as the society defined it” (8). Ministers in turn gave into this female audience to gain support and authority.

The printing press united these ministers and women in their efforts to gain power. They shared a “preoccupation with the lighter productions of the press; they wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs, sermons, and magazines pieces” (8). Through the press ministers and women wished to exert their influence, which they claimed as a religious force, on society. But this influence was haphazard, according to Douglas, because they “confused theology with religiosity, religiosity with literature, and literature with self-justification” (9). Douglas admits that their intentions were not bad: “Under the sanctions of sentimentalism, lady and clergyman were able to cross the cruel lines laid down by sexual stereotyping in ways that were clearly historically important and undoubtedly personally fulfilling” (10). Nevertheless, the effects were bad. “Nineteenth-century American women were oppressed, and damaged; inevitably the influence they exerted in turn on society was not altogether beneficial” (11).

The influence of sentimentalism and feminization were detrimental to American culture, religion, and history. According to Douglas, “The tragedy of nineteenth-century northeastern society is not the demise of Calvinist patriarchal structures, but rather the failure of a viable, sexually diversified culture to replace them” (13). Sentimentalism also created a feminine form of religion that was not concerned with feminism, education, or theology. “’Feminization’ inevitably guaranteed, not simply the loss of the fines values contained in Calvinism, but the continuation of male hegemony in different guises” (13).  It also created a static holding pattern. “The triumph of the ‘feminizing,’ sentimental forces that would generate mass culture redefined and perhaps limited the possibilities for change in American society” (13). The feminization of American culture was too sentimental, too emotional, non-theological, anti-intellectual, and anti-feminist. Douglas could not overcome her infatuation with male dominated forms of Calvinism to give women a chance to speak in nineteenth-century American culture.


The Feminization of American Culture, despite some historians’ continued criticisms, remains central to the narrative of religion in American history. This narrative continues to perpetuate the feminization of American religion. To be sure, most historians do not accept the negative aspect of this feminization. However, they do still accept Douglas’s idea that feminization of American religion segregated men and women into separate spheres. Douglas argued that women were “by and large in the home…” Historians, like Colleen McDannell, have worked to rescue the private, or domestic, sphere from Douglas’s indictments of its failures and hypocrisies. McDannell argues that the private sphere wielded positive and considerable influence in the nineteenth-century on the family through material displays of religion.

Douglas’s argument continues to impact how scholars of women’s history narrate the emergence of feminism in America. Douglas suggested that Sarah J. Hale was a complacent, anti-feminist:

“Nothing is more distressing to the feminist historian than the atmosphere of flushtide self-congratualtion that pervades the work of a woman like Sarah Hale; it is understandable, but nonetheless painful that, to groups whose potentialities are largely suppressed, any enlarged exercise of faculty seems, and probably is, at least in the short range an almost unmitigated good, whenever inner conflicts it creates, whatever limitations or long-term consequences it carries. It is pointless to condemn the anticipatory complacency of women like Hale as to condescend to members of ethnic or racial minority groups who ‘waste’ their money today on big cars and fancy clothes. The self-conscious if devious sense of social mobility felt by Hale and others was natural, yet it was delusive. Inevitably the uneasy alliance of ministers and women depended on their mutual entanglement in intricate and unperceived forms of dishonesty.”

Douglas threw Hale and other Christian feminists, like Catherin Beecher, under the bus. Their work did not matter. It was dishonest and it was not progressive. Their work was not feminist work. Nina Baym tried to rescue Hale from Douglas’s attack. In “Onward Christian Women,” Baym argues that Hale was a Christian feminist who supported women’s rights and women’s history in Christian terms. Nevertheless, historians continue to read Hale, Beecher, and other nineteenth-century women who supported similar notions as backwards, complacent, anti-feminists. Douglas’s work, although it promoted feminism, has greatly harmed women’s history in America. Historians are slowly recuperating from Douglas’s attacks on nineteenth-century women and their work for women and women’s rights.

Despite Douglas’s attack on nineteenth-century women, her work is important for women’s history. Douglas recognized that women were a prime consumer audience and prime produces in nineteenth-century America. Douglas suggested that most women were “By and large in the home.” But, Douglas did not separate women completely into the private, domestic sphere. Women were produces of American print culture. In fact, women led the clergy into the popular press. While Douglas condemned the content of these women’s writings, her insights are significant. Woman wrote for and shaped nineteenth-century print culture. Women were integral to the “public sphere.” Historians have not taken Douglas’s insights to their logical conclusion: women controlled American culture through print. Douglas also suggests that women controlled the marketplace as consumers. “In certain ways, middle-class women were freed as well as enfeebled by the shift in their economic status; they were to have greater, if more questionable, powers as consumers than that had enjoyed as producers [in the home]…they were women advocating the womanly, even if in aggressive ways…the home could sanction rather than limit traditionally undomestic activities” (78). Douglas recognizes the links between gender, the home, and the marketplace like no other historian has.

Douglas’s work is also important because it recognizes the importance of women in death and mourning in nineteenth-century America. However, like the women and ministers who support these practices, death and mourning were insincere forms of sentimentalism and feminization. Douglas argues that ministers and women “inflated the importance of dying and the dead by every possible means” (201). Like women’s other endeavors, these were negative. The proliferation of literature about death and dying did not reflect any increase in actual deaths. Neither did it reflect Americans’ concerns about death and the afterlife. Rather, it reflected women and ministers’ power struggles. “If the insignificant [the dead] could be proved to be significant, if the dead could live, ministers and women could establish a new balance of power in the free-for-all, intensely competitive democracy of American culture” (202). Women and minister feminized death and mourning to gain power in American culture.

The Feminization of American Culture is important for what is can tell us about women in American religion and history. Women were producers and consumers in the home and burgeoning marketplace. This comes out most clearly in the epilogue: “The forces of feminization were significant enough—they had tapped the increasingly formidable processes of industrialization, commercialization, and mass culture deeply enough—so that any opposition, even waged by a Harvard graduate like T.R., had to be conducted on their own terms” (328). Women were the arbiters of religion, culture, and the marketplace. Historians have not taken these claims seriously as they have examined women’s history in America. Ironically enough, Douglas’s work may help historians recognize the importance of women in American history. It may help scholars overcome their dependence on the separate spheres.

04 Apr

Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (1988)

Anne Boylan traces the formation of the Sunday School as an American institution from 1790 to 1880. Sunday School examines “the creation and evolution of Sunday schools in five evangelical Protestant denominations…and through the interdenominational American Sunday School Union [ASSU]” (1). Boylan argues that “Although now primarily an instrument of denominational education, the Sunday school became an American institution because it promised to fulfill the broad millennial expectations of evangelical reformers” (4). Sunday schools emerged as an institution in the 1820s as workers helped “transform the schools from a temporary expedient for teaching the poor reading and religion to a permanent means of religious training for all Protestant children” (21). This transformation enabled Sunday schools to prosper by “taking them out of competition with their weekday counterparts,” the common schools (59). Antebellum Sunday schools formed institutional networks, like the American Sunday School Union, to “remake society along evangelical lines” (60). By the 1880s, Sunday school convention leaders systematized the institutional networks along denominational lines. As an American institution, Sunday schools “represented effective ways of ordering indivual lives in an increasingly disorderly society.” Sunday schools “offered protection from individual and national chaos” and “were to play a crucial role by introducing children to evangelical Protestantism, training them in proper habits and values, and guiding them through the treacherous waters of adolescence” (169-170).

Sunday School is an important contribution to the study of voluntary associations and institutions in nineteenth-century America. Boylan suggests that “The importance of institutions in American history has long been the subject of scholarly contention” (1). Scholars have debated whether Americans are “rugged individualists” descended from Enlightenment ideology, or “a nation of joiners” committed to the Benevolent Empire (1-2). Boylan argues that scholars should understand the Sunday school movement as one of many institutions that “united disparate people in a shared Amerricanness” (3). Moreover, Sunday schools were a part of the emerging American middle-class vision “committed to an expanding free labor economy and a democratic state” that had close ties to “the urban mercantile and manufacturing economy” (3). Sunday schools endorsed “social control” in the sense that they transmitted to others the personal qualities that reformers “believed essential to individual and national progress” (3).

Boylan’s book shares similarities with others works about Sunday schools as institutions for social control and education. In The Shaping of Protestant Education (1966), William B. Kennedy examines how American Protestantism adopted “a general strategy of education that depended heavily upon the public school and alongside it utilized the Sunday school as the major church-related instrument for Christian education” (11). Similarly, in “In Every Destitute Place” (1973), Ralph Ruggles Smith examines how the ASSU developed the domestic Missionary program “whereby Sunday schools were brought to the American West and South” in an attempt to Protestantize and socialize American children.

Smith’s scholarship departs from Boylan’ work in its emphasis on the domestic Mission Program of the ASSU. Smith foregrounds the work of the ASSU in the West and South to highlight the rural nature and development of Sunday schools, and their relation to Westward expansion and slavery. Thus, Smith’s works focuses less on the urban, mercantile, and capitalistic nature of Sunday schools. It questions the capitalistic narrative of progress that is associated with industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century. Sunday schools were an important part of Northern urban life, the marketplace, and the free labor economy. But, they were as equally important in “civilizing” white children of the West and South, who were a part of agrarian and slave wage economies. By emphasizing the urban nature of Sunday schools, Boylan simplifies the nature of Sunday schools and the complex relationship created between Sunday schools, children, adults, race, class, and economy in different regions of the U.S.

Boylan and Smith also disagree over the extent to which Sunday schools taught American children how to read. Smith argues that “Thousands of children learned to read as a result of the American Union’s efforts, and thousands more could not escape from the religious beliefs inculcated by the Sunday School” (5). However, Boylan suggests that “By the late 1830s the various Sunday school unions had virtually ceased discussing the teaching of reading in the annual reports” (24). Boylan concludes, “Thus, although many rural and frontier schools continued to teach reading–and even writing and spelling–after the 1830s, these were seen as incidental, not essential, aspects of their mission” (25). Boylan dismisses the importance of reading in Sunday school, perhaps, because she privileges Northern, urban Sunday schools over rural schools. Moreover, Boylan ignores the Union Spelling Books and other books published by the ASSU that were intended to teach children to read. Perhaps, Boylan deemphasizes the importance of reading in Sunday schools in order to emphasize the shift in American Sunday school curriculum from a focus on reading and arithmetic to religion, morality, and social order.

Nevertheless, Boylan’s work is significant in that it considers the agency of individuals, particularly women and children, in Sunday schools. Boylan notes, “Not surprisingly, women responded with greater alacrity than men to this calling [as Sunday school teachers], a fact which reflects both their narrower social opportunities and their acceptance of the evangelical conception of womanhood” (101). Women as the arbiters of religion and society fulfilled their duties in educating American children. Thus, Boylan recognizes the agency of women in the Sunday school movement. However, in a strange twist, Boylan also dismisses women’s agency and the importance of women’s work in the Sunday schools. Boylan suggests “It comes as no surprise to find that women who dedicated themselves to Sunday school teaching did not join the ranks of reformers or feminist” (123). Women only played the roles that society allowed them as mothers, wives, and females in the education of children in Sunday schools. Boylan treats women as cogs in the machine of the Sunday school institution. The institution was intended to reform society and women played a role, but were not agents, in this process of reformation.

Sunday Schools is also noteworthy in that it recognizes children’s participation in Sunday schools. Boylan notes “For despite their numerical preponderance in the Sunday school and its existence for their benefit, children are often entirely missing from the institution’s chronicles” (156). Children influenced the institution as they demanded the preservation of rewards programs, and the continuation of special events and performances. The recognition of children’s agency in Sunday schools and mission programs is an important insight. Evens so, Boylan only discusses the agency of children and their participation in Sunday schools in a few paragraphs.

Boylan’s work is significant in that it urges scholars to examine the agency of women and children in Sunday schools. It is also important for its suggestions that Sunday schools were a part of a larger American institution designed to reform children for the progress of America as a Protestant and capitalist nation.

29 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in June 1741 to his congregation in Northampton. Edwards delivered the sermon as the area revival in religion was building. The sermon became famous after Edwards delivered it at a meeting in Enfield, Massachusetts in July 1741. The sermon was meant to induce an awakening, or conversion experiences, among the community of Enfield. In the previous weeks, the itinerant preacher George Whitefield induced an awakening with his preaching in the neighboring town of Suffield. Area minsters were distressed that the same had not happened in Enfield. They set-up a preaching circuit among local pastors including Wheelock, Edwards, and Meacham to awaken Enfield and the other surrounding towns.

Edwards did not preach with dramatic gestures and theatrics like Whitefield. Nonetheless, Edwards’s sermon had a significant effect on the Enfield congregation. Before Edwards finished delivering the sermon, congregants moaned and cried out for their salvation. They feared going to hell and asked what they could do for Christ. At one point, Edwards asked the congregation for silence because its shrieks and cries filled the room. Edwards did not finish this sermon because he could not be heard over the audience’s shouting and crying.

Edwards delivered the sermon several times after the Enfield address as one of the standard sermons in his revival itineracy. In later versions of the sermon, Edwards appended six practical steps for seeking salvation. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of Edwards more infamous sermons. Its focus on hell to induce conversion leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many twenty-first-century Americans. Edwards’s focus on hell and death, however, were not unusual topics in the eighteenth-century. Edwards and other preachers found these topics effective for awakening souls to God. This sermon has been one of the most widely reproduced of Edwards’s sermons.  (See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 219-224.)


“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” interpreted and applieed Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” According to Edwards, “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, that were God’s visible people.” The verse related to the punishment and destruction of the Israelites for their sins. Edwards explained that this verse meant the Israelites were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. The immanence of that destruction was of their own doing. They had not been destroyed already because God had not allowed it to happen yet. Edwards concluded as doctrine: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Edwards proved this doctrine by reminding his audience of the omnipotent power of God, that men deserve to be cast into hell, and that men are already sentenced to hell. God was angry and displeased with those on earth as with those in hell. The only thing that saved men from hell in every moment was God’s restraint. The devil stood ready to seize them when God permited. The living were to have no security in the fact that there were no “visible means of death at hand.” There was no security in life. Men continued to reject Christ in their attempts to evade death and hell. But, no one could escape hell. “God has laid himself under no obligation by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.” Until men believed in Christ, God was under no obligation to save anyone from hell.

Edwards then applied this doctrine. He argued that “the use may be of awakening to unconverted persons in this congregation.” He urged people to recognize that “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…you hang by a slender thread.” Edwards called the congregation to realize that the wrath of God was fierce and infinite, that congregants were always expose to this misery, and that this misery was eternal. He called the congregants to awaken to Christ in the hope of being spared from God’s wrath. Edwards called on the old as well as young women, young men, and children to awaken. He urged “God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.” Congregants were to make haste and seek Christ to “fly from the wrath to come.”

28 Mar

George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)

George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life has been hailed as “a magisterial biography” by the Wall Street Journal and as “the finest biography of Edwards” by Harry S. Stout.[1] And, indeed, Marsden’s work deserves this praise. Jonathan Edwards is a riveting story of the life, times, and theology of Edwards. Marsden argues that historians should incorporate Jonathan Edwards–the preacher, theologian, father, husband, and philosopher– into the larger story of American history. Like other prize-winning historians, Marsden implements a cultural-historical method that historians of American religion should emulate. However, his method cannot escape a review unscathed. Particularly, Marsden poses a challenge to historians in his discussion of “the point of historical scholarship” (502). Before turning to this challenge, we should recognize what Marsden does well as a cultural historian.

Rather than providing a tedious list of historical facts, Marsden presents Edwards’ life through his familial, pastoral, and intellectual relationships. This method of historical writing works well in several ways. First, it allows Marsden to present a plethora of primary sources written by Edwards, to Edwards, and about Edwards. These diverse resources help readers recognize Edwards as a multi-dimensional, eighteenth-century man who had eighteenth-century concerns. Edwards was a theologian, a logician, a critic of Arminianism, and a proponent of human depravity. Edwards was also a compassionate man concerned with the salvation of his family and parishioners.  As Marsden notes, “Edwards’s universe is essentially a universe of personal relationship. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creature’s responses” (503). This focus on relationships helps readers grasp how Edwards would have thought about his worldview and his relationship to God.

Although Marsden re-creates a plausible eighteenth-century worldview, he falls short of his goal of providing “relatively few interpretive intrusions” (5). Marsden interrupts his narrative innumerable times to explain terms, ideas, and historical figures, and to conjecture about moments in Edwards’ life for which historians have little or no evidence. Even so, most of these intrusions are necessary. They create a seamless narrative so that readers are not left wondering how Isaac Watts or the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” related to Edwards and the eighteenth century. These interpretive intrusions allow Marsden to analyze evidence, piece it together for readers, and produce a cohesive narrative of Edwards’ life and times. These are necessary intrusions in the narrative and are how good historians should do their work.

Even so, there are times when Marsden’s interpretive intrusions go beyond analysis to the elevation of Edwards as a larger-than-life figure. In contextualizing Edwards’ conception of good, evil, and justice, Marsden suggests, “that Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless other lesser entertainments” (137). In a narrative intended to situate Edwards in “real-life,” eighteenth-century British-America, this interpretive intrusion distorts Edwards’ world. Edwards would not have recognized his moral universe as one of entertainment or folklore. Edwards feared for his and others’ eternal souls. His recognition of the battle between good and evil were very real and imminent. To be sure, Marsden employs this comparison to catch readers’ attention. Nevertheless, this intrusion extracts Edwards from his eighteenth-century context, and elevates him to a mythological status of which Marsden warns his readers he will not do. While good historians should make interpretive intrusions, they must be mindful of the relevance of these intrusions to their historical subjects’ lives and times.

Perhaps the best methodological advice that Marsden gives to historians is that “objectivity is not neutrality” (5). Marsden suggests that historians should confess their faith community and the opinions they have of the faith communities they study. This enables historians to recognize and limit any bias towards their subjects. Objectivity is not neutrality, but a recognition of a historians’ time, place, and circumstances in relation to other people’s circumstances.

Marsden provides another methodological insight for historians in his description of the meaning of historical research. In Chapter 30 “The Transitory and the Ending,” Marsden suggests that “The point of historical scholarship should not be, as it so often is today, simply to take things apart, to destroy myths, or to say that what looks simple is really complex…We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past—both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings” (502). Most historians would agree with Marsden on these points. But, Marsden takes the point of historical scholarship one step further. He suggests that “one of the uses of being a historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential” (502). While historians should help people learn from history, Marsden’s attempt at theological guidance poses challenges for his historical project and for historians, in general.

Throughout his book Marsden warns readers that good historical scholarship should situate Edwards in his own time and his own terms. Marsden excels at this until the conclusion. Granted, Marsden does acknowledge that he steps out of his historical framework, “Excepting a few comments on the concluding pages, I have attempted to follow my working principle of explaining as best I can Edwards’ thought in it historical context, pointing out what I see as especially significant but also allowing readers to make most of their own critical judgments” (6). In the conclusion, Marsden blurs the boundary between his role as a historian and a theologian. Some fuzziness around boundaries is expected when one accepts the notion that “objectivity is not neutrality.” We all have particular interests in our subjects that, likely, developed from personal reflections and struggles. Books and papers reflect our own thoughts and feelings about particular subjects that we are drawn to. However, blurring the boundaries too much between historian, counselor, and theologian impacts the ways we use history and construct historical narratives.

Marsden begins to upend his historical framework in his analysis of Edwards’ death. Marsden presents Dr. William Shippen’s letter to Sarah that described Edwards’ “good death.” Marsden notes, “Although this account was written by a devotee to a bereaved widow in an era when it was conventional to give embellished accounts of how the saintly had ‘died well,’ it is also consistent with everything we know about Edwards. Edwards, despite some evident shortcomings, was a saint according to the highest Reformed spiritual standards to which he aspired” (495; italics mine). Edwards certainly would have understood himself to represent the highest standards of the Reformed tradition. But, Edwards never confirmed his election or sainthood. Marsden employs the deathbed narrative, a particular genre of eighteenth-century writing, to confirm his own notions of Edwards’ sainthood. On the surface, this appears to be a smooth transition from a historical account of Edwards to Marsden’s own comments. However, something disturbing is at work. Marsden employs the death bed narrative as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicals would have: to confirm the election of the dying. Marsden sweeps aside the deathbed narrative genre and its historical importance, and takes it as evidence of Edwards’ election just as Dr. William Shippen does. Reports of Edward’s demeanor, although no doubt sensationalized, mark Edwards as a confirmed saint for Marsden.

Marsden further skews his historical framework in the last paragraphs of the book when his voice intertwines with Edwards’ voice. Marsden extols Edwards’ theological “solution” as it is the way that “ultimately the vast majority of humans” can recognize “the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he created” (505). Thus, Marsden’s cultural-historical biography becomes a missionizing tool for the contemporary Reformed tradition. Marsden’s conclusion extracts the book from its eighteenth-century context in order to present his larger intention for writing a biography of Edwards: to resuscitate Edwardsian theology for Reformed communities. The larger purpose of Marsden’s book is transformed from historical inquiry to hagiography. In the end, Marsden’s good historical scholarship sounds more like theology than a bridge between the two.

These criticisms may seem trivial until one realizes how this use of history impacts the larger historical narrative. In the end, Marsden suggests that “As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural theologian. Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as part of the larger Christian tradition” (502). Thinking about “the larger Christian tradition,” impacts scholarship in ways that historians are now just beginning to understand. Placing Edwards within “the larger Christian tradition” supposes that there is a Christian tradition. It supports the notion that the Reformed tradition sustained and directed American religion throughout the nineteenth-century. It supports notions that “evangelicalism” is a thing that can be traced throughout American history and people. Marsden notes, “Edwards’ eighteenth-century Calvinistic evangelicalism is significant not merely as an early instance of a wider phenomenon, but also because it played a prominent role in subsequent American history. After the American Revolution, New England Calvinism with a deep Edwardsian imprint emerged as one of the most influential movements shaping the new American voluntary religious culture” (8). Placing Edwards within “the Christian tradition” of the devotee poses the risk of looking to the past to validate evangelicalism as a category of historical analysis. To be sure, Edwards was influential to nineteenth-century evangelicals. But, they appropriated Edwards and his theology in ways that Edwards himself would not have recognized and approved. Condensing history and theology runs the risk of tracing “evangelicalism” from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Looking for Edwards and his evangelicalism in American history masks transformations in how people employed and applied Edwards, and supposes that evangelicalism was one thing. The risk of merging historical frameworks with theological points of view is that the historical narrative will continue to support ahistorical views of evangelicalism as American religion.

Marsden no doubt provides a model for the way historians should do good historical scholarship. But, his conclusion brackets his cultural-historical methodology and elevates the theological intentions of his work over the historical and cultural aspects. Bridging the gap between history and theology impacts the ways scholars read evidence and construct historical narratives.

[1] Yale University Press, “Reviews” of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, Yale University Press Online, http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=9780300105964. (23 April 2012).

25 Mar

John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630)

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop and other Puritans who were dissatisfied with the Church of England set sail for New England in 1630. Roughly 700 Puritans sailed to New England on four ships. Before sailing or during the journey, Winthrop wrote the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” The sermon outlined Winthrop’s understanding of the covenant that settlers made with God for the New England community. The covenant should be kept by practicing Christian love. If the covenant was broken by unchristian behavior, God would punish the settlers, and they would die in New England and be forgotten by posterity. Winthrop reminded the Puritans that they were to be a model community for Christians living in England. They were to show the world how true Christians lived and practiced.


Winthrop argued that God ordered the world so that the conditions of humans were unequal. Some were rich, others poor, and still others were wise, holy, or powerful. This ordering evidenced God’s wisdom and ability to create harmony among diversity through the work of his Spirit. This diversity acted as evidence that people needed one another; they needed the “bonds of brotherly affection.” Given this dependence on others, Winthrop advised that two rules governed humans: justice and mercy. Likewise, two laws governed humans: the Law of Nature and the Law of Grace. The Law of Nature directed humans to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. This meant helping one another in times of need. This Law was given in the state of innocence (before the Fall). The Law of Grace reminded humans of the necessity of the state of regeneracy (conversion and election). This law urged humans to “Do good to all, especially the household of faith.” But, it also called Christians to love their enemies. Above all, this law urged Christians to support their community in extraordinary circumstances. This included, giving, lending, and forgiving debts. Individuals were not save money or goods for posterity when the community was in need. Individuals were to give and lend as if they expected nothing in return. Winthrop advised that a Christian must always be ready to forgive a debt for the good of the community. Sometimes debts would be paid back, but only if an individual had the means.

Winthrop urged the Christians aboard the Arbella to recognize that a Christian community was bound in love and that “Love is the bond of perfection.” Christian love recognized that “true Christians are of one body in Christ.” The ligaments of this body are knit together in love. No body was perfect without its ligaments (members). All parts of the body suffered and celebrated together, all partaking of others’ circumstances. This sensitivity to other members of the body infused a desire in all members to care for one another. Christ, the Apostles, and Paul served as evidence of this practice of love and a bonded perfection. Winthrop argued that this love “Cometh of God and every one that loveth is born of God, so that this love is the fruit of new birth, and none have it but the new creature.” In other words, this type of Christian loves came from conversion and election. Christians exercised this love outwardly through giving, lending, and forgiving. They also practiced it inwardly when they recognized their resemblance to other Christians: “the ground of love is an apprehension of some resemblance in the things loved to that which affects it.” This inward love was like the love a mother felt toward her child. She “conceives a resemblance of herself in it.” Christian love was reciprocal, pleasurable, and married members of the body to one another. This kind of love was real among Christians and necessary to the being of the body of Christ. This love was also divine in that it brought members nearer to God. The presence of this love rested in the love and welfare of the beloved community members.

Winthrop concluded by explaining what this love meant for the Christians travelling to New England. This love was important, first, because “We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ.” Winthrop recognized that in New England many of these settlers would be separated by long distances and trials. The people needed to be bonded by love and “live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ.” Without the recognition of Christian love they might forget to love one another and the community. Second, the settlers needed to apply this love because they were seeking out “a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical.” This kind of government required a love that recognized the community above the individual. Christian love promoted and supported the Christian community over individual Christians. Third, this love ensured that the end of the community would be to serve the Lord, seek salvation, and make the world a better place in Christ. Fourth, this kind of love, when professed and practiced, was the means for reforming the Church of England. According to Winthrop:

Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go. That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.  

The practice of Christian love set these Christians apart from their English counterparts. Particularly, Winthrop advised that 1) New England Christians must recognize their marriage to one another in Christ; 2) only those who practiced Christian love would experience election; 3) this Christian community had been given a “special commission” by God “to have it strictly observed in every article.”

This special commission was a covenant made with God. God allowed these Christians to “draw our own articles,” or rules for governance. In doing so, these Christians asked God for his favor and blessing. They would see evidence and God’s support of this covenant, if they landed in New England. According to Winthrop, “Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and we will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it.” If New England Christian did not live up to these articles and Christian love, they would be punished by God. If they failed “to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal desires, seeking great things for ourselves and posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the prices of the breach of such a covenant.” New England Christians could avoid God’s wrath, if they practiced justice and mercy, walked with God, worked together as one body, promoted Christian love, and put the community above individuals.

In the last pages, Winthrop defined the goal and meaning of the community. If New England Christians practiced Christian love, they would succeed in their commission. Winthrop promised his listeners: “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’” In other words, the Puritans could recognize their success when posterity remembered the Christians of New England. This was the point of travelling to New England. Puritans did not travel to New England to start their own religion or to start their own country. They did not flee to New England to break ties with Christians of the Church of England. Rather, Winthrop called these Christians to be models, for the community to be city upon a hill:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

The New England Christians had been commissioned by God to be a model for other Christians. If they failed, they failed God. If they failed, Christianity failed. The lives of the settlers and the existence of Christianity depended on their practice of Christian love. Winthrop closed with this prayer:

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity.

The New England community would ignite the reform of Christianity. Settlers to New England hoped that their community would be a model community for other Christians in the Church of England.



Full text of John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) from: http://winthropsociety.com/doc_charity.php.

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.