Can we know enough about God from observing the creation? Ruminations on a General Revelation

DriftwoodI was preparing this morning to lead Romans using the new small group study book that Mike Bennett and I wrote for the UCC’s “Listen Up!” Bible Study Series.

I came across that vexing section of Romans 1, no not that one, this one: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1: 19-20).

These verses have often been employed to put forth one or another versions of the idea of General Revelation, so I paid attention when a short while later, while I was wasting time on Twitter, I came upon a thoughtful blog post by J. Scott Jackson entitled Got General Revelation? Well, Isn’t that Special! Continue reading

New England Puritan Ghosts: Why Hawthorne “Got” Melville


My town sits on a particularly rich literary and intellectual “trade route.”  Most notably Moby Dick was penned here in the mid-nineteenth century (see my post Moby Dick as Theology.)  Moby Dick wasn’t the commercial success Melville had hoped for, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom it was dedicated, understood and appreciated it.

I have ruminated about why Hawthorne “got” Moby Dick, when most of the critics of the day saw merely a dark muddled fish story interrupted by frequent wordy digressions on whaling.

The answer I think, and this is hardly a new theory, lies in their common New England heritage and the ever-looming memory of the two centuries long Puritan experiment, by their time for all practical purposes over.  Hawthorne, of course, wrote the enduring iconic Puritan novel, The Scarlet Letter, which every American schoolchild must read.  That The Scarlet Letter is more about Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century neighbors than about his seventeenth-century Puritan forbears should not let us underestimate its importance in defining Puritanism in the popular imagination (any more than Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, another school favorite, should, although it too is less about the Puritans than it is about its own context, the social hysteria of 1950’s McCarthyism.)

The third canonical school text on Puritanism is Jonathan Edwards’ notorious Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a brilliant but scary depiction of the fires of hell and the tenuousness of human life.  To those of us who have actually read other Edwards’ sermons, the choice seems largely to have been made on the basis of dramatic impact, and not to get too paranoid, another piece of literary ammunition to discredit the Puritans.  At least “Sinners” is an actual Puritan text.

But even Edwards’ ritual enemies often admit he is a towering intellectual figure.  Recently I have been reading in and about him, and the first thing that struck me is that a mere 100 years separates Edwards Freedom of the Will (1754) from Moby Dick (1851), both written here in the Berkshire Hills but in different intellectual worlds.

Much changed here in that hundred years.  For one thing, when Edwards lived, Pittsfield didn’t exist as a city, but was part of the much conflicted frontier, the “howling wilderness” as Edwards was to describe nearby Stockbridge, to which he came in 1750.  I like that the local community college has a “Jonathan Edwards Library,” but Edwards died in 1758 and Pittsfield wasn’t founded until 1764.  But it is the Berkshire Community College so the title is apt.  I once delivered a community forum lecture on Puritanism there and, while the students were attentive and eager to engage, their knowledge of Puritanism in general and Edwards in particular was spare, and largely formed by the aforementioned canonical school texts.

Pittsfield was named after the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who so influenced the future of North America by his efficient administration of the Seven Years’ War.  The first minister of Pittsfield’s First Church of Christ was Parson Thomas Allen, Harvard trained but influenced by the New Divinity of the Edwardsian disciples that developed Edward’s themes after his death.  (I was the eighteenth minister of that church.)  By Melville’s time in the mid-19th century my eighth predecessor John Todd (1800 -1869) was the incumbent, but there is no record of Todd and Melville crossing paths that I have found.  Todd thought of himself as being in the Puritan succession, but the grand granite meeting house he built in the Gothic revival style points more to the prosperous 19th century Congregationalism of the beginning of the Gilded Age than to the Puritans.

All thoughtful New Englanders in these times had to engage the legacy of the Puritans.  Edwards himself in the mid-eighteenth century was dealing with a changing world far removed from the world of the 17th century founders.  It was his genius to cast the theological preoccupations of that world into the new thought-forms of the Enlightenment.  He wasn’t the only bright young man in his time to read Locke and Newton and have his eyes opened, but he seems to be the only one who didn’t turn away from the old verities, rather he used the new learning as tools to express the old truths.

But by the mid 19th century it was more the novelists than the theologians who were grappling mightily with the themes of the founders.  So Melville’s fish story plumbs such deeps as election, predestination, and theodicy.  Where Edwards found human freedom in the affections, Melville finds the demonic in human obsession.  Hawthorne’s village soap opera explores old themes as well: covenant and community, morality and hypocrisy.

That is why Hawthorne “got” Melville.  He understood what Melville was trying to do, because he was trying to do it as well: make sense of this rich and ambiguous religious and intellectual legacy that had so shaped the American mind and soul for better and for worse.

That Puritanism, real and imagined, continues to be a template for American ideas, even in our own time, is as true as a quick look at the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism proffered by the W. Bush era neoconservatives as a defense of the Iraq war demonstrates.

Which is to say that the ghosts of the founders’ faith linger.  Perhaps a more nuanced reading of their actual beliefs and positions would result in a more nuanced approach to the issues they raised.


A Brief Historical Sketch: The Religious Life of the Berkshires during the time of the Mercersburg Movement

Welcome to Pittsfield. I believe this is the first time that the Mercersburg Society has traveled so far from its geographical center of gravity in Pennsylvania to cross into New England.

Since two of the historical traditions that went into the creation of the United Church of Christ are the German Reformed and the New England Congregationalists I thought it might be interesting to explore the question: “What was happening here in Pittsfield during the Mercersburg Movement?

To answer that question we need to go back to the gathering of this church (First Church of Christ in Pittsfield) in 1764, and trace the contours of its life through the tenure of its first eight pastors, which will bring us to 1873, the year John Todd died (pictured, above left.)

Pittsfield was settled late by Massachusetts standards. The Berkshires are naturally isolated (or protected) from the rest of the world by the Taconic range on the West, which you traversed if you came in from New York State and the Hoosac Range to the East, which you climbed if you came up the Mass Pike. When Jonathan Edwards was exiled from Northampton to Stockbridge in 1750 the description of the Berkshire Hills as “a howling wilderness” was not metaphorical. Thomas Allen sometimes referred to Pittsfield as the farthest outpost of Christendom; never mind that for centuries French Jesuits had been up and down the Mississippi, and Spanish Conquistadors had been in Florida and the Southwest, the perception had the ring of truth to this eighteenth century New England Puritan.

The Berkshires have always been insular, politically independent, and somewhat suspicious of the outside world. This area was a hot spot for the insurrection known as Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, and you can still hear locals speak with suspicion of Boston or congregants of the Conference at Framingham. Before the Massachusetts Turnpike came through the hills it is fair to say that New York was a greater influence than Boston, but both were less than proximity would seem to dictate.

In the days of this church’s gathering Northampton was the outpost of civilization which influenced Pittsfield the most. Colonel John Stoddard, a brother to Solomon Stoddard of Northampton and an uncle to Jonathan Edwards, was one of the original grantees of Pontoosic Township, the early name for Pittsfield. Parson Allen himself and four of the “eight foundation men” who gathered the church were from Northampton. On February 7, 1764 these eight laymen signed a document, made up of two parts, a Confession of Faith and A Covenant, which formed a Church of Christ in Pittsfield. Present at that gathering were representatives of other churches, including the Reverend Stephen West of Stockbridge, Jonathan Edward’s successor and The Reverend Samuel Hopkins of Great Barrington, two important figures in the Edwardsean School and the emerging “New Divinity,” which would help to spark the Second Great Awakening around the turn of the nineteenth century. Two months after the gathering of the church, the first pastor, Thomas Allen, age twenty, a newly-minted Harvard graduate, was duly ordained on April 18.

Even in 1764 the foundations of Puritanism were eroding. Jonathan Edwards is the last best example of Puritanism, in much the same way as J. S. Bach is the final flower of the Baroque. In both cases, others would claim the name, but the movement’s best days were behind it. The presence of Samuel Hopkins at the gathering of this church is intriguing. I am inclined to think that the camel’s nose of liberalism was already in the tent of orthodoxy, for Hopkins’s theology was trimming the doctrines of human sin and divine sovereignty to fit his moral and evangelistic vision.

For Hopkins sin was “actual” rather than “original,” and conversion was the result of the active enterprise of the human will. These motifs would be taken still further by the next generation in men like Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher. It is not hard to see how these impulses would provide fertile soil for the controversial “new measures” of the Second Great Awakening, and later the excesses of Charles Finney to which John Williamson Nevin took such exception.

Pittsfield’s Thomas Allen has become a legendary figure, “The Fighting Parson,” who carried a musket into the pulpit and was chaplain to the revolutionary forces at White Plains and Bennington, where he is reputed to have fired the first shot. He was a fiery Patriot during the war and a fiery Jeffersonian Democrat after it, and continued to harass the Federalist parishioners from the pulpit, so much so that a large number of deacons and members seceded in 1807 and formed and incorporated a Union Parish in 1808. Allen served for 46 years and died in 1810. During his tenure, in 1793, the second meeting house was built, from a Bulfinch design (Some years after this paper was given the first citation mentioning baseball in America was discovered in the Berkshire Atheneum, in a statute prohibiting ball-playing outside the new meeting house.)

Parson Allen was followed by one of his sons, the Reverend William Allen, who resigned in 1817 on the same day as the pastor of the Union Parish to facilitate a reunion of the two congregations. He became Professor of Theology at Dartmouth under the presidency of his father–in–law, John Wheelock, and later he was appointed president of Bowdoin College in Maine.

The Reverend Heman Humphrey was invited in 1817 by the newly reunited church to serve as the third minister of the First Church. You can see his portrait in the church parlor. A Connecticut man and Yale graduate he had studied with President Timothy Dwight, and come from the pastorate of the First Church in Fairfield, Connecticut. A supporter of the revivals Humphrey invited the evangelist Ashahel Nettleton as a guest to the church on several occasions. Humphrey left First Church in 1823 to accept the presidency of Amherst College.

He was succeeded by the Reverend Rufus Bailey, who had a short pastorate of three years, during which time the highlight was the hosting of General Lafayette at a lavish reception in the church. In later years Bailly became President of Austin College in Austin, Texas.

The fifth minister here was the Reverend Henry Philip Tappan. Tappan also had a short pastorate of three years. Like Nevin he was a graduate of Union College in Schenectady, at roughly the same time. Union College was a united effort between the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformed. Tappan had done his divinity degree at Auburn Seminary, the new Prsbyterian school in Western New York, and he had been an assistant of Dr. Van Vechten of Schenectady. Tappan left Pittsfield to become Professor of Moral Philosophy at NYU, and later became president of the University of Michigan and the creator of their curriculum.

The Reverend John Williams Yeomans was the sixth minister of the First Church. He graduated from Williams in 1824, with the second honor of his class, Mark Hopkins taking the first. He completed his theological studies at Andover in 1827 and came to Pittsfield in 1831, remaining for over two years. In 1834 he became Pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Trenton, New Jersey, and lived out his days as a Presbyterian. In 1841 he became President of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The seventh minister, The Reverend Horatio Nelson Brinsmade, came in 1835 and left in 1841 to become pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Newark. New Jersey. He became president of Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1879, the sixth consecutive pastor of First Church to become a college president.

The eighth pastor was the Reverend John Todd, the quintessential nineteenth century man, who was born in 1800, and came to Pittsfield from Philadelphia as a 42 year–old man with several successful pastorates behind him to build his ecclesiastical empire during Pittsfield’s growing period. It was during his tenure and by his impetus that the present Victorian Gothic church (no longer called a “meeting house”) was constructed. He led First Church out of the period of waning Puritanism, disestablishment, and into Congregationalism and the emerging theological liberalism. His “carriage trade” congregation was proud of their “prince of the pulpit” and the new meeting house was the pride of Pittsfield. Todd still contained some lingering vestiges of Puritanism and more than a little Calvinism, but we need to view him as a transitional figure into the period that Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom calls “The Golden Age of Liberal Theology” (see Chapter 46 in Ahlstrom, The Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.)

This brings us from the beginnings of the church to its heyday at the time of the waning of the Mercersburg theology. What patterns can we discern? First, that six pastors became college presidents should alert us to the fact that Congregationalism during this period was not a denomination so much as a civilization rooted in the old New England theocracy, but moving well beyond it in scope and substance. The founding of colleges, missionary movements, and other voluntary associations was an important part of the religious impulse of these New Englanders.

Notice too, how many of the pastors of this church either came or went from or to Presbyterian churches and institutions. This period from 1800 to 1850 was during the time of the Plan of Union between New York State and Western Presbyterians and the Consociated Congregationalism of Connecticut. Nothing illustrates this discovery better than the fact that Jonathan Edwards, Jr., a Connecticut Congregationalist became President of Union College, and later was a Presbyterian delegate to the Plan of Union meetings. Keep in mind that there was no Unitarian Schism in Western Massachusetts. Here the influences were not Harvard’s Arminianism, so much as Yale’s New Divinity and the Second Great Awakening, a somewhat different response to the Enlightenment, but one no less shaped by it.

Geography, too, no doubt played a part in this county’s religious traditions. I remarked on the early influence of Northampton, but later both men and ideas seem to flow up the Housatonic from Connecticut. There was some interaction with the Dutch Reformed Churches 50 miles west on the Hudson in Albany and Schenectady, but it was limited by language and ethnictiy. There was a great deal of interaction with Presbyterians during the Plan of Union years. The Congregational Synod of Albany in 1850 was the real beginning of Congregationalism as a denomination as well as the official end of the Plan of Union.

Then Pittsfield saw itself less as on the boundaries of the mission field and more in the thick of things. John Todd’s crowning moment was giving the invocation at the driving of the golden spike in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met to form the first transcontiinental rail line. The enterprise was no longer the churches of the established order, but the vast new continent that stretched from shore to shore.

The Berkshires place on the edge of New England gave it a front row seat on the expansion to the west in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Second Great Awakening washed over its towns and churches. The modern missionary movement began under a haystack at Williams College in 1806. Shakerism, that very American phenomenom, flourished at Hancock on the edges of Pittsfield. And it was also just over the mountain in New Lebanon, New York, near the mother colony of Shakerism, where, in 1827 Charles Finney met with his theological opponents from New England and defended his new measures. Among the accusers were Lyman Beecher and Asahel Nettleton. Not long after that Finney led a successful revival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and, well, you know all about that!

So Pittsfield, and its surrounding county, represent in micrcosm the contours of America’s religious story from Puritanism to the Gilded Age. That story tells of the rise and fall of the evangelical consensus, and the erosian of a vital Reformed Theology. It tells too of the strange failure of the churches of the Congregational Way to maintain themselves as a churchly movement rather than as a loose federation of congregations. I think one strong clue to the question of why a vital theological movement such as Puritanism, for all its contributions to American life, failed to perpetuate itself institutionally in the churches can be seen in this comment by Douglas Horton:

For the first two hundred years of the history of Massachusetts and Connecticut the state in completely Erastian fashion did duty as the denominational framework for the churches: it provided a unifying bond between them. No inter–colony or inter–state, and remarkably few intra–colony and intra–state synods were called in American Congregationalism between 1648 and 1852 because none or few were needed, since the colonial and, later, the state legislative assemblies were available for the discussion of all relationships among the churches. Meetings of ministers and, in the early nineteenth century, of voluntary associations, such as those which launched the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, provided forums for the fellowship, but the bedrock legislation as to the founding, maintenance, and ministry of the churches was in the hands of the state in Connecticut until 1818 and in Massachusetts until 1834. It is not strange that the overwhelming number of congregations under the Plan of Union in the early part of the nineteenth century became Presbyterian: the wonder is that more of them did not, for when a Congregationalist crossed the Western border of Massachusetts or Connecticut into New York State, he left behind him the primary symbol and organ of connection in Congregationalism  (Introduction to Williston Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, p xiii)

That legacy is still alive in the churches of New England, as it is indeed elsewhere in America, and the insights of the Mercersburg theologians offer much that can correct it.

(This is a paper I delivered to the Mercersburg Society at their Annual Meeting held at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on June 18, 1997. It was published in the Fall 1997 issue of The Mercersburg Review)

“Heaven, a World of Love”

For those whose only exposure to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is his infamous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” I recommend his brilliant and moving sermon, “Heaven, A World of Love.”

Reading it today we can see that the Puritan had more weapons in his homiletical arsenal than merely frightening his congregation with images of a fiery future. In “Heaven, a World of Love” his exquisite portrait of heaven, and the way people interact with one another there, might have made the faithful squirm every bit as much as his image of the spider over the flame in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

Notice the image of community as a musical ensemble, praising God together. What might we in the church on earth learn from this? Here’s an excerpt:

“And oh! what joy will there be, springing up in the hearts of the saints, after they have passed through their wearisome pilgrimage, to be brought to such a paradise as this! Here is joy unspeakable indeed, and full of glory – joy that is humble, holy, enrapturing, and divine in its perfection! Love is always a sweet principle; and especially divine love. This, even on earth, is a spring of sweetness; but in heaven it shall become a stream, a river, an ocean! All shall stand about the God of glory, who is the great fountain of love, opening, as it were, their very souls to be filled with those effusions of love that are poured forth from his fullness, just as the flowers on the earth, in the bright and joyous days of spring, open their bosoms to the sun, to be filled with his light and warmth, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy under his cheering rays. Every saint in heaven is as a flower in that garden of God, and holy love is the fragrance and sweet odor that they all send forth, and with which they fill the bowers of that paradise above. Every soul there, is as a note in some concert of delightful music, that sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together blend in the most rapturous strains in praising God and the Lamb forever. And so all help each other, to their utmost, to express the love of the whole society to its glorious Father and Head, and to pour back love into the great fountain of love whence they are supplied and filled with love, and blessedness, and glory. And thus they will love, and reign in love, and in that godlike joy that is its blessed fruit, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath ever entered into the heart of man in this world to conceive; and thus in the full sunlight of the throne, enraptured with joys that are forever increasing, and yet forever full, they shall live and reign with God and Christ forever and ever!”