Jonathan Edwards and the decline of the Puritan covenant

In Chapter 3 of America’s God, Noll writes that while Jonathan Edwards ably defended the doctrines of Calvinism in a way that understood the Enlightenment, his conception of the church represented a break with the Puritan ideal.

The Puritan covenant bound society and church under a covenant with God, using biblical Israel as the model.  In Puritan Massachusetts, the official theology taught that the society was truly a covenant community.  One needed to give a convincing testimony of being born again to join a church, and men needed to be church members to vote, but all society was to be under God’s law.  Of course, there were tensions:

  • Only church members could take communion, but by the terms of the Half-Way Covenant of 1662 the children of baptized nonmembers could themselves be baptized.
  • Roger Williams argued that the faith could not be compelled, and set up a colony in Rhode Island to set up a colony with religious liberty.
  • Anne Hutchinson denied the responsibility of believers to keep the law and held private religious meetings, and she also left Massachusetts.
  • Edwards’ grandfather Solomon Stoddard argued that communion was a sign of the covenant with New England society and therefore allowed all church attenders to take communion, regardless of whether they had made a profession of faith.

These point to the central difficulty that the Puritans faced.  They held to the ideal of Christendom, a godly society ordered by Christian principles.  But they also were Protestants who believed that faith alone began the new birth of the Christian, unlike Catholics who believed that regeneration began with baptism.  So the number of true Christians was fewer than the number of baptized Christians.  But all people were under the covenant of God with society.

Noll argues that for all of Edwards’ defense of traditional doctrine, his writing and revivals of the 1730s-1760s (the Great Awakening period) helped to destroy the Puritan idea as a comprehensive system.  Edwards saw the church as a gathering of born-again people only, and eventually argued that only Israel was a truly covenanted nation with God.  In this vein, he only allowed church members (who had given testimony of their conversion) to recieve communion and only church members to have their children baptized.

Noll writes that the Puritan ideas of a chosen nation continued in their influence after the Great Awakening, but the convenant as a systematic way of looking at life lost its considerable influence.  This opened theology in America to new influences.


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