Essay / On This Day

Ask Solomon Stoddard

Today (September 27) is the birthday of Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), the puritan pastor in colonial New England. Three hundred years ago, if you wanted to tell somebody who Jonathan Edwards was, you’d say “He’s Solomon Stoddard’s grandson,” and they’d say “Wow!” But now the shoe is on the other foot, and we say: the largely forgotten Solomon Stoddard was the grandfather of the famous Jonathan Edwards.

Why hasn’t Stoddard been featured on the cover of Christianity Today, and why can’t we buy “Solomon Stoddard is my Homeboy” T-shirts? In fact, why can’t I find a picture of him on the whole interwebs? The main reason, it seems to me, is that Stoddard inherited an unsolvable quandary for colonial American Christianity, and he left it pretty much unsolved.

Stoddard was the Congregationalist minister in Northhampton, Massachusetts, and exerted great influence over the whole region. He dressed like the old-school Puritans, preached a disciplined morality for the whole community, and kept a vigilant watch over the spiritual state of his flock. But the people of New England were passing through a major renegotiation of their Christian status. In the previous generation, everybody within the sound of the church bell was a believer. But they had a bunch of covenant babies, and baptized them, and when those baptized covenant babies grew up they wanted communion. If they had been through a process of confirmation, that was all well and good, New England pastors knew how to run a confirmation class. But just as not all baptized babies grow up to be Christians, not every young person coming through a confirmation class is necessarily Christian. So the generation of ministers prior to Stoddard (including Richard Mather) had decided to focus on the personal profession of faith, and require the young people (around age 14) to testify to an experience of God’s saving grace before they could be admitted to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.

Stoddard tried for a while to hold this line, but he soon found it to be an unbearable burden: The whole distinction between the visible church and the invisible church came to bear on the pastors who had to decide whether an invisible grace of conversion had been received by teenagers, before he admitted them to a visible, public sign of fellowship (the Lord’s supper). To make matters more complex, church membership had important political implications in the towns of the pre-revolutionary colonies. Stoddard found himself caught in the middle of intergenerational conflict, the civil religion debate in a fast-changing New World, and the continent’s most volatile youth ministry.

His solution, in practical terms, was to admit people to communion without having to discern whether they were regenerate. Morally upright citizens (already baptized, of course) could take communion. Stoddard believed that the supper was a means of grace, and could be a “converting ordinance,” bringing the soul into the presence of God who would cause regeneration. It made no sense to stay away from communion because you felt your faith was weak (even so weak as to be imperceptible), if communion was one of the things that would strengthen your faith, or even convert you.

This way of administering “the halfway covenant” made almost nobody happy, and the revivals of Jonathan Edwards’ generation were in part a response to the pent-up religious pressures that had been confounded and confused in the prior generation. That, in part, is why Stoddard isn’t on any t-shirts these days.

You can read Stoddard’s theory of the whole situation in his Doctrine of an Instituted Church. You can read his directions for the care of souls in his Guide to Christ.

And you can read a lively advice column by Stoddard in 1722’s “Answers to Some Cases of Conscience,” which includes zingers like “It seems utterly Unlawful to wear the Hair long; It is a great Burden and Cumber; it is Effeminacy and a vast Expence,” and “HOOPED Petticoats have something of Nakedness; Mixt Dancings are incentives to Lust; Compotations in Private Houses is a Drunken Practice.” (This petticoat one drove Ben Franklin to distraction).

And don’t miss Stoddard’s responses to questions on the justice or injustice of buying the Indian land too cheap, on how far from church you should build your house, on what time Sabbath begins if you don’t have a clock, and on the provocation of having too many lawyers.

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