Jonathan Edwards and Pastoring Those Who Don’t Give a Damn

Andrew Root

You’d be shocked too if your name appeared in the story of a famous American. I’ve never assumed that I came from a great line of people. Never once did I even dream that I was a Kennedy … or even a Kardashian. Because of this lack of imagination, I’ve never really had the sense that my name implicated me in either honor or derision. I’ve always assumed that I’m responsible for my own name.

But when I turned the page, it was there, staring back at me: “Root.” Even now I have no clue if there is any relation, but it didn’t matter. I felt implicated—and not in a good way. My name was attached to a villain.

The year was 1744, still a decade or two before revolutionary ambitions turned white hot in the colonies. Jonathan Edwards had just finished a successful decade and a half at his Northampton church when a young man named Timothy Root came into his life. Edwards was considered by many to be one of the greatest theologians in the New World, and, without a doubt, a gifted pastor. Things were going swimmingly until he got word that some rambunctious young men, all between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-nine, were stirring up trouble.

This mischief was particularly disturbing to Edwards. As a good (maybe the best) Puritan preacher, Edwards supported the ancient Augustinian turn inward, even doubling down on it. “Jonathan … insist[ed] that professions of faith must show evidence of being heartfelt…. True religion, he had long held, must involve the affections. The will must be radically transformed from its natural self-love to love for God” (George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press, 2003], 353).

According to Edwards, we show that indeed our affections are turned to God by continually being reformed. And we do this not by just going to church but by living out each minute of our ordinary lives in the village, fields, and home in direct obedience to God. We are to avoid in every way idleness, drink, and lewdness—all things these young men, led by Timothy Root, were reported to be doing.

When What Becomes How

There are at least two radical transitions to highlight that move like undercurrents in Jonathan Edwards’s story, eventually floating us into a secular age where it becomes ever more difficult to be a pastor.

A First Transition

First, after the Reformation we see a new affirmation of ordinary life. This was ultimately as much a rejection as an affirmation. The Reformation “rejected the belief that some sorts of activities were qualitatively superior than others” (Ruth Abbey, Charles Taylor [Princeton University Press, 2000], 89). For instance, by affirming that each individual could read the Bible and therefore stand before God’s justifying action themselves, Luther rejected that some people were spiritually dependent on what other people do. What the priest and pope do is not superior in kind to what farmers and housemaids do. All are the same in God’s eyes. The Reformation asserts that what matters is not what you do but how you do it. This was earthshaking!

I vividly remember one sermon from my childhood (and maybe just one!). I was somewhere around the age of eleven or twelve. The pastor in my conservative Lutheran church told us it was an offense to God to waste time. All time, he explained, was God’s because God had entered into time and made every part of it God’s domain. He explained that if our hearts were turned toward God, then we’d be responsible to use every minute in obedience to God.

This blew my eleven-year-old mind. I felt convicted and stuck. I had become a time-wasting savant, honing my skills to perfection with the practice of nearly six hours per day in (boring) school. Time-wasting was my art form! My pastor was echoing a deep Protestant commitment: time was equalized, and there were no profane and sacred times. All time was all God’s now, meaning how I spent each minute revealed the state of my heart. I was in big trouble! Lucky for me, this was just a one-off, a kind of throwback Sunday sermon, an echoing of Edwards that wouldn’t return.

Charles Taylor explains that this commitment to the how over the what is essential to planting the seeds of a secular age. In our time, these seeds have sprouted. For instance, people can assert that they are spiritual but not religious only because the what has been replaced completely by the how, to a level that would make even Luther or Wesley blush. People all over our culture say, “I don’t need to go to church, take communion, or care about baptism; that’s not what I do. I think what matters is how you live your life, and I live mine spiritually.” They can even go further, explaining that all the “what you dos” of religion get in the way of an inner life that cares for others or for the environment. Religion can keep you from living how you should, they assert, by oppressing you with what you should do.

In the shadow of the radicalizing of how over the what, it becomes nearly impossible, even for a Protestant pastor, to disconnect herself completely from the what, unless she takes an extreme step and furiously deconstructs confession, Bible reading, prayer, and more. (Some pastors have tried this). Yet what most pastors discover is that no matter how hard they tried to deconstruct the what, it is inextricably laced within their vocation. To completely evacuate the specificity of the what in order to respond to the demands of the secular age necessitates leaving the church. And if the pastor can’t do this, completely shaking off the what in favor of the how, then she is always under the threat of being perceived, ironically, as a blockage to people’s genuine (authentic) spiritual journey.

The way to compensate for this unease and remain in the church is to become obsessed with the how, but in a very different way than Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was concerned with how you did your deeds because they revealed whether your affections were holy. If your inner life was encountering the divine presence, then it would be clear in how you lived your ordinary life. But for most pastors today, the obsession with how revolves around how “successful” others—those with big church and platforms—are doing things: How can we (I) be relevant? How can we get people to come?

We inherit a world of disenchanted whats. Unlike a medieval priest, the pastor can’t assume that her job is to enact the Mass, recognizing its divine power whether or not human minds are present to give it significance. The practices in themselves have been emptied of their transcendence. But so too has the how of people’s deeds. Few pastors feel it is right to be checking in on people’s inner affections by pointing out their deeds at work and home. Most often how people live in the boardroom and the bedroom are off-limits. Instead, the pastor turns her focus to the how of building the church, even able to copy all sorts of other “successful” pastors’ how with little concern for their theological commitment. The pastor today doesn’t need theology (attentive reflection on divine action), because she has disconnected the how from divine action itself. The pastor today is in a difficult place where the practices of the what have been disenchanted and the how of our deeds have been made private and personal. They are personal in the sense that they are our own business and no one else’s, to such an extent that we agree across the culture that it is wrong to judge how anyone lives their life. But judging for the sake of connecting people to divine action was one of the core pastoral tasks for Edwards.

Yet in this radicalizing of how, we shouldn’t miss that this move to the how was once imagined as a gift from an acting, present God who justifies sinners, bringing forgiveness and love. It was an experience of divine action that allowed a shift from the what you do to the how you do it. Yet now the how of your own deeds means you’re free from needing God at all, as long as how you live your life makes you happy and not a jerk. The radicalized how makes it possible to live how you want to such an extent that you don’t need God. This is a major current that gets us to our secular age. The freedom of the Reformation’s affirmation of the how makes it possible, with some twists and turns, to void divine action en toto. The kind of atheism represented by most people in our culture can grow in the soil tilled by a Protestantism that separates the what from the how.

A Second Transition

This leads us directly into the second transition. The sermon on time-wasting that I heard when I was eleven was a one-off because the how had lowered the bar of time. My pastor could play the part of Edwards for twenty minutes, telling us that every minute was God’s, but most people, other than my eleven-year-old self, just didn’t believe it. But this wasn’t the case in the decades just after the Reformation.

When time was equalized and the what was replaced by the how, the bar on time was raised. For Calvinists particularly, every minute mattered. The father of sociology, Max Weber, believed that this mentality was the origin of capitalism (see Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion [Beacon, 1963]). It was not the desire to make money that moved Calvinists to work hard every minute, producing and reproducing capital, but the desire to obey God. What mattered was the heart’s dedication and diligence; it didn’t matter if the hands were busy trading silks or selling buttons. If the how was really to replace the what, and the heart was truly dedicated to God, then reforms would need to stretch into the whole of society. A new society would need to replace the old one. Where the medieval world was ordered by an art of violence, this new society would need to be “polite.”

The elites of the old world saw themselves as warriors (think, knights). They were often eager for war and valued its honor codes as the framework for what they did in the world. Yet Taylor explains that the elite “members of a ‘polite’ society were dedicated primarily to the arts of peace” (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age [Harvard University Press, 2007], 235). Politeness, as modeled by the elites, would be the expectation because it produced a dependable and stable environment in which commerce could thrive. This was not done in order to make money but rather was the environment to work out your salvation, diligently giving every minute to God.

Trade is easier when there is peace. Commerce in the market is more efficient with established rules of properness and cordiality. Ways of speaking, eating, and defecating that are done politely are good for society. This is why etiquette books for the commoner didn’t arrive until between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, which seems late. And their advice is shocking, reminding people to never blow their nose in a tablecloth or to always avoid defecating on the steps. This starkly shows how little manners were considered before this time (see Norbert Elias, The History of Manners [Pantheon, 1978]). But now, into the seventeenth century, doing something undignified revealed a life that was undisciplined, which in turn revealed a heart not eagerly seeking God.

Because of this releasing of the how into the whole of society, the Protestant pastor is reimagined as a man of manners. For example, “in 1827, Samuel Filler, a teacher at Princeton who had previously been the pastor of the Wall Street Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he was admired for his ‘cultivated and graceful’ bearing, published Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits, with instructions on proper decorum in pastoral conversation” (E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization [Abingdon, 1983], 119). In the nineteenth century the pastor was a man of manners and the church a place of politeness and order; just decades after the appearance of Filler’s book, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn would despise the church as a society of manners.

Today most pastors feel embarrassed by this legacy of the church as polite, and the pastor as a bastion of manners. Young pastors, particularly, hate when people assume that they don’t drink, swear, or watch HBO (one of the reasons hotel restaurants are filled with cigar smoking and Scotch drinking at pastors’ conferences). In a secular age, with its attention to authenticity, this leftover conception of politeness and manners seems restricting at best, and at worst, reveals the pastor as inauthentically lame.

It is no wonder that, around the year 2010, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Mark Driscoll were pitted against each other as the model of the pastor in the twenty-first century. Theologically and politically they couldn’t have been more different, but where they were similar (and therefore worth pitting against each other) was in their equal rejection of the pastor as polite. Both refused it as part of their pastoral identity. Manners would be far from the center of the churches they led.

Bolz-Weber used crass language and tattoos to upend the image of the mainline pastor as a polite gentleman in loafers. Driscoll embodied the bravado of a WWE wrestler to upend the image of a mannered, hair-parted-perfectly evangelical pastor in khakis. Driscoll aggressively sought to recover the warrior image, making the pastor appealing to all those bored video gamers raised on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, bored and agitated by politeness. With sarcasm and tattoos, Bolz-Weber too made it possible to be a pastor beyond politeness.

There have been clear gains in terms of pastoral authenticity and relevance. But with these gains comes a loss, making the connection between pastoral practice and divine action much harder to name. Behavior and obedience to God, if anyone even feels comfortable still talking like that, are much harder to describe. For Edwards, both personally and pastorally, divine action was bound in how you do things. When everyone is concerned with how they do things, flourishing (of capital or in family life) witnesses to our nearness to God. For the next two hundred years, the pastor is assumed to be essential. Without the pastor prodding others to be decent, society as a whole could not flourish. Yet today most people can imagine flourishing not only without God but also without any pastors reminding us to be diligent, dedicated, and decent. The drive for fame and riches in a full-blown consumer society is fuel enough to keep us engaged and motivated (though newly haunted by a lack of meaning).

Back to Timothy Root

With all this as background, you can imagine the shock when Pastor Edwards is told that this group of a dozen or so young men led by Timothy Root are “passing around books on popular medicine and midwifery, quoting from them to each other in a lewd joking manner” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 293). Edwards couldn’t let this stand; he needed to bring it to the church for discipline. After preaching a sermon on Heb 12:15–16, he called a church meeting, setting forth the parameters for a disciplinary hearing. All of this was pretty standard. These colonial Puritan villages were known for church discipline trials; how else could you get to a decent, polite society where all could flourish in the name of Jesus?

But Edwards made a big mistake. Telling the community that the hearing would happen at his house, he announced a list of names, not discriminating which men would be witnesses and which were the accused. To be wrongly marked with this kind of lewd behavior would disturb anyone, but it was especially disturbing for Puritan Calvinists, whose decency and politeness were marks of their election. This led some of the leading families to wonder who Edwards thought he was. He had just recently requested a raise, and now he was indiscriminately painting everyone with the same messy brush!

The blowback was intense. But Jonathan couldn’t relent; Root’s behavior was too lewd. Yet Root went further. He not only was rude and vulgar, but he called this book “the young folks’ Bible.” Root had been converted at a revival that Edwards had led. Jonathan now worried that the good works of the revival were unraveling before his eyes.

But more was unraveling than Jonathan could see at the time. Smoldering under this controversy over the “young folks’ Bible” and Edwards’s mishandling of the situation was resentment over his request for a raise. The pastor’s salary was connected to town taxes in those days, and people are always annoyed by requests for a tax hike. Surprisingly, the buffoonish Timothy Root played a part in fanning those coals hot enough to burn.

During the initial church meeting, Timothy and his brother were asked to wait as the elders, led by Edwards, discussed the matter. This didn’t sit well with the impatient Root, so the comments started. He said loudly, “We won’t stay here all day long.” When rebuked and told to show respect, Root responded, “I won’t worship a wig.” When challenged Root departed for the pub. He shouted as he left, “If they have any business with me … they may come to me; I ben’t obliged to wait any longer on their arses, as I have done.” He added, “I don’t give a turd, I don’t care a fart!” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 299). (Yep, that’s surely my relative!).

From the mishandling of this event, the greatest American pastor would lose control of his congregation and eventually bring a vote to depose him. Edwards would land on his feet eventually becoming the second president of Princeton University.

Next time I’m in Princeton I’ll visit his grave, introduce myself, and see if he doesn’t roll over when he hears my name.

[This essay is both an adaptation of chapter five of The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who Now Longer Need God (Baker Academic, 2019) and inspired by Sir John Templeton Foundation Project “Purpose, the Pastor, and Charles Taylor.”]

Posted Feb 19, 2020