Jonathan Edwards was unequivocally the greatest mind of Colonial America. He was arguably one of the greatest minds America has ever produced. An in-depth reading of his copious works shows his facility with precise argument, big-picture thinking, biblical exegesis, redemptive-historical scholarship, and the philosophical underpinnings of the global culture he found himself in. He preached with skill and led a revival that spread throughout the colonies that now comprise the Northeastern United States. Admittedly he was also a little quirky, overly introspective, completely wrong about the slave trade,1 and, at times, unnecessarily speculative.2 He could also be pietistic to a fault. But despite his foibles, Jonathan Edwards was one of the most gifted pastor-theologians that the world has known (having a significant influence on modern theologians like John Piper and Tim Keller).
But he was also fired.
How could this happen? We tend to think that the powerful combination of theological training and homiletic skills ensures a long and mostly-peaceful pastorate. Where Edwards failed was in leadership.
Leadership — The Dirty Word
Let’s say it clearly. Many, many church leaders have unwittingly attempted to baptize the most recent leadership books to serve organizational needs. It isn’t that churches can’t benefit from the common grace insights of the popular leadership material (mainly covering managerial skills). They can (and should). General principles—wisdom and foolishness—govern how leaders organize and engage with the people they lead. But our book wasn’t written by Maxwell or Covey. Our book is the Bible, written by the Lord.3
“All leaders, especially pastoral leaders, must grow in leadership.”—Joe Holland
So what should we do? We have to keep the Book primary while benefitting from other books. We must be students of Scripture before we are students of organizational principles. But we also can’t neglect to learn skills to help us avoid making stupid mistakes.
What Happened in Northampton?
Despite their initial positive response to the First Great Awakening, Edwards had several twenty-something young men within his congregation who now showed themselves, from all signs, not to be truly converted. And yet Edwards was tasked with shepherding them. One of these young men found a midwifery manual (with illustrations). He not only shared the manual with his buddies but began to make lewd comments to girls in the congregation based on a lascivious reading of the midwife manual. It became a congregational issue.4
Edwards was disturbed for several reasons. Where were these young men’s parents? There was obviously a failure of the home that produced young men who behaved in such sinfully unruly ways. But also, these men sinned against themselves with lustful intent and against the rightly offended young ladies. So Edwards formed a committee to handle these matters. Unfortunately, these young men weren’t having it.
The committee deliberated while the young men waited in an anteroom. They played leapfrog, climbed a ladder to peek at women waiting upstairs and finally left to drink flip at a tavern.5
At the obstinance of these young men, Edwards decided to meet with them personally. He thought the personal attention from the pastor might impress the seriousness of their actions and ingratiate the young men to him. It was a strategic leadership move.
Edwards gathered these young people together away from their families, in his parsonage, as he had done with his converts a decade before; but this time his tactics backfired. Instead of a tractable group of disciples flattered by the attention, eager to maintain their special status, Edwards’s inquiry produced a rowdy group of “adolescents” sharing a self-conscious “us-versus-them’ camaraderie. Timothy Root was quoted by two witnesses as swearing that he would not “worship a wig” and that he didn’t “care a turd” or “care a fart” for the gentlemen of the committee, for they were “nothing but men, molded up of a little dirt.” This hostility was directed as much at Colonel Stoddard and Captain Clapp as it was at pastor Edwards.
The “boys” were ultimately convicted not of reading bad books but of lèse majesté. By implication, the sins they committed at home, and the parental supervision that should have been exercised there, were less important than ever. Edwards’s mistake in this case was not in trying to punish the children of “considerable families,” but in pointing out to the whole community that their young people were completely out of control.6
The end result, eventually, was Edward’s dismissal.
The incident showed how Jonathan Edward’s influence was waning, for he had converted the young men in the first years of the Great Awakening. He made matters worse by refusing to continue his grandfather’s practice of allowing communion to anyone who had been baptized. Edwards only served communion to converts. For four years, no one joined his church.
Finally, a candidate came forward to join the church in 1748. Edwards insisted he meet formal tests that he had devised, and the candidate refused. The church backed the candidate, and on June 22, 1750 a vote was taken on whether Jonathan Edwards should continue as pastor. By a vote of 230 to 23, he was fired.7
The Moral of the Immoral Story
Edwards was truly gifted but lacked the wisdom to navigate public sin involving young men and their families. To some degree, “he did everything right” and still lost his job—he was a great preacher and seasoned leader. Where did Edwards fail? It is difficult to say. Sometimes leaders face an intractable situation that is impossible to solve, situations that sometimes lead to the clarity that their time in a congregation is over. But, all leaders, especially pastoral leaders, must grow in their ability to lead, even as contexts change. And, no, the problem wasn’t that Edwards needed to know his Enneagram or Working Genius. After all, you can’t become a good leader by studying leadership.
Christian leader, stay rooted in the Bible and grow as a leader. Find older leaders to mentor you. Read about the lives of gifted statesmen and leaders. And don’t assume that academic gifting or great preaching is all you need to pastor a church.
- Heejoon Jeon, “Jonathan Edwards And The Anti-Slavery Movement,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 63, no. 4 (2020): 775. ↩
- Like his development of the doctrine of the Trinity which comes close to what is now called social trinitarianism. See: Keith E. Johnson, “Review of Jonathan Edwards’ Social Augustinian Trinitarianism in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives by Steven M. Studebaker,” ed. Bruce Chilton, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 2 (2011): 429. ↩
- See the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith. ↩
- Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley, vol. 22, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 511. ↩
- Patricia Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1980), 161. ↩
- Tracy, 162. ↩
- “Johnathan Edwards Loses His Pulpit Over Bad Books.” New England Historical Society. https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/jonathan-edwards-loses-his-pulpit-over-bad-books/ (accessed June 30, 2023) ↩