What happened at the Boston Tea Party?

Part 4 of our series on the Boston Tea Party examines the protest itself. We looked last time at the tradition of violence in Boston, which would lead us—and people at the time—to believe that the final protest against the tea waiting in Boston Harbor to be unloaded according to the terms of the Tea Act would be bloody. The people of Boston were exasperated by their battles with the British government over tea, and, as Thomas Jefferson said, “An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.”

But the Tea Party itself was not violent. Here’s how it played out. Like our earlier posts, this one is deeply endebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (from which the Jefferson quote comes). 

Patriot protesters had developed the habit of gathering at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where they heard speeches by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They called themselves “the Body of the People”, and they had no official power over the colonial legislature but they were the real power in town. Their meetings were important for two reasons: first, they presented a powerful threat to the Loyalist governor, tax officials, and tea commissioners. Because the Body was not elected, the governor could not control it by dismissing its members. Second, the leaders of the Body realized that, if talk and diplomacy failed, the Body could continue to make public statements of diplomacy and non-violence while authorizing certain of its members to take bolder action on the side.

So the Body passed a resolution saying that “the use of Tea is improper and pernicious,” a relatively mild and impotent statement that they hoped official town meetings would honor and turn into law, thus putting pressure on Boston and the governor… while certain of its members cried out “informally” that they would haul the tea ships up from the Harbor to Boston Common and burn them right there [Carp 120]. Members of the Body cheered, but its prudent leaders did not record this sentiment in the official minutes.

Thus when the last political effort to get the tea sent back to England failed, the Body officially dropped the matter. The hundreds of men gathered in Old South heard the leaders officially abandon the attempt to turn back the tea. And then they began to melt away, slipping out the back exits into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the room was surprised by troops of Mohawks with axes.

Of course, these men had met amongst themselves beforehand to decide what course of action to take if the tea ships could not be turned away and sent out of the harbor. Since we cannot name many men with certainty as perpetrators of the Tea Party, it’s hard to get a lot of data on how they decided on throwing the tea into the harbor (since, as we saw, other protests were suggested, including burning the tea). But once the plan of boarding the ships and destroying the tea was hatched, things moved quickly. “They determined that it would take a few dozen men with knowledge of how to unload a ship, and so the men who signed on for the task included a mix of traders and craftsmen. Each man would disguise himself as an Indian and swear an oath of secrecy… Everyone agreed on the ground rules: no one would steal or vandalize any property except the tea itself, and not one would commit any violence or mayhem. If the destroyers worked quickly and efficiently, the job would only take two or three hours” [Carp 117].

As these men now gathered back at Old South, the Body tacitly approved what it knew was going to happen. One man remembered that the last thing he heard before heading for the wharf was  John Hancock shouting  “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”

Once at the ships, the men worked like professionals. The commissioners occupying each ship were identified and told to leave on peril of death. They did so. One Captain Bruce asked what the men were going to do. He was told the plan and ordered below decks with his men, and told they would not be harmed. They did so. [Carp 127] Then the Mohawks expertly hauled the tea out of the holds, working very quickly considering the huge weight of the tea chests. They knocked off the bindings, smashed the chests, and threw them overboard. Despite the allure of the tea, and the price it would bring in the morning, only two men attempted to steal any. They were instantly stripped of their clothes and beaten, and sent on their way.

The men made as little noise as possible. This was not the raucous rioting of Pope’s Day or the attacks on the tea commissioners’ homes. This was business, and it had to be done and done quickly before any soldiers discovered the men. It was imperative that the tea be destroyed, because if it was not it would be unloaded the next morning and it would be impossible to stop its distribution, and then Boston would be the town that let the Patriot cause down after the successful rejections and boycotts in New York and Philadelphia.

By 8:00 or 9:00 PM, the party was over. Everyone went home quietly and followed orders to turn out their pants cuffs and socks and shoes and sweep any tea leaves gathered there into the fireplace. In all, about 92,000 pounds of tea—over 46 tons—had been destroyed [Carp 139].

Reaction was swift. The Tea Party was a complete rejection of British rule. Anything less than a severe punishment would be condoning rebellion. That punishment came in the form of the Coercive Acts: the port of Boston was closed to commercial shipping, ruining its economy; Boston was to recompense the East India Company for the total value of the lost tea; the Massachusetts Government Act set in motion the destruction of the popularly elected General Court (all positions in the colonial government would now be appointed by the king); the Administration of Justice act moved trials of government officials to other colonies or to England; and the Quartering Act made housing British soldiers mandatory for all citizens.

Boston had been acting in concert with New York and Philadelphia, but it bore the brunt of the King’s wrath all on its own. It’s no surprise, then, that the Revolution was kindled in the hearth of Massachusetts. Next time, we’ll wrap the series up with reflections on the meaning and impact of the Tea Party today.

Next time: What does the Tea Party mean today?

The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence

Part 3 of our series on the Boston Tea Party focuses on the protest that patriots eventually carried out against the 1773 Tea Act. The actual act of dumping the tea was, in its nonviolence, unusual in Boston history.

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston. “Pope’s Day” was an annual holiday, observed on November 5th, during which boys roamed the city knocking on doors and asking for money; if denied, they broke all the windows in the house. Later, older boys and men carried effigies of Satan and the pope, the two groups heading from North and South End and celebrating their meeting in the center of town with an enormous fistfight; the winning group then took the losers’ effigies and burned them.

This kind of “playful” violence was all too easy to organize into political violence. Here are just a few examples, again from Benjamin Carp’s fantastic Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America:

—August 1765: effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.

—June 1768: When smuggler John Hancock’s ship was held by authorities who suspected it had smuggled goods, a group of over 300 Bostonians attacked the customs officers, throwing bricks and stones at them, and then went to the house of one officer and broke all the windows.

—March 1770: a group of men and boys were throwing rocks at British soldiers who were competing with them for jobs (many soldiers moonlighted to enhance their income); this turned into the Boston Massacre when the soldiers opened fire, afraid for their lives as the crowd grew in size and malice.

—November 1771: customs officials seize a boat carrying smuggled tea; another boat comes up alongside and thirty armed men attack the customs officials with clubs, swords, and guns. They forced the British captain into the hold, where he nearly died of his wounds, while they took the tea and left, wounded men lying on the decks of two boats.

—November 1773: a crowd gathered outside the house of a man who had a commission to sell tea from the EIC, shouting and beating down his gate. The commissioner yelled at them from an upper window to leave, and fired a shot. The mob shattered all the windows of the house and were only turned away from assaulting the owner by the pleas of some patriots that there were women in the house.

Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”

When the tea that the Tea Act mandated be sold in America arrived in November 1773, the governor knew he could not protect the men commissioned to receive and sell it from the people; those commissioners (one of them an elderly man) fled to the British Fort William on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, and there they stayed for many months after the Tea Party, justly feaful of their lives.

This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

It is certainly unsettling for modern-day Americans to read about the tactics our ancestors were ready to use when they believed themselves to be crossed. Mob violence is not something we condone today, and so much of the violence in colonial Boston seems to have been based not in righteous anger but in personal habit and popular tradition that it’s hard to see it as truly patriotic.

Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence. The Tea Party would be a triumph of this difficult position.

Next time: planning the Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party: Why was tea so important?

In part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party, we ask, why tea? Why was this commodity so symbolic, the one which American patriots chose to make a political stand over?

Until the 1700s, tea was a luxury item, very expensive and looked on with a little suspicion. But  by 1765 tea trade represented 70-90% of the imports of the powerful British East India Company. For a very interesting description of the EIC, its role in the British government, and the debt that threatened to destroy it, all of which have a large role to play in the Boston Tea Party, see Benjamin’s Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, an invaluable book to which this Truth v. Myth series is deeply indebted.

Tea came to the Americas legally, through the EIC, and illegally, through American smugglers. By the mid-1700s, the price was low enough to move tea from exotic luxury to daily drink, but it retained its mystique. Tea-drinking was the center of domestic rituals in households high and low, and owning all the accoutrements of tea-making and drinking was to have status—status that was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. As Carp describes it,

“During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere. The wealthiest families adopted tea ceremonies first, giving tea immense cultural cachet. …tea was a regular family event. …The woman of the house oversaw the  making of tea and assigned a series of tasks and errands to other family members, bringing the family together under her direction. …Tea became a ritual of family solidarity, sustenance, and politeness. To master the tea ceremony was to announce your own virtue… The striving ‘middle class’ of tradesmen, professionals, and landowners couldn’t resist the chance to partake in this elite pastime. You didn’t have to have a hereditary title, or even be particularly wealthy, to sip respectably at the tea table. …tea had become a new necessity. Addictive, stimulating, lightweight, and easy to prepare, [tea] could conquer sleep and thereby make a person more productive: in this way tea was contributing to the growing empire’s economy.” [55-6]

We see, then, that tea was many things: it was classy; it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction; it was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.

Of course, there were naysayers. Pamphlets were published on the negative effect tea had on people’s morals, as they did whatever they had to do to pay for tea and the sugar that went with it, and basically sold their souls for fancy tea-sets. Doctors deplored spending money on something that had no nutritional value. Tea, like gin, was seen as a gateway drug to a life of laziness, vanity, vice, and immorality. Valuing any material thing so highly was bound to cause trouble.

On the political side, some Americans worried about contributing so much money to the East India Company. They knew about the Company’s track record in India, where the lives and economy of the native people were held in little regard. American suspicions about the EIC were confirmed in 1769, when a famine hit Bengal, India, which was controlled by the Company. Over 1 million Bengalis died of starvation, the EIC  refused to share its stockpiles of food, and actually raised taxes on the survivors to make up for lost revenue. “As Chatterji wrote, ‘People could die of starvation, but the collection of revenue didn’t stop.’ Warren Hastings, the new governor of Bengal in 1772, reported to London in chilling terms that revenue collection had been ‘violently kept up to its former standard.'” [Carp 11-12]

Such was the source of tea in America, and there were Americans who hesitated to put their own country in thrall to the EIC. (News of the famine and the EIC’s response to it would fan the flames of anti-tea rebellion during the 1773 protests against the Tea Act.) What would happen if America, too, became “enslaved” (as they put it at the time) to the Company? It was not as far-fetched a notion as it seemed. To pay off its mounting debts, which threatened the British government itself (because the government was heavily invested in the EIC and depended on its profits for a large part of its operating budget), the Company shipped more and more tea to the colonies. Europe and England had already had their markets saturated. Now tea rolled into America in ever-larger amounts, which brought the price down nicely for consumers, but also threatened American security because the option to purchase tea was seeming more and more like an obligation to do so. Ships that came into port carrying tea were legally required to unload that cargo—it was illegal to ship the tea back to England. It had to be sold. American commissioners, men who had signed contracts with the EIC to sell imported tea in America, were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they failed to do so, the governor himself had to issue a clearance to send the tea back, but the governor would not do this without receiving clearance from the customhouse that said there was something wrong with the tea. If the tea was fine, there was no option but to unload it for the commissioners to sell. If the commissioners would not accept the tea, it was seized, along with the ship it came on—a ship usually owned by the commissioner himself. So men selling tea in America were in a bind: if they did not accept and sell the tea in America, they would lose their commission to sell tea in the future, lose their valuable ship, and lose the money they had spent to get the tea.

This smacked of coercion to many Americans. Did they really have no choice but to buy EIC tea? What would the Company do to them if they refused to buy the tea?

Granted, much, perhaps most tea for sale in America was illegally smuggled by traders unaffiliated with the EIC, men who had no commission from the British government to sell tea (legally, only the EIC was authorized to sell tea to the Americas). You didn’t have to buy Company tea. But as the Company fought for its life financially, a crackdown on smuggling began. Now Americans faced the prospect of being forced to turn in smugglers to the Company or being punished by the British government. They had to help the EIC maintain a monopoly on American tea sales, strengthening a company that had no respect for human life, as Americans saw it, and which would not hesitate to destroy America as it had destroyed Bengal if necessary. If the Company had a complete monopoly, what price might it begin to charge for tea, which was now seen as a necessity? What political power might it be given in America?

So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tea tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.

Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).  The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the EIC after all.

Now it was paramount to overthrow this tea scheme. In the next post, we’ll see how protest began.

Next time: a tradition of violence

Truth v. Myth: What caused the Boston Tea Party?

Hello and welcome to our series on the Boston Tea Party. This event, like Washington crossing the Delaware or the winter at Valley Forge, is familiar to all Americans—or at least the name is. Most people are hard-pressed to come up with any details on what happened and why. Here we’ll go beyond the men dressed as Indians and the tea dumped in the harbor and the refusal to pay taxes to explain how events unfolded and we’ll start by showing that one of those three details is all wrong.

Throughout, we’ll be hugely indebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic, must-read for all Americans Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. If you are left wanting more after this series, buy that book and enjoy.

Let’s start, as we must, with taxes. We have all been told that British taxes on everyday American goods like paper, sugar, and tea were bitterly resented by colonists, who refused to pay them. This is an oversimplification and so, inevitably, it’s inaccurate. The issue was more complicated: after the huge expense of fighting the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years’ War) against France both in Europe and in North America, Britain’s people were taxed to the hilt. They had helped pay for three wars against the Dutch from 1652-1674, as well as several wars with France, including the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War) and King George’s War between 1689 and 1748. By the end of the French and Indian War, Britons living in the British Isles could pay no more without wrecking the economic revolution developing in England at the time (the foundation of modern capitalism).

So the British turned to the Americans for help. The Americans had been the ones clamoring for Britain to put an end to the French and Indian threat on their doorstep, and they had made a lot of money selling supplies at hugely inflated prices to the British Army. Now Britain asked them to help pay up.

Most Americans supported this, with one caveat: they wished that they could have a say in how they were taxed—how much, and on what goods. But since they did not have representatives in Parliament, they could not have a say. American leaders had been petitioning formally and informally for reprentatives to Parliament for years to no avail. So after 1763, when the French and Indian War ended, Britain alone decided the tax rate and the goods to be taxed.

Most Americans would have gone along with this, at least for a while. But the real problem with the new taxation was this: the tax money went, in large part, to pay the salaries of British officials in America. That is, the tax money Americans paid did not a) get directly applied to the war debt; b) did not go to provide any services for Americans, but c) was used to pay the salaries of the royal governors, customs officials, and others.

Think of it this way: today we pay taxes to get services. Our taxes fund social programs like Medicare, Head Start, and others. We may not always like our tax rate, but at least we can say the money is coming back to the people in some important way. But in America in the 1760s, tax money just went to pay politicians. It would be like state taxes going to pay the governor’s salary, the salaries of state representatives, and city mayors, and nothing else—no services.

Worse, in colonial America a large portion of the new taxes went to pay one royal official in particular: the tax collector. So American tax money went to the tax collector who then had every incentive to demand strict enforcement of every tax, and to welcome new taxes.

This was the problem with taxes in post-war America. Americans had no say in how they were taxed, and their money went to enrich the government officials who collected taxes basically as salary.

In Massachusetts, there was a way to fight back. Massachusetts, unlike most of the other English colonies, was founded as an independent colony. It was not under the control of King or Parliament. It elected its own officials, from governor to colonial legislature. In the other colonies, the governor was appointed by the king and and people had no say. This royal governor often appointed members to the colonial legislature. This way, the governor could prevent the legislature from pursuing policies that negatively impacted the crown financially or politically. When Massachusetts was at last brought under direct royal control in 1691, it struck a unique deal: its governor would be appointed by the king, with no input from the people of the colony, but its legislature would remain popularly elected. And in Massachusetts, “popular” had real meaning. Almost every white male was a freeman, with voting rights. Property ownership was not a requirement. So the colony had a truly popular legislature, which took its responsibility of representing the interests of the people seriously. The Massachusetts legislature, called the General Court, would fight the royal governor and tax officials when they attempted to enforce the new tax on tea.

Thus, Massachusetts was particularly able to mount a defense against the post-war taxation, because its legislature actually represented the people. But they were not the only colonies to do so. New York and Pennsylvania launched vigorous anti-tax protests as well, as we’ll see, and criticized Massachusetts for not being radical enough—at least until the night of the Tea Party.

In the next post, we’ll look at the reasons why tea, of all the commodities that were taxed, became the hottest issue, and we’ll explain the customs rules that led Massachusetts men to decide that dumping the tea was necessary.

Next time: why tea?

Sinners in the hands of an angry God in context

Welcome to the conclusion of our series on the 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Here we wrap up after our close reading in part 3 and put the sermon in its historical context.

We’ve seen in parts 1 and 2 that New England in the early-mid-1700s was going through enormous change as a) many non-Congregational outsiders moved into the colony, which had been b) newly taken over by the English government [in 1691] as a royal colony under the direct control of the King, leading to c) an upswing in political activism, the other great concern of New Englanders since 1630, and  d) the original Congregational faith began to be fully transformed by the ideas of other Protestant faiths. It’s not that New Englanders no longer cared about religion. It’s just that they no longer had a traditional Congregationalism to turn to, and even if they had, it would no longer have fully met their needs. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s was not a cause of the decline of traditional Congregationalism but a symptom of it.

The invaluable book Tenacious of their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, by James F. Cooper, Jr., puts it this way:

“The Great Awakening is better understood as an event whose onset reflected ongoing tensions within the colony’s religious life and whose consequences accelerated changes in both Congregationalism and the larger culture that had long been under way. …Many features of the New England Way had clearly become desacralized well before the 1740s, and [many] had long before decided to ignore issues like discipline and mutual watch rather than fight over them. …The emphasis on evangelism and the New Birth that fueled the Great Awakening underscored the diminished relevance of corporate ties and Congregational procedures as churchgoers focused increasingly on issues of personal piety, the individual conscience, and novel means of seeking salvation. [This was a] shift away from Congregational practices as a central means of grace…” (198)

Indeed, any sermon focused so closely on both an individual acting to save herself from eternal damnation by seeking the “remedy” on her own without the input or help of any of her friends or congregation members, and on a complete lack of concern for other people’s souls is an example of the rise of personal piety. The heart of traditional Congregationalism had been its communality: everyone worked together to discover God’s will for everyone.

There was no way to change traditional Congregationalism without weakening it. Native New Englanders held the faith of the Puritan founders in such respect that any change made to accommodate new thinking was rejected as meddling. One might almost say that New Englanders in 1740 would rather let the old religion die intact than extend its life artificially. If the Way was no longer their way, there was no help for that. Let the old Congregational faith die as it lived rather than fade away as a shadow of its old self.

And so ministers like Edwards who straddled the lines, embracing parts of Arminianism and welcoming an unreformed Anglican revivalist, could not keep their traditional posts. After the flurry of Whitefield’s revival, Edwards attempted to return his congregation to old-school Congregational practices, encouraging mutual watch (in some unpopular ways, such as reading aloud in church a list of names of people who were reading salacious books) and being very restrictive about church membership (this after the hundreds of people who were accepted into churches at a time during the Great Awakening). More importantly, he reversed the decision made by his grandfather, the Rev. Samuel Stoddard, to allow people who were baptized but not full members (as per the Halfway Covenant) to receive communion. His congregation eventually removed him, and he stepped down gradually but without rancor.

From 1750-8 Edwards ministered to the Housatonics (Native Americans) of Stockbridge, defending their property rights against white settlement. He then took the position of President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but died very shortly after his installation from a smallpox vaccination; as an amateur scientist, Edwards was a strong supporter of vaccinations, which were new and treated with great suspicion by most people. His bad health, however, meant that his vaccination led to illness and his death on March 22, 1758.

Edwards might well have been surprised to know that “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” would seal his everlasting fame, outliving him by centuries. It was only one of his hellfire revival sermons, and not indicative of the bulk of his work, detailed analyses of doctrine and compliance which are very dry compared with his revival subjects. He would likely have wished that his study of the conversion process or the qualifications one needed for full church membership, or even his study of spiders or other aspects of the New England forests would have lived on instead.

As it is, we have “Sinners”. What’s important at this point is to read and recognize this sermon for what it is—a window into a time of religious, social, and political turmoil and change, and a symbol of the alternatives to Congregationalism that were developing at the time rather than an icon of Puritan beliefs.

A Close reading of Sinners in the hands of an angry God

Part 3 of our look at the 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” involves a close reading of the sermon. It’s not too long, for a sermon, but we’re not going to go over every word of it here for the sake of space. Instead, we’ll look at chronological excerpts that make the main points. When italics are my own, and not Edwards’, I will note it.

The sermon takes off from the Bible verse “Their foot shall slide in due time”, from Deut. 32:35

“In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained (as vers 28.) void of counsel, having no understanding in them.”

—Edwards begins with the comparison of the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament of the Bible with his modern-day New England listeners. In the Old Testament, God is constantly chastising the Israelites for their sin and lack of faith, so Edwards’ listeners would have guessed what was coming.

“…they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall. …they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction… Another thing implied is, that they are liable to fall of themselves… [and] that the reason why they are not fallen already and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come.”

—Because of their sin, humans are always on the verge of being sent to Hell by God. They are already damned by their sin, so there is no question that Hell awaits them, but the time God appointed (aeons ago) for them to go to Hell has not yet come. So don’t be comforted by the fact that you haven’t slipped into Hell yet—it’s only a matter of time.

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God… Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.”

—As soon as God decides it’s your time to take your punishment, you will; there is nothing you can do about it. This is a crucial Calvinist idea; you cannot choose God or salvation, you cannot change God’s mind. He will reiterate this tirelessly throughout this sermon, but, as we mentioned in part 2, he will also continually urge people to do something—to seek a remedy. He will also urge people not to continue in their sin, which is tantamount to telling them to choose good/God.

“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them… it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.”

—God’s judgment is never wrong. So if you love someone and think they are a good person who could never be sent to Hell by a good God, you are mistaken in your judgment and God is right in His. Every sinner would be in Hell right now if it weren’t suiting God’s purposes to keep them on Earth for the moment. Notice the use of the word “arbitrary” in “the hand of arbitrary mercy”: there is no reason for God to hold back, and so his decision to do so is arbitrary mercy, in that we can never understand why God would ever suffer sinners to live in happiness on Earth for one moment, let alone long lifetimes.

Throughout the sermon Edwards, like many Christians before him, speaks of God’s “pleasure”, as in “it pleases God to hold back”.  This does not mean pleasure as we think of it, but is merely a synonym for “will”. It’s not that God derives happiness or pleasure from condemning humans; it’s just that it’s God’s will to punish those who are sinful.

“There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? [In Eccles. 2:16 it says] ‘How dieth the wise man? even as the fool.'”

—If you have spent time reasoning away your sin or damnation, you are in big trouble. It’s people who think they’re smart enough to outwit God and their fate who burn the brightest in Hell. If your smarts mattered at all then wise men wouldn’t die early or unexpectedly, such deaths being proof positive of God suddenly decided to withdraw His arbitrary mercy and let you go to Hell.

“Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do… They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done.”

—We all think it won’t happen to us, right? But really, if this were a true Puritan audience of even 50 years earlier, it would be the opposite: nearly everyone in the audience would think it would happen to them, because they were not sure they were saved. This excerpt is proof of how times had changed in New England by 1741. As people lost touch with the idea of searching for God’s grace to know His will, they lost their sharp fear of Hell, and began to wonder, at least to some extent, if the “damned until proven saved” mindset was really accurate.

“The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

—Now Edwards comes to the “Application” of his sermon, in which he tells the congregation how his topic pertains to them. This would be more pertinent to a study of the shepherd and his flock or the parable of the ten virgins, but in this case, the audience certainly knew how it applied to them. Edwards has made it very clear that everyone is damned and about to fall into Hell, and everyone means everyone. This is the first of many graphic descriptions of Hell in the sermon, and it was recorded that in this sermon as in others that focused on damnation, people began to cry and scream in the church as their terror mounted.

“…all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”

—Here we get our title. But this is one of those confusing passages that introduces the anti-Puritan, pro-Arminian view that you as a sinful human can change, that God can and will change you, and make you new, and remove you from sin. Edwards has previously toed the Puritan, Calvinist line that no one can change their sinful nature and there’s nothing you can do to change God’s mind, and the only reason God hasn’t sent you to Hell yet is because it’s not time. Now he seems to be saying you can change, that God will change His mind and take away your sin, and that you haven’t been sent to Hell yet because God is waiting for you to ask Him for this transformation. It’s just the first of many calls to action that the first part of the sermon seemed to make redundant.

The verb tense is passive—you are “made new” and “raised up” by God—so in that sense even if you are cleansed it’s not because of anything you have done; God has decided to do this for and to you on His own. Yet how could God decide this if His mind has been irrevocably made up about you since before the dawn of time?

“You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have… nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.” [my italics]

—Here is another whipsaw passage: Edwards has just told you in the last quote that you need to be changed and made holy, and a listener could be forgiven for assuming that they need to actively seek this. But here again there is nothing you can do to persuade God to help you at all.

“…Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it; the infinite might, and majesty, and terribleness of the omnipotent God shall be magnified upon you, in the ineffable strength of your torments.” [my italics]

—Again, one is urged not to continue in sin, but what you can do to stop sinning, and get God to save you, is not specified. The passive tense used throughout seems to say that you can’t influence God to save you, God will do this to/for you, but on the other hand, you are urged to sort of get God interested in doing so (in again unspecified ways).

“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing!”

—Yes, it would be terrible to be left behind when everyone else is saved and headed to Heaven, but, as the anguished congregation must have cried out, how do you avoid it?? This passage is especially cruel in its vagary. Christ has thrown open the doors to Heaven, and sinners are flocking to Him, and thus being saved. Somehow. What is “flocking to” Christ? What does one actually do? What did those who were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, but who are now in a happy state, actually do to achieve this transformation, and salvation? Edwards does not say.

Clearly, the door being flung open means that the number of the saved is suddenly going to be increased, for some reason of God’s own, at this moment. Your name no longer has to be on the list—for this short time only, you can become saved, but how?

“God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time…”

—Everyone who will ever be saved is being saved right now. Time is short. But again, what you do to become elect is unspecified.

“Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

—This is the concluding paragraph of the sermon. It’s fitting that it should close with another confusing order to do something to change your fate, even though humans can do nothing, and to fly from God’s wrath even though you’re never told how to do that.

One can appreciate why so many people became so distraught during sermons like this one. The time of religious change and upheaval it came out of led it to mash together different doctrines, without making one sensible new doctrine out of the group, but rather a crazy-quilt of  conflicting demands. If it had been truly Puritan, there would not have been two dozen graphic, drawn-0ut descriptions of Hell or vague orders to change God’s mind about your soul. It would have quietly encouraged you to seek God’s will and draw strength from God’s goodness. If it had been truly Arminian, it would have come out and said you can accept God and reject Satan and earn salvation by doing so.

As it is, the sermon stirs up terror and grief, but offers no way out from them. In the next post, we’ll wrap up our look at this sermon and its time.

Next time: What the sermon says about its time

Sinners in the hands of an angry God: where did it come from?

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the infamous Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Here we follow on from the description of the original Puritan religion and church practices in part 1 with a description of the Great Awakening and the sermon itself.

As we learned in part 1, by the 1690s the old Puritan Way was eroding in New England for political and demographic reasons. Puritans were no longer the majority population in the New England colonies as outsiders came in to the newly subsumed royal colony. Congregational religion held on; most people living in New England in 1720 who were born into Congregationalism took it seriously, but they did not regard the ministry or the complex, social, intellectual process of church doctrine with the respect that their forebears had felt.

This was partly inevitable; the fervor and complete devotion to the New England Way of the first generations who felt they were fighting God’s fight all alone in the New World could not be sustained by those who came later, born into a comfortable and profitable colony of the British empire. It was also partly the result of compromises to the Way that took the supernatural aura away from it and made it seem more a human creation like any other—no better and no worse than any other way.

Many historians have made a great deal of a supposed falling off of church membership at this time, the early 1700s, but as we have seen, full church membership had always been rare amongst the Puritans, because most of them were not sure that they were truly saved (a prerequisite to becoming a full member was publicly describing and affirming the moment you realized you were saved). So the slightly lower number still of full members in the 1700s is not surprising. In a time of increased doubt, the fraction of those who felt they were saved became even smaller.

Congregationalism was not dead; on the contrary, most Congregationalists were still very concerned with their souls. They just did not respond passionately to traditional Congregationalism anymore.

Enter the First Great Awakening. In the 1730s and 40s, a series of religious revivals swept New England and parts of New York and New Jersey. The theology of the revivalists was a mix; George Whitefield was an Anglican, many Baptists took part, and some Congregational ministers embraced a mix of Calvinist and Arminian principles. We saw in part 1 of this series that Arminianism had been an arch-enemy of the Puritans because it taught that humans could choose to accept God and be saved, which Puritans thought was impossible given the fallen, sinful nature of human beings. So it’s a proof of the shift in New England that an unreformed English Anglican could lead Baptists and Congregationalists in an embrace of Arminianism.

But the revivals did catch on. They spoke to people’s desire to be passionate about religion again, to feel the fire of religious devotion they read about in histories of their ancestors but did not feel in themselves. In the absence of a literal wilderness to fight against, like their settler ancestors had had, New Englanders in the 1730s and 40s fought against a spiritual wilderness. They fought against the apathy and religious complacency they had begun to feel as the Puritan religious zeal was more and more transferred to politics.

Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony who embraced certain aspects of the revival. Born in 1703, Edwards had grown up in a very traditional Puritan household; his mother Esther Stoddard Edwards was the daughter of the famous and influential Puritan minister Solomon Stoddard. Edwards believed in predestination, and had had his moment of realizing he was saved; he believed that God alone decided if someone was to be saved and that no human effort or decision could influence God. He was also a passionate amateur biologist who saw the beauty of nature as proof of God’s goodness, and a happily married man who took a special interest in women’s rights.

Edwards appreciated the religious revival because it brought people to church and got them passionate about religion again. It also gave him an opportunity to mix scientific method and the old-school Puritan intellectual approach by taking the revival as an opportunity to study and document the psycholgical steps involved in religious conversion. Perhaps pre-occupied by this angle, he did not realize that many who came to church in fear of damnation did not come to believe that they were saved and fell into despair. A few congregants took their own lives as a result, and revival faded in Northampton in 1735.

It was sparked back to life in 1740 when the famous English Anglican minister George Whitefield answered Edwards’ request to come preach in Northampton. Whitefield, a superstar of his day, was on a tour of the American colonies and attracting thousands of people to his hellfire sermons. He preached four times in Northampton that fall of 1740, and led Edwards back to preaching the full revival.

The next summer, July 8, 1741, Edwards preached his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. To us it is a great event, but it was just one of many fiery sermons Edwards preached, and is only famous today because it was the one chosen to be anthologized in American literature texts.

The sermon is puzzling in a few ways, considering who Edwards was. He tells people they are in immediate danger of hell and urges them not to continue in their sinful ways, and to seek a “remedy” for their sin, but as a Congregationalist he cannot just tell them to accept Christ and be saved—he doesn’t believe in that. So the “remedy” remains very vague, which probably deeply upset his listeners. Early generations might have understood that they were supposed to begin the painstaking process of study, prayer, and church-going that would open their souls to God’s grace and let them know if they were saved, but by 1741 this process was about dead and buried. Young people in 1741 would not know anything about it, and would most likely have discounted it if they had known, for who would begin a years- or even decades-long process of discernment when the threat of hell is immediate? There’s no time for Puritanism any more.

The emotional nature of the sermon is also confusing, as the one thing Edwards disliked about the revival movement was its emotion. He did not approve of or encourage his listeners to cry out in church, throw themselves on the floor, or do any other dramatic thing, yet a sermon like this one could not help but provoke listeners to frantic despair.

It’s also unusual for a Puritan minister to deliver a “hellfire” sermon. Puritan sermons had usually focused on the process of searching for God’s grace, and the technical points of how to read God’s word and discern his will for you. They were not focused on hell and damnation because ministers assumed that most people in the Congregation did not know their spiritual status (whether or not they were saved) and so haranguing them about hell would be unfair and even counter-productive. It’s only when you begin to believe that you can act on your own to accept God and be saved that you can harrass people for not doing so.

Edwards tells people that very few humans are saved, and even says that most of their friends and loved ones who have died, people whom everyone liked and who seemed godly, are undoubtedly in hell, but gives no clear way out for the living, since salvation is restricted to such a tiny fraction of people. He tells them that God is “incensed” with them because of their sin, that they deserve to go to Hell and should go there, and that God will likely send them there and would be justified in doing so… then urges them to seek the “remedy”. But what remedy is there, if you deserve Hell and God has likely condemned you to it:?

Edwards uses the now-familiar phrase “born again”:

“Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”

These are Arminian ideas: that God can change your “heart” or soul (the Puritans believed that God never changed his creation because it was perfect), that humans can become good (Puritans believed this to be impossible), that God can decide to save someone previously condemned to Hell (Puritans believed that before the world was created God decided the fate of every human who would ever live, and then never changed his mind). Edwards continues the mystification by reiterating that there is nothing humans can do to avoid Hell (“…[you have] nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment”), and then saying humans have to do something: “Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it”. Saying “if you continue in it” seems to clearly imply that you can choose not to continue in your sin, and thus can do something to save yourself.

We will do a close-reading of the sermon in the next post. For now, we’ll wrap up by saying this sermon is an artifact of the religious flux and change going on in Congregational New England at the time. Arminian ideas were creeping in, passion was replacing reason, and mixed messages about what was possible, what God’s nature was, and how humans stood in relation to God’s will proliferated. That’s what made the revival at once satisfying and horrible for those who participated: it satisfied their need for a passionate, non-intellectualized call to God, but then failed to offer a clear solution to the problem of their damnation. It would take a few more decades, really until the beginning of the 19th century, for the Protestant tenets we know today to take shape: that humans can choose God and salvation, that God can be influenced in his judgments, and that being “born again” means believing in Christ.  For revivalists in 1741, such a clear-cut doctrine was nowhere in sight.

Next time: let’s read the sermon

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: what does it mean?

Welcome to our series on the (in)famous 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. This is a text that is taught unfailingly in American literature courses in high school and college; students read a short excerpt, one of the many that focuses all too intently on describing the horrors of hell and the wretched situation of humans living seemingly comfortable and happy lives on Earth but destined—pre-destined—to wind up scorching eternally.

It’s usually presented as an example of the awfulness of the Puritans and their religion, but it’s not really a Puritan sermon at all. In this series, we’ll trace the evolution of this sermon, the Great Awakening of which it was a part, and the overall religious climate of New England in the mid-1700s.

Let’s begin with a sizing up of religious feeling and practice in New England at the time. New England had been settled by Puritans—English people who wanted to strip the Anglican church of its remaining “Catholic” practices—to purify it (much more on the Puritans throughout this site!). The church these people created in the New World came to be called Congregational, because each individual congregation was completely autonomous—there were no bishops and archbishops assigning ministers and dictating doctrine. The people attending a church had complete control over who became their minister, voting for and against candidates for that office, and each church was free from interference by the state.

When on earth, you ask, will we get to the sermon? It is coming; in the very next post we’ll get to it. But you can’t understand why Edwards’ sermon was so powerful unless you know where his congregation of 1741 was at with their religion and their souls.

This original Congregational church was strong from 1630, when the Puritans arrived in New England, until about 1700. Early on, the Puritans codified their beliefs and, most importantly, their church practices in a body of doctrine called the New England Way. One of the most important things to understand about the real Puritanism of this period, rather than the religious practice that came later in the early 1700s, is that Puritan religion was very intellectual. It required lots of thought, reading, prayer, conversation, and soul-searching done in the quiet of reflection. The New England Way laid out a series of steps one must take in order to a) open oneself to God’s grace so that b) one could realize whether one had been given God’s grace and was saved. It’s a little bald, but let’s put it into bullets:

—Puritans believed that everyone in history and in the future had already been given grace/salvation by God or had not

—There was nothing you could do to earn God’s grace/salvation; no sinful human could ever deserve it

—God decided millennia before you were born whether to give you His grace or not (this is called predestination)

—Your job was to live as good a life as you could, following Congregational doctrine as closely as you could, in order to make your fallen soul as receptive as possible to the word of God, which would

—make it possible for you to realize whether you had received God’s grace or not.

—If you realized you had been saved, you were all set. If not, you had to keep trying. Puritans, for all their strictness, were loathe to actually tell someone to give up, that they weren’t saved.

Puritans were fully committed to their Way. They saw it as a fixed doctrine, set for the ages. But in 1659, the Halfway Covenant was introduced. In the Congregational church, infants were baptized, and anyone baptized in a church could attend it. But unless they became full members, they could not take communion or take part in church votes. To become a full member, you had to complete the long series of steps toward opening yourself to God and have the realization that God had indeed saved you. Very, very few Puritans, even in the fervent early decades, did this. They took their religion very seriously, and very few people could bring themselves to think that they had been given the priceless gift of God’s grace and salvation. The Halfway Covenant allowed people who weren’t full members to have their own children baptized.  They could not take communion or vote, but they could be part of the groups that sought to know God’s will. This was a compromise that kept children in the fold without corrupting the Congregational practice of requiring full membership  before you took communion or voted.

Churches across New England battled in mini civil wars over whether they would accept the Halfway Covenant, and some churches were torn apart. Argument about what the New England Way really was fired the region. The Halfway Covenant was eventually accepted, but it did plant a seed of doubt in people’s minds—was Congregational doctrine really handed down from God, and unchangeable, or something created by humans that had no real authority?

This question would remain as the 17th century drew to a close. The Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its autonomy in 1691 and was made a royal colony under direct control of the English king, and many thousands of non-Puritans entered the colony. The old religion held on, but inevitably it changed. Whether you thought that change was for the better or the worse influenced how you felt about the Great Awakening, and Jonathan Edwards’ preaching, when they came.

Next time: the Great Awakening and the Sermon