Lightning Strikes: The Evangelical Event

Cotton Mather

While Increase Mather was a strong proponent of the studious clerical model, his son Cotton sought out the active involvement in congregational life enjoyed by his grandfather Richard (Harper 559-561). Rather than spending his hours preparing sermons, Cotton Mather engaged in a "systematic program of visitation," thereby focusing his efforts on interaction with his congregation (Harper 561-562). Far from "jealously guarding" his "pastoral prerogatives," Mather initiated a "remarkable attempt" to extend typical pastoral duties to laypersons (Harper 562); not coincidentally, his congregation welcomed many new members while others in Boston saw their ranks reduced (Harper 562). Notably, of these new members, "fully half of those baptized in the church during Mather's forty-three-year ministry were ultimately able to give a 'relation' of their own conversion and enter into full communion" (Harper 562). Cotton Mather had managed to break the pattern of declining favor of evangelical notions of grace, and he did so in tandem with resurrecting the conversion narrative as a central component of religious experience.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mather recorded his own conversion experience in the pages of his autobiography, Paterna. Mather began his autobiography for his son, Increase (known as "Cresy"), but after Increase lost favor in the eyes of his father and was eventually himself lost at sea, he readdressed, modified, and extended it for his younger son, Samuel (Bosco xiii-xxviii). Although Paterna was not published until Bosco's 1976 edition, there is evidence (not the least of which being that Mather carefully--but ineffectively--concealed any hints of his identity) that Mather intended for Paterna to function as an instruction for others in addition to his sons (Bosco iii, xvi, xxxviii-xxxix). In Daniel Shea's reading, this "instruction" amounted to an endorsement of the doctrine of good works, and indeed Mather himself had written in 1697 that "'A Workless Faith is a Worthless Faith'" (Shea 179-180). In accord with this doctrine, the "evidences of divine favor" that Mather outlines in his autobiography "are intended to stimulate the reader to those acts which God has promised to favor" (Shea 171). In sum, Cotton Mather walked the line between the two extremes of personal faith and clerically supported works in his autobiographical writing as well as in his profession.

Although Cotton Mather can hardly himself be considered an instrumental figure in the Great Awakening, it is clear that he represented, and indeed promoted, a renewed openness to the coming evangelicalism. Paterna, the written artifact of this approach, was likely completed in 1727, the year prior to Cotton MatherŐs death (Bosco xxviii). Mather's repopularization of the grace-based conversion narrative developed in tandem with his vigorous push, both in his clerical work and in his autobiography, for a privileging of works-based faith. This signaled a return to moderation when recent ministers, such as his father Increase, had emphasized the clerical role over the congregational. This shift perhaps explains Cotton Mather's success as a minister: although he insisted on the need for clerical guidance, he returned some agency to the hands of the common man. The coming generation of New Light pastors would use Mather's techniques to control and promote revivalism (Harper 563); little wonder, then, that Mather's later work has been said to show strains of "the fervent, affective religion of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening" (Hall 217).

Samuel and Joseph Moody: The Narratives of Patience Boston and Joseph Quasson

As Cotton Mather was completing his autobiography in Boston, pastors Samuel and Joseph Moody were creating another type of conversion narrative in York County, Massachusetts (now Maine) (Williams "Behold" 835). Samuel Moody has been described as "a passionate and widely respected frontier evangelist who would later support the Great Awakening and earn the admiring friendship of such prominent revivalists as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards" (Cohen Toward 70); these sympathies were evident in his innovative use of the criminal conversion narrative. While Mather's autobiography described the conversion experience of a man who enjoyed extensive social influence, the Moodys, rather than crafting their own narratives, adapted the words of society's least treasured members: condemned criminals.

Mather, of course, had himself published execution speeches, which were used primarily to frighten readers who witnessed the dying spiritual struggles of people whose "sins" included many which mirrored their own ("such as lying, cursing, or Sabbath-breaking") (Williams "Introduction" 4-5). Yet the documents Mather published in his collection of criminal narratives, Pillars of Salt, hardly possessed the autobiographical texture of the extended narratives of Joseph Quasson and Patience Boston, nor did they focus so narrowly on the spiritual experiences of their subjects. "[A]s the ministers turned more and more to evangelicalism to return religious experience to a personal level," however, "the criminal narrative genre became less concerned with the excitement of terror and more concerned with the process of conversion" (Williams "Behold" 831). The narratives of Joseph Quasson and Patience Boston, as Daniel Williams points out, illustrate this hybrid of the criminal and conversion narrative genres during the incipient stages of the Great Awakening.

If Mather's Paterna espoused something resembling the covenant of works in its obsession with the "signs" of salvation, the Moodys's documents go one step further, "as close as any generation of Puritan ministers ever did to a covenant of works" (Williams "Behold" 832). The ministers certainly directed the criminals in their confessions, specifying for them the steps to salvation and perhaps even how they should speak of it (Williams "Behold" 833); yet in publishing the resulting narratives, they extended these directions to their readership. In short, "ministers sought to establish a pattern of repentance and redemption whose steps were marked clearly enough for everyone to follow" (Williams "Behold" 835-836). The pattern so closely resembled the covenant of works, in fact, that Boston's first-person narrative concluded with the oddly defensive statement, "How are we condemned by the Covenant of Works, and relieved by the Covenant of Grace" (Boston 136). Nevertheless, whether formulaic or not, these narratives privileged the criminals's experiences of conversion over their fears of dying, and purportedly did so in their own words (in Boston's case, the narrative was said to have been "taken from her Mouth") (Boston 119).

In the practice of advising the criminal with step-by-step instructions for salvation (advice which was subsequently passed on to the audience through the narrative), the Moodys stepped slightly closer than Mather to the covenant of works. In the content of the narrative, which explicitly promoted the covenant of grace, however, they safely maintained the balance between works and grace while further promoting the rising evangelicalism hinted at by Mather's autobiography. Published in 1726 (Quasson) and 1738 (Boston), these narratives (particularly Boston's, with its excruciating detail of her troubled life) set the stage for the fervent revivalism of the Great Awakening, and did so in the words not of an accomplished clergyman but of an outcast layperson.

Sarah Pierpont Edwards, David Brainerd, and Jonathan Edwards

If Samuel and Joseph Moody planted the seeds of fervent evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards harvested the spoils. Edwards can clearly be considered a leading luminary in the first Great Awakening (although George Whitefield, who arrived in America in 1740 and conducted a highly succesful itinerant tour, deserves much of the credit for the movement's success) (Goen 1, 48-49). Edwards, who documented the 1734-1735 awakenings of his own parish in "A Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions in Northampton and Vicinity," was responsible for "the historical documentation and theological defense which have sustained [revivalism] as an ongoing tradition" (Goen 1). The documentation that Edwards created consists, as we might expect, of a number of conversion narratives, the successors of the prototypes we have discussed to this point. Edwards, it seemed, was personally invested in reviving the tradition of oral conversion narratives; although he did not achieve this goal within his parish, he did manage to "[make] conversion narratives an important part of his theological dissection of the conversion experience" (Payne 23-24).

Edwards claimed in his "Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions," "There is no one thing that I know of that God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others' conversion; in the awakening sinners, and engaging them earnestly to seek the same blessing, and in the quickening of the saints" (40). Yet if he saw conversion narratives as a means of eliciting grace in others, he also saw them as a "propagandistic tools to defend both the awakening and the sometimes excessive physical and emotional forms that conversion took" (Payne 24). Edwards's New Light evangelicalism was indeed an object of Old Light clerical suspicion. Although Old Light and New Light clergy may have had similar, moderate Calvinist leanings at the beginning of the 1740s, Old Lights essentially came to "[see] the Awakening first and foremost as a frontal assault on New England's clerical establishment," an "assault" whose force originated in the idea that the evangelical convert, like Anne Hutchinson's antinomian, did not require the aid of the church to experience the "flash of lightning" of conversion (Harper 558; Edwards "Narrative" 11). If Edwards fell into the trap of too fervently denying the role of Works in salvation (and thus overemphasizing the role of grace), it was because he, like Mather and the Moodys before him, was attempting to guard against charges of Arminianism (Goen 4-10).

In the familiar attempt to balance between Arminianism and Antinomianism, Edwards turned to his wife, Sarah Pierpont, and good friend, David Brainerd, as examples of successful conversions. Sarah Edwards underwent her own conversion experience during a period of her husband's absence in 1742, purportedly after feeling intense jealousy when she discovered that the congregation might prefer the sermons of visiting ministers to those of her husband (Goen 69). When Edwards returned, she related the "ecstatic rapture" she felt when she triumphed over these feelings, and he asked her to transcribe the experience (Goen 69). Edwards rewrote Sarah's narrative, removing all mentions of her sex and reworking it in the third person, and used it as the crown jewel of Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (Goen 69-70). This rewriting, however, was a "relative failure": "Edwards sought to discover the transcendent in the mundane, the universal within the particular," but created instead a "redaction" of what was originally an inspiring account (Payne 25). With David Brainerd's narrative, however, Edwards was relatively more successful. Brainerd, who became a missionary after being dismissed from Yale (an injustice which, it has been suggested, inspired John Dickinson to found Princeton), was possibly engaged to Edwards's daughter Jerusha at the time of his death from tuberculosis (Pettit 55, 68-71). Brainerd was "persuaded (with difficulty) not entirely to suppress all his private writings," and his diary was thus turned over to Edwards, who reworked it as The Life of David Brainerd (Edwards, Brianerd 96). Although Edwards edited Brainerd's diary to downplay his persistent depression, he allowed much of it to remain intact, and the result "became an evangelical devotional classic and was Edwards's most popular and most reprinted work" (Pettit 22, Payne 26). The more the original speaker's voice seemed accessible in the narrative, apparently, the greater was the narrative's effect in defending Edwards' brand of evangelicalism.

Yet Edwards seemed to find these narratives insufficient defense of the Awakenings, and he followed them with an account of his own conversion experience because, according to Daniel Shea, "a narrative told in the first person, as Sarah's had been originally [and Brainerd's, although mediated, still was], was immensely more valuable to his cause than even the best job of evangelistic reporting" (188). As Shea points out, the most striking characteristic of this narrative was "its exclusive attention to the work of grace in the soul" (183). Payne speculates that this shift in focus may have been too great for the contemporary audience; he suggests that the resulting work diverged unacceptably from the model Edwards had previously established and was thus left unpublished until 1765 (it was written sometime between 1739 and 1758, when Edwards died) (Payne 27; Edwards "Personal" 441). In sum, Edward's defense of evangelicalism was perhaps too evangelical--or too Antinomian-- to pass muster. In the 1740s, itinerant preacher and peerless controversialist James Davenport made two highly emotional tours of New England, in which he "denounced publicly" ministers whom he judged unconverted (not coincidentally, Connecticut outlawed itinerant preaching between his two visits) (Goen 51, 60). Davenport "unleashed the demons of hysteria and fanaticism which no retraction could recall, and furnished the antirevival arsenal with more ammunition than even Jonathan Edwards could repulse" (Goen 61); as a result, New England's protestants became hopelessly divided before 1742 came to a close (Goen 64).

In 1750 Edwards was cast out of the pulpit for refusing communion to anyone who would not profess faith, a practice which his congregation found unacceptable (Pettit 14). This end was somehow appropriate: "True to the very goals that Edwards promoted, the dissolution of his ministry prompted a more direct relationship between the devout [individual] and the divine [grace], demoting the minister's role as absolute mediator. Ironically, Edwards was cast out by the rise in individual involvement that he helped create" (Imbarrato 35). Edwards, having convinced his parishioners of evangelicalism's righteousness, conceded his right to continue in the long tradition of ministerial mediation. By promoting a brand of evangelicalism that focused on the individual, he rendered his own moderate views (that authority is divided between the minister and the layperson) something of an anachronism.


Introduction                            Chronology                            Genre                            Summary

"Such a Means of Promoting His Work Amongst Us":
Evangelicalism and Autobiography in Early American Conversion Narratives

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