I’ve taken The Works of Jonathan Edwards with me to read in the waiting room at my doctor’s office. I’ve received some curious looks. Who in the world is Jonathan Edwards? There would have been a time when most people would have known.
Edwards was a pastor, renowned preacher, missionary, college president, and philosopher. Some argue he was the most brilliant theologian ever born on American soil.
And he was fired by his church.
Why do I bring this up? One: because I’m in that section in my reading. Two: because I know a lot of pastors, which is a little dangerous. At any given time, I know that some of them are going through tough situations. It’s good to know that we’re not alone. Better pastors than us have been through much worse. Even you pastor and things are going well, I think it’s good to be reminded that job security really isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
There’s no doubt that Edwards contributed to his firing. He handled a church discipline issue badly. Some of the leading families openly defied Edwards, which proved to be a psychological turning point. Once Edwards lost his moral authority, he never got it back. Some argue that Edwards experienced the beginnings of a change in the common view of authority. We see the changing views in hindsight, but things probably weren’t so clear at the time. In a way, he was swept away by cultural forces much bigger than him.
Edwards also had a major doctrinal disagreement with his people. He believed that he could win the people over by force of argument, but they simply weren’t listening. And so he was fired.
You get an idea of how hard this would have been from this passage:
“Every one must be sensible,” remarks Dr. Hopkins, who was himself an occasional eye-witness of these scenes, “that this was a great trial to Mr. Edwards. He had been nearly twenty-four years among that people; and his labours had been, to all appearance, from time to time greatly blessed among them: and a great number looked on him as their spiritual father, who had been the happy instrument of turning them from darkness to light, and plucking them as brands out of the burning. And they had from time to time professed that they looked upon it as one of their greatest privileges to have such a minister, and manifested their great love and esteem of him…Now to have this people turn against him, and thrust him out from among them, stopping their ears, and running upon him with furious zeal, not allowing him to defend himself by giving him a fair hearing; and even refusing so much as to hear him preach; many of them surmising and publicly speaking many ill things as to his ends and designs! surely this must come very near to him, and try his spirit.”
Edwards wrote in one letter before he was dismissed:
This controversy, in the progress of it, has proved not only a controversy between me and my people, but between me and a great part of New England; there being many far and near who are warmly engaged in it. This affair has unavoidably engaged my mind, and filled up my time, and taken me off from other things. I need the prayers of my friends, that God would be with me, and direct and assist me in such a time of trial, and mercifully order the issue.
After his dismissal he wrote:
I can now inform you, that the controversy between me and my people, which I mentioned in the beginning of my letter, has issued in a separation. An ecclesiastical council was called on the affair, who sat here the week before last, and by a majority of one voice determined an immediate separation to be necessary; and accordingly my pastoral relation to my people was dissolved, on June 22nd. If I can procure the printed accounts from Boston of the proceedings of the council, I will give orders to my friend there, to enclose them with this letter, and direct them to you.—I desire your prayers, that I may take a suitable notice of the frowns of Heaven on me and this people, between whom there once existed so great a union, in bringing to pass such a separation between us; that these troubles may be sanctified to me; that God would overrule the event for his own glory (in which doubtless many adversaries will rejoice and triumph); that he would open a door for my future usefulness, provide for me and my numerous family, and take a fatherly care of us in our present unsettled, uncertain circumstances, being cast on the wide world.
The dispensation is indeed awful in many respects, calling for serious reflection and deep humiliation in me and my people. The enemy, far and near, will now triumph; but God can overrule all for his own glory. I have now nothing visible to depend upon for my future usefulness, or the subsistence of my numerous family. But I hope we have an all-sufficient, faithful, covenant God, to depend upon. I desire that I may ever submit to him, walk humbly before him, and put my trust wholly in him. I desire, dear Sir, your prayers for us, under our present circumstances.
Every pastor goes through problems sometimes. Some are even fired. I guess in a small way it’s good to know that we’re in good company. If Jonathan Edwards was fired, we shouldn’t be surprised that the road gets bumpy for us once in a while. We should probably expect it. Better pastors than us have been through much worse.