Living up to Jonathan Edwards


“Are you really a descendent of Jonathan Edwards, the angry God guy? That’s what they are telling me in the newsroom,” asked Dennis Roddy, a Sunday columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when he called me several years ago after I presided at a wedding for two women. Jonathan Edwards has loomed large in my life as a measure of ministerial duty since I first felt called to ordination 35 years ago. Though I understand him a bit differently than Roddy did.

Most of all, it’s his path in ministry that resonates deeply with me. After a long pastorate in Northhampton, Massachusetts, he took the position of minister in the experimental village of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, very much on the edge of the wilderness in the 1750s. The English and the Native Americans, Mohicans, lived side by side and Edwards was the preacher for both churches, using a translator to speak to the Mohicans.

Over time Edwards came to see the treatment of the Mohicans by his Williams cousins (Williams College) as land-grabbing manipulation, and challenged them on their behavior. He sent letters criticizing the Williams family to the governor in Boston, and his cousins began to criticize Edwards in return. Though it was a hardship for his family, he eventually accepted an invitation to become president of Princeton College partly in order to escape this conflict with his cousins.

So in ministry, at least, I have not fallen far from the tree. Just as Jonathan Edwards treated the Mohicans in the same way he treated everyone he met — as a child of God, deserving of love from their neighbor — I seek to treat everyone in the same way, including GLBT people. Everyone is capable of receiving and responding to God’s love and, certainly, is deserving of love from their neighbor.

The ministry to which I have been called has not been without its hardships. I am comforted by a sense that I am following my family’s proud tradition of standing firm for what we believe is right, no matter what tests may stand in our way.

There are ways in which Jonathan and I differ—how could we not, living three centuries apart? But that I will hold for another time. The heart of the matter, according to Jesus, is loving God and loving our neighbor. In seeking always to obey those commandments, Edwards and I stand firmly arm in arm.


Reverend Janet

2 Responses
  • Donna on May 24, 2009

    I read your blogs and wonder why it is you do what you do – why you persist when the situation seems quite impossible. As God would have it, though, the answer comes by and by, in the oddest and yet most complete ways, and always with more to learn than I bargain for.

    For today I finished reading the book “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman, and while it was written in a time and era dealing with racism, I found myself reading it as if it were written about homophobia. Maybe this is something the rest of the world already does, but it is new to me. In any case, Thurman in his preface begins with “This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” In my mind, I automatically insert the term “sexual orientation” to his list. It fits, as it does equally throughout the book, alongside or in place of any other “ism” he covers.

    The answer to his question? I’d stumbled upon it in my own right in one of the first responses I made here: the need for some to feel superior. Or as Thurman put it: “Again and again it has been demonstrated that the lines are held by those whose hold on security is sure only as long as the status quo remains intact.” [pg. 25].

    In his ensuing discussion in the pages that followed came statements that could not be more true – particularly where he talks about segregation. I thought about the segregated roles GLBT people and non-GLBT people have in the body of Christ (that is, the church). There, as in society, the segregation is the same, because the prejudice is the same, as that which Thurman wrote about in 1949. It doesn’t seem necessary to expound upon each of his statement as it would apply to GLBT equality:

    •“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus.” [pg. 29]

    •“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.” [pg. 39]

    •“Given segregation as a factor determining relations, the resources of the environment are made into instruments to enforce the artificial position. Most of the accepted social behavior-patterns assume segregation to be normal – if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious. Religion is thus made a defender and guarantor of the presumptions.” [ pg. 43]

    •“The fear that segregation inspires among the weak in turn breeds fear among the strong and dominant. This fear insulates the conscience against a sense of wrongdoing in carrying out a policy of segregation. For it counsels that if there were no segregation, there would be no protection against invasion of the home, the church, the school.” [pg. 44]

    •“The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value.” [pg. 98]

    •“Once the mutual discovery is made that the privileged is a man and the underprivileged is a man, or that the Negro is a man and the white man is a man, then the normal desire to make this discovery inclusive of all brings one to grips with the necessity for working out a technique of implementation.” [pg. 101]

    Thurman’s book is an amazingly clear deconstruction of every complicated power struggle the world has faced (be it for the elder Edwards’ Native American people, Thurman’s African American people, or your GLBT people). While Thurman’s words are still seeping in, I know I have learned at least three things: 1) a greater appreciation for the dynamics of Jesus’ teachings, 2) timeless principles are at work in the cycle of oppression, but, 3) the hope for GLBT equality within and outside the church is not impossible. We are God’s children, too, just as saved, just as dedicated, just as called, just as loved, just as loving.

    I pray that every minister will read or re-read Thurman’s book and strive, as you do, to create a world that is one of mutual regard and offers everyone the simple dignity of being able to serve the Jesus we all love.

  • Janet Edwards on May 27, 2009

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary, Donna. Indeed, we must persist in this work, even in the face of setbacks and challenges. And, like you, I am inspired by Howard Thurman’s example as he persisted in bearing witness to God’s transforming love.

    Our faith perspective makes us see the world with two eyes, an eye on what is wrong and an eye on what God’s yearns for us to be. From this point of view and a sense of what God can do through us, we know that what may seem impossible is very much possible. And we try hard each day to make our world a better, more loving place.

Comment on this post