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Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP, 2009), 24-26:

Perhaps the first thing you would notice as you entered one of the small towns that structured Edwards’ world is the quietness of the daily lives of its residents. To be sure, you would hear noises—people talking and working with tools, the rhythmic clopping of horses’  hooves, the lowing of cows and bleating of sheep. But you would not hear any engines, whether of cars or heavy machinery. You might well hear a town crier making announcements to the community with the help of a hand bell, a conch shell or even a drum. But you  would not hear any planes, trains, automobiles or trucks. Nor would you hear the steady humming, beeping, honking and general wailing of industrial equipment. In fact, the loudest sound to be heard in  many early New England towns was the ringing, by the sexton, of  the church bell.

As you traversed the town green, you would notice the smell of dung. (In early New England these spaces were often used for grazing.) But once you became inured to it, and learned to watch your  step, your gaze would likely be fixed on the most important building on the green, the local church, or “meeting house,” as the Puritans usually called it. You would not find it impressive. England’s  neogothic churches were aesthetically far more pleasing. From cavernous, cross-shaped naves, they attracted attention heavenward  with their massive, vaulted ceilings, then to the altar, richly adorned  and set in the center of the chancel. Worshipers walked forward reverently at the height of the liturgy to kneel at the rail (which divided  nave and chancel very clearly), meet the priest, and then receive the body of Christ.

Walking into a meeting house in Puritan New England, by comparison, was like walking into a barn. In Edwards’ day, many churches sought to improve their meeting houses, adding pew cushions, arched windows, bell towers and spires. But the whitewashed, neoclassical, picture-perfect churches featured in regional tourist guides are the  results of nineteenth-century nostalgia.

In colonial New England,  churches were plain and sided with clapboard that was often left unpainted. As members entered them for worship, their gaze was not  drawn toward the heavens or toward the Lord’s table. Ceilings were  low. Most of the time members went without the Eucharist, and when they did commune, they usually sat at portable tables.

The center of attention in the Puritan meeting house was the pulpit, or “the desk,” as New Englanders commonly dubbed it for its  importance as the locus of biblical scholarship in their midst. . . . from start to finish Puritan worship services centered on the Scriptures. Most of the liturgy was abandoned, as were visual and musical arts. Puritans called their churches meeting  houses in order to mark this change.

They ruled out crosses, stained  glass windows, indeed all manner of “graven images”—everything they thought would distract attention from the Word. They sang the Psalms a cappella, banning the use of musical instruments and resisting the use of hymnody in worship. (. . . Edwards and others would come to favor the use of hymns, causing a stir among traditionalists in the region.) Their clergy shed their vestments (ornate liturgical clothes), preaching instead in academic gowns that symbolized their calling to learned, biblical ministry  (rather than sacramental priesthood). In short, they organized their  towns, built their churches and planned their services to fix people’s attention on the Word.


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7 thoughts on “What Did It Look and Sound Like in Jonathan Edwards’ New England?”

  1. We could take some lessons from the Puritans in this day and age. We tend to put the emphasis on entertainment.

  2. The description reminds me of a small church in a neighboring town, Old St Paul’s. Built in 1818, it was the third building for the church and featured a second story slave gallery. After the civil war, the men and boys would sit up there and leave the better seats on the first level for the women and girls. They have a much newer facility, but they occasionally meet in the old building which is still illuminated by candlelight.

  3. Damon Titus says:

    They ruled out crosses, stained glass windows, indeed all manner of “graven images”—everything they thought would distract attention from the Word”

    In other words, they were extreme iconoclasts, influenced more by the Enlightenment worship of reason than biblical principles, which, while warning against graven images, never made Art (such as stained glass windows) as an inferior form of expression or somehow opposed to the expression and propagation of the word.

    There’s much to love about the Puritans, but this is not one of this things.

  4. anaquaduck says:

    A far cry from the noise & busy paced life of today. In a way it is still possible to draw near to God in humble circumstances during worship. Relying on the Spirit that speaks to our deepest need in any age, He remains the same as we seek to honour Him with all that he has freely given.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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