Fire, Brimstone–and Family
Oh! To be prayed, heard, wept down to Hell, how dreadful is that? You shall be plagued above others, Amos 3.2. Gods hand will follow you, Judg.2.15, and at last you shall die in sin, Ezek.18. 9, 10,. And be cast off for ever, 1 Chron. 29.l9. Jer.16, 12, 13. And go to Hell, though the children of Abraham, Luk. 16.24. Your godly parents will be so far from helping you, that they will rejoyce and bless God for executing Justice upon you to all Eternity; neither your fathers nor the God of your fathers will own you: But oh let it be our prayer and care, that the Lord our God may be with us, as he was with our fathers, let him not leave nor forsake us.
–Eleazar Mather, “A Serious Exhortation of the Present and Succeeding Generation in New-England” ((1671).
As you might imagine, the burdens of being a second generation Puritan were heavy. There were imposing examples to emulate. Eleazar Mather, the son of Richard Mather (and brother of Increase Mather), died at the age of 32 as pastor of the congregational church in Northampton Massachusetts. These were the last words of his last sermon.
Ouch. The last line doesn’t quite make up for the preceding lines–or the preceding paragraphs, for that matter.
The image of parents “who will rejoyce and bless God for executing Justice” upon their wayward children strikes me as stark and terrible –particularly against the background the doctrine of double predestination. It seems particularly foreign to Catholicism, where the intercession of the saints, and Mary, shapes the religious imagination in a very different way, as Bob Imbelli’s post below illustrates. But of course, that tradition is part of what the Puritans rejected.
On the other hand. . . I’ve read a great deal of Puritan sermonizing this summer–and I’ve come to appreciate the Puritans, despite (and in a strange sense because) of passages such as this one.
The particular contribution of the Calvinist strand of Christianity, it strikes me, is the emphasis on the utter sovereignty of God–the manner in which God is beyond all of our categories. All great Christian theologians recognize this, of course–see Aquinas. Nonetheless, in terms of inculcating broader religious sensibilities, it is the Calvinist tradition that is the strongest antidote to what I call “Pottery Barn Christianity,” in which Christ, and God, are treated as the ultimate accessories or celebrity endorsers or life coaches for a cozy Christian “lifestyle.” Some Puritans tried to take the harsh edge off it (e.g., by treating material prosperity as a sign of election), but it is impossible to escape within the basic Calvinist framework.
By the way–it’s not as if Northampton got a respite from fiery sermons with the next minister. Eleazar was succeeded by Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards. And Stoddard was a master of the “scared into sanctity” school of preaching.