Preaching with Limitations

We often think of Edwards as a manuscript preacher. His grandfather most definitely wasn’t. I have been imagining the first two years that Edwards preached in front of his grandfather there in Northampton. How intimidating that must have been!

There seems to be some evidence that Edwards felt a bit of pressure actually.

Wilson Kimnach and Kenneth Minkema write,

“Although in later years Edwards would partially outline his ordinary sermons, he returned to a fully written-out text for all special occasions. He always considered this lack of trust in his memory – or his inability to effectively extemporize – to be a defect, and it must have been particularly annoying at the outset in Northampton when, for two years, his grandfather was sitting behind him as he preached. Stoddard had published a critique of preaching just two years before his grandson’s arrival in which he declared with his usual finality that reading sermons in the pulpit was so uninspiring that ‘ordinarily it is not to be allowed.’ The octavo sermon booklets that Edwards had been using since 1720 measured roughly four by six inches and would be quite visible to the congregation when opened in the hand of the preacher. Significantly, after a few months with Stoddard, Edwards changed his booklet form from octavo to duodecimo, measuring about four inches square, when he composed new sermons. The duodecimo was much easier to palm, or conceal in the hand, than the octavo, and thus would make Edwards’ continued reading of the sermons less visually obtrusive.” (Wilson Kimnach and Kenneth Minkema, “The Material and Social Practices of Intellectual Work: Jonathan Edwards’s Study,” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 4 (October 2012): 683-730.)

This is not a slam dunk proof of course, meaning, we are not able to sit down with Edwards and ask him exactly why he changed to a smaller notebook, but I think it is perhaps a bit encouraging to us mere “mortals”, to think that this great mind who was most obviously, human and limited, also felt those limitations and sought to find ways around them, like the rest of us.

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