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Solomon Stoddard (September 27, 1643, baptized October 1, 1643 – February 11, 1729) was the pastor of the Congregationalist Church in Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony. He succeeded Rev. Eleazer Mather, and later married his widow around 1670. Stoddard significantly liberalized church policy while promoting more power for the clergy, decrying drinking and extravagance, and urging the preaching of hellfire and the Judgment. The major religious leader of what was then the frontier, he was concerned with the lives (and the souls) of second-generation Puritans. The well-known theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was his grandson, the son of Solomon's daughter, Esther Stoddard Edwards.
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Stoddard was an influential religious leader in colonial New England, and was the grandfather of the prominent theologian Rev. Jonathan Edwards. For 55 years, Stoddard occupied an unparalleled position in the Connecticut River Valley region of Massachusetts. His theology was not widely accepted in Boston, but was popular on the frontier. Opponents sometimes referred to him as "Pope" Stoddard, rhetorically placing him in the locally detested camp of the Roman Catholic Church. Stoddard insisted that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper should be available to all who lived outwardly pious lives and had a good reputation in the community, even if they weren't full members of the church. This was his attempt to save his church from a "dying religion", and was the cause of great theological controversy in 18th century New England (see also Halfway Covenant). His ideas covered a wide variety of topics, often contrasting with mainstream Puritan thought and foreshadowing modern theological thought.
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Solomon Stoddard was born in Boston on September 26, 1643 to Anthony Stoddard, a wealthy Boston merchant, and Mary Downing (sister of Sir George Downing (for whom Downing Street in London is named), niece to Governor John Winthrop). As such, he was born into the highest stratum of aristocratic New England. He graduated from Harvard College in 1662; shortly thereafter, he became the "first American librarian known to history by that title" when he was appointed "Library keeper", and Library Laws were enacted specifying that he should keep the Library "duly swept" and the books "clean and orderly." The following is found in the records of Harvard College:
March 27, 1667, "Mr Solomon Stoddard was chosen Library keeper." "For the rectifying of ye Library & Rules for the Library Keeper", sixteen "orders were made." "No person resident in the College, except an Overseer", and "no Schollar in the College, under a Senior", could borrow a book, and "no one under master of Art (unless it be a fellow) ... without the allowance of the President."
To improve his health, Stoddard went to Barbados and served as a chaplain from 1667-69. But he soon felt the need to return to New England. As he prepared to depart from Boston for a position in England, he received a call from Northampton Church to stand in for the recently deceased Eleazar Mather, brother of Increase Mather. He accepted the offer, and relocated to Northampton in 1670. Within a few months, Stoddard had married Mather's widow Esther (née Esther; ca. 1644 - February 10, 1736), moved into his house, and took over his pulpit to become Northampton's second minister. He held the post for 55 years, and he and Esther produced thirteen children.
Although well versed in the Latin and Hebrew of the Boston Puritan elite, he preferred to use the common language of the frontier in his sermons. A sense of the frontier life may be gleaned from his proposal in 1703 to use dogs "to hunt Indians as they do Bears", the argument being that dogs would catch many an Indian who would be too light of foot for the townsmen. This was not considered inhuman, for the Indians, in Stoddard's view, "act like wolves and are to be dealt with as wolves." Three years later. Massachusetts passed an act for the raising of dogs to better secure the frontier borders.
The Half-way Covenant
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Stoddard is credited with propounding the The Half-way Covenant, a relaxation of the rules of Communion that accompanied a decline of piety in the Congregational church. Stoddard's interest was to insure the growth of church congregations in a colony of second-generation pilgrims who were increasingly interested in the political and economic life of the frontier, as opposed to the pure idealism of their immigrant parents. Stoddard taught that people who had grown up in the church and were not scandalous in behavior could receive communion as a means of grace and have their children baptized, despite the fact that the Puritan tradition had previously required prospective members of the church to proclaim a spiritual "conversion".
In his theology, Stoddard contradicted nearly every standard belief of his Puritan colleagues. Puritan theology at the time stressed a strict methodology in salvation. Stoddard believed that everyone had to experience God's glory for himself, whether through Nature or Scripture. When one sees this glory for himself, Stoddard taught, one's will is automatically affected. He explained that "the gloriousness of God has a commanding power on the heart". According to Stoddard's thought, conversion comes experientially rather than through any set process or education. Though a Harvard education may aid in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, the sermon is useless unless the minister has experienced God's saving grace.
Stoddard's concepts of theology were not widely accepted either by fellow clergy or laymen in New England. As Stoddard felt the ministry was key in bringing people to the Lord, his main goal was converting the hearts of sinners. Stoddard believed that the only source of salvation was God's Word, especially as related through the sermon. He felt that if a community continued to remain unconverted, then either the preacher himself was unconverted, or he needed to modify his sermons to better address the unconverted. This called for a revision in church policy. Stoddard wanted to develop the "Instituted Church" in order to preserve purity among the ministers. According to this idea, each individual church would be instructed through a national church, which would determine the proper qualifications for ministers. The redemption of the sinner's soul was to be the evangelical purpose of this church. His ideas, at least in this respect, gained few adherents.
Stoddard's position was expressed through debates with his in-laws Cotton and Increase Mather. As leader of one of Boston's primary churches, Cotton Mather held an enormous amount of influence during Stoddard's lifetime. Stoddard, however, could not be swayed by Mather's arguments. Although Congregationalism eventually adopted Stoddard's stance on communion, Mather remained a formidable opponent. Another contrast between Stoddard and the other Puritan leaders of his time was his belief in the strict dichotomy between the converted (or regenerate) and the unconverted. Stoddard rejected the Puritan claim that no one could discern whether he was saved. Like his own conversion experience, he believed that a person would know when he had been converted, because there exists a wide gap between those whom God had saved and those who were unregenerate. This belief led to the communion controversy: Because of his conversion experience, Solomon stressed the importance of an open communion which would be used as a converting ordinance. In 1677 all members of the community who were instructed in Christian doctrine, made a public profession of faith, and were living decent lives, could participate in communion. Stoddard explained that there was no biblical justification for allowing only regenerate members to take communion.
Stoddard's change in the sacraments produced little increase in the number of communicants. Because of this, Stoddard made two motions to the Northampton Church in 1690; first, to abolish the public profession of faith and second, to appoint the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. The first passed by a majority and as a result the population of Northampton doubled from 500 to 1000 in twenty years. The second motion was opposed by the elders of the church and the motion was denied, although the younger people supported it.
In 1725, his congregation decided to bring in an assistant, choosing his grandson Jonathan Edwards. Stoddard had a major influence on his grandson and was succeeded by him as the pastor of the church at Northampton. Edwards later repudiated his grandfather's views, becoming the most famous and fiery orator of the Great Awakening of 1735-1745. The Great Awakening was to some extent a reaction to the failure of The Halfway Covenant to strengthen the church. But Stoddard's influence persisted in Northampton. Edwards’ views eventually displeased his parishioners, and he was dismissed from the pulpit.
Stoddard may have been too liberal for his grandson Jonathan Edwards, but he was lampooned for prudishness concerning petticoats in an anonymous pamphlet attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Stoddard published a pamphlet in 1722 entitled "Answer to Some Cases of Conscience" in which he argued that the newly fashionable hoop petticoats were "Contrary to the Light of Nature" and that "Hooped Petticoats have something of Nakedness". Franklin's satirical response was entitled "Hoop-Petticoats Arraigned and Condemned, by the Light of Nature, and Law of God".
Ultimately, Stoddard's power seems to derive more from his personality, political influence, and preaching ability, than from the force of his ideas. One man describes Stoddard with a poem:
- His venerable Looks let us descry
- He taller was than mean or common size,
- Of lovely Look, with majesty in's Eyes.
- From Nature's Gate he walk'd like King's on Earth
- There's scarce such Presence seen 'mongst human breath
- David Paul McDowell, Beyond the Half-Way Covenant (Wipf and Stock: 2012).