Not too long after her young son died, Sarah Osborn was given the gift of a slave boy by friends. Sarah was too impoverished to afford her own slave. Our “tour guide” examining Sarah Osborn’s life, religious historian Catherine Brekus, surmises that Sarah’s friends hoped that having another young child to raise would assist Sarah in working through her grief. Furthermore, having a young slave might prove to be a sound investment for such a poor New England woman. In an era more than a hundred years before America was bitterly ripped apart by a Civil War, the evils of slavery were never thoroughly considered by Sarah, or her Christian friends, at that moment in time(p. 174). Continue reading
Category Archives: Witnesses
Most Americans know very little about Jonathan Edwards, except for the 18th century sermon he preached, “Sinners in the Hands Of An Angry God.” I remember reading it, as it was an assigned reading for an English class, back in my public high school.
Yes, it is a classic “fire and brimstone” sermon, filled with talk of God’s treatment of the unrepentant sinner, as though God is holding “a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, [who] abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.”
Wow. I remember thinking, as I finished reading that high school homework assignment, that this guy Edwards must have woken up on the wrong side of bed, the day he preached this tirade. What a sourpuss!!
But such a judgment of Edwards is not deserving, as a more balanced understanding of Edward’s life shows. Contrary to popular opinion, Jonathan Edwards only preached a handful of sermons, on the disturbing topic of hell, during his multi-decade preaching career. By far, most of the hundreds of sermons that Edwards preached were about the love and beauty of God. One of his favorite topics included speaking about the “sweetness” of God, a theme that he returned to, over and over again.
If you want to read a helpful introduction to Jonathan Edwards, that corrects a lot of the gross misunderstandings in popular culture about his life, I would highly recommend A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden. A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is not an abridgment of Marsden’s grand, academic biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (which is excellent, too, but a lot longer!). Rather, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is a fresh, revealing description of Edwards, showing him to be a profound advocate of the overwhelming love of God. Plus, it is short, at about 140 pages. I listened to A Short Life as an audiobook, in about 5 hours, and loved every minute of it.
What made “Sinners in the Hands Of An Angry God” so indelible in the American imagination was the effect this sermon had, during one particular Sunday morning, while filling in, for another preacher, at another church. Sometime prior to his famous preaching in Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards had preached this sermon to his own congregation, where it had little impact on his flock of church-goers. Edwards was not known to be an exceptionally dynamic public speaker, as he was bookish, and noticeably shy. He rarely took his eye off of his sermon notes.
Justin Bieber he was not.
But when he was asked to step in that one particular Sunday, in the Enfield church, a wave of emotion took over the room, as he made his way through his prepared text. Despite Edwards’ un-theatrical delivery, wailing and weeping filled the assembled hall, as many were overcome by the weight over the grief of their own sin. The sounds of terror among the people became so great, Edwards had to cut his sermon short, and dismiss the crowd, preventing him from delivering a message of hope, that he had saved for the climax of his prepared text. Edwards’ sermon had sparked a revival, and many Connecticut colonists made professions of Christian faith, during the following weeks.
It was a profound moment, during the First Great Awakening in America, a phenomenon that shaped America as a nation.
Ralph Green is a re-enactor, who has delivered Jonathan Edwards’ most (in??)famous sermon, as a dramatic production. Below is a 45 minute recording of that sermon.
Before Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift, there was George Whitefield. In the 18th century, George Whitefield was the most well-known person in the American colonies. Whitefield was truly the first American celebrity.
Whitefield made 13 trips across the Atlantic Ocean, between England and America, to give preaching tours along the Eastern Seaboard, starting from 1739 until his death in 1770. At times, as many as 10,000 people would travel for miles, on foot or on horseback, to hear the evangelist share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though an Anglican minister, George Whitefield was known as an intinerant evangelist, preaching most of his messages in the open air. Along with John Wesley, the name of George Whitefield was synonymous with the First Great Awakening, in the English speaking world, one of the greatest periods of revival in world Christian history.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the most well-known British Bible teachers, during the 20th century, and a great admirer of George Whitefield. In the following documentary by the MLJ Trust, Dr. Lloyd-Jones tells the story of George Whitefield, in 14 minutes:
Within a few years after experiencing her conversion to Christ, Sarah Osborn completed her set of diary entries that would serve as the basis for her published work. Harvard Divinity School religious historian, Catherine A. Brekus, weaves these diary entries into her biography of this remarkable woman: in Sarah Osborn’s World. Sarah Osborn continued to write other letters and other diaries, that Brekus also highlights in her research, giving us insight into the life of this 18th century, American, evangelical Christian woman.
Sarah Osborn lived an exceedingly difficult life. One of those difficulties was having to bury her one and only son. When her son, Samuel, was only twelve years old, he had been sent off to learn a trade, serving as an apprentice to a tailor, which was a typical way of providing an education for young boys at the time. However, Samuel contracted what was most probably tuberculosis. In an age before the development of contemporary medicine, Sarah Osborn held the hand of her pale and dying son, for several days. Unfortunately for Sarah, who had only a few years previously come to faith in Christ, she agonized over the spiritual state of her son, as he had never given his own testimony as to having a faith in Jesus. Continue reading
John C. Whitcomb Jr., one of the early pioneers of the contemporary Young Earth Creationist movement, died on February 4th.
In 1961, John Whitcomb teamed up with a hydraulic engineer, Henry M. Morris, to write The Genesis Flood, the foundational book that launched today’s Young Earth Creationist movement. Whitcomb was a theologian at Grace Theological Seminary, and he sought out Morris, who was then the chair of the civil engineering program, at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Combining Whitcomb’s knowledge of the Bible and Morris’ knowledge of science, the two collaborated in articulating the now, well-known thesis, that a global flood, as described by a traditional interpretation of the Book of Genesis, could sufficiently explain the existence of the fossil record, in an attempt to show that science could be synchronized with a traditional understanding of the Bible.
Other leading evangelical thinkers, such as Edward John Carnell, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, were determined to persuade Whitcomb and Morris, that their project was ill-advised, and at one point, the preferred publisher, Moody Press, refused to publish the book. But Whitcomb and Morris persisted with tenacity, and so the idea that the earth was only 6,000 years old, and not 4.34 billion years old, as maintained by the scientific consensus, took off in the imagination of thousands of Bible believing Christians.
In subsequent years, organizations such as Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis would expand on the themes articulated by the Whitcomb/Morris “flood geology” thesis, proposing that dinosaurs lived together with humans, in recent earth history, before the great flood. Such ideas have stood to be contrary to the reigning contemporary scientific consensus, that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, long before the appearance of humans on planet earth.
Despite the fact that The Genesis Flood has had virtually no impact on the modern scientific enterprise, as taught by a plethora of public schools, universities, and Smithsonian museums, Whitcomb and Morris’ thesis has continued to generate controversy in evangelical churches across America. Dr. Whitcomb was also known for his defense of a classic 6th century B.C.E. date and traditional authorship of the Book of Daniel.
I first made an attempt to read The Genesis Flood during my years as a mathematics major in college, while studying other scientific disciplines as electives. While I was attracted to Whitcomb’s appeal to the Bible’s authority, I remained unconvinced by his thesis. It was not until 20 years later that I actually began a written correspondence with Dr. Whitcomb. In his letters, between the two of us, over several months, I was impressed by his earnest appeal, and even more impressed by his gentle piety, in commending his ideas towards me. In particular, Dr. Whitcomb was clearly tenacious in holding his interpretation of the Bible, despite my attempts to encourage him to consider other alternatives.
“Agreeing to disagree,” on non-essential matters of the Christian faith, can lead to having some difficult conversations. But in my interactions with Dr. Whitcomb, I came to treasure his candor and gentle demeanor when engaging in controversial subjects. God used that time of correspondence with Dr. Whitcomb in my life, to help me to have a greater love for others, and encourage an interest in building bridges with other believers, even when agreement in sensitive matters, is not always easy to be had.
While I am open to the possibility of Dr. Whitcomb’s thesis, I am still not convinced that his understanding of Scripture, nor his understanding of the science, is correct. Nevertheless, I consider Dr. Whitcomb as a dear brother in the Lord, who genuinely desired that others may come to know and love the Creator of the universe, and so I grieve his death, yet knowing that he is surely with the Lord Jesus now. One day, I hope to be able to have a conversation with Dr. Whitcomb, where we will both surely learn the exact extent of what the flood really was, and exactly how old the earth really is.