Jonathan Edwards, Mentor

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In this post I am interviewing Rhys Bezzant about his new book, Edwards the Mentor (Oxford University Press). Bezzant has served as an ordained priest in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, and presently teaches church history at Ridley College, where he directs the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia. He is also a canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

[TK] When we think of Jonathan Edwards, most of us probably think first of him as a Reformed theologian or evangelical preacher. Why did you decide to assess him as a mentor?

[RB] There are so many ways of understanding Edwards, aren’t there? So many different kinds of ministry he undertook. It is easy to approach him as a preacher given that we have so many of his sermons, but this might leave a wrong impression. He counseled people, organized church services, rode on horseback to other towns to convene meetings, worked with publishers, and of course mentored future leaders. And his mentoring was done so well. I want campus workers, pastors, and academics to see Edwards as more than a theological mouthpiece in order to see that ministry is more than explaining ideas. Ministry is at least that, but much more!

You quote Edwards describing his pedagogical practice in these words: “singly, particularly, and closely.” What did he mean by that?

One of the surprising phases of Edwards’s ministry was his decision to work as a missionary in Stockbridge after his dismissal from Northampton. He ran a small church as well as a school for Native American children. And he expected his teachers to instruct their pupils “singly, particularly, and closely.” Every kid in the school would have their own traumas, or linguistic challenges, or family dynamics to negotiate, so Edwards wanted these educational needs to be taken into account in their geography or math lessons. It would take more time and effort on the part of the teacher to imagine the world and individual experience of their students, but it would be worth it in the end. Our background doesn’t define our capacity for learning. If God values and cares for an apparently worthless sparrow, then of course older Christians should prize the unique capacities of younger ones whom they teach. To mentor someone is to nurture them “singly, particularly, and closely” as well.

You describe the 18th century as a “golden age” for mentoring practices. What was distinctive about Edwards’s era for mentoring relationships?

The 18th century is an exciting era to explore. I never thought I’d enjoy researching this period of history as much as I have. Its philosophical background can be summarized under the Enlightenment banner, when thinkers and writers began to cast off traditional sources of authority and examine the world without the baggage of the past. For many, that baggage included Christian theology and the institutional church. Not all Enlightenment thinkers were anti-God, but many did want to examine the world without fear of being accused of blasphemy or heresy if their conclusions went against received theological wisdom. Christian nations in the 17th century hadn’t exactly covered themselves with glory when it came to religious tolerance!

This intellectual revolution, ultimately climaxing in a series of political revolutions, allowed for new ways of thinking about authority. More and more, human life and relationships were defined not vertically but horizontally. People began to appreciate that society could be dynamic not just static, in contrast to most of human history when it was not tyranny but anarchy that people most feared. Theories of education were being revised, and human agency (for example our capacity to make economic decisions in a growing capitalist culture) was redefined. Kinship patterns in villages and small towns were disrupted with people moving to cities. Leisure time was increasing with new entertainments like novels or letter-writing or coffee houses to enjoy. This was a cultural world where the intentional empowering of other individuals through practices like mentoring came naturally. That’s why I describe mentoring in my book as the exchange between authority and agency. Institutions might have been out of fashion in Edwards’s day, but learning from a respected individual committed to your welfare was highly attractive personally and culturally.

On balance, how successful do you think Edwards was as a mentor? What was his main legacy in mentoring?

Edwards didn’t suffer fools gladly, so his mentoring was most effective with those whom he most admired. Perhaps it is not surprising that as a teacher he enjoyed the company of those who asked good questions and showed a readiness to learn and to lead. He was successful in as far as he took up certain features of his Enlightenment world and adapted them to his mentoring program, while drawing from deep theological wells to anchor this ministry. However, if we take raw numbers, his mentoring would seem ineffectual. I estimate there were only around 12 or 15 mentees in whom he invested over the longer term. The same names crop up in his correspondence time and time again.

But when we trace the multiplying ministries of that small group of men, training mentees to train others through mentoring, the story is remarkable. After just a few generations hundreds of clergy in New England could trace their ministerial pedigree back to Edwards himself, and they occupied the pulpit of the vast majority of New England churches. They didn’t always do as Edwards himself had done—some became more legalistic or defensive of their own status. But Edwards had taught them to think for themselves, and this was what they were doing. And during the American Revolution, and in the early Republic, without clear playbooks for ministry, thinking for themselves turned out to be an important quality. Beautifully, many of these clergy were abolitionists who agitated for political and social reform in the 19th century. Though Edwards owned slaves, thankfully his spiritual descendants (including his son Jonathan Jr.) went their own way on this matter too!

What lessons do you see for the church today in Edwards’s model of mentoring?

Churches and seminaries will do well to make sure that mentoring is a part of their pastoral agenda. Edwards’s theology and practice are a great stimulus to our thinking. Ministry in the West is more complicated than even a generation ago, so mentoring helps us to identify the particular ways we can encourage and train future leaders and support them in the trials of life and in ministry formation. Because of clergy sex-abuse scandals the church has squandered its social capital, and conservative views on sexual ethics have made us appear on the “wrong side of history,” but mentoring is a way of looking to the future without expecting large institutional buy-in from potential leaders from the outset. And we need to remember that the faith is as much caught as taught, so seeking out models of Christian maturity and watching their lives is a powerful strategy for growth. Edwards knew that one day we would see Jesus face to face, so why not get ready for that day by looking at others ahead of us in the race and imitate their conformity to Jesus. Mentoring is a tried and true ministry strategy, and Edwards’s world in the end is not all that different from our own. He was perhaps the first modern mentor!

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