I know other churches have different conventions (I was once denied Communion when visiting a mainline church, for reasons I've never completely understood), but the familiar restrictions always seemed pretty reasonable to me. That wasn't the case 250 years ago. When Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards launched "An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church," his Northampton, Massachusetts, congregation fired him—on June 22, 1750.
The era in which Edwards ministered saw sweeping changes in the Christian experience. In England, the Wesley brothers defied the Church of England's geographic definition of ministry by preaching all over the country and encouraging people to meet for spiritual enrichment outside the walls of the parish church. George Whitefield stirred crowds on both sides of the Atlantic into a frenzy by telling people to search their hearts for the feelings of faith. The dramatic conversions of individual men, women, and children received unprecedented attention. Membership in a church body was still important (John Wesley considered himself a loyal Anglican to his death), but the sense of "religious self" was definitely on the rise.
Edwards's "Humble Inquiry" reflected this change. He knew he was departing sharply from an older understanding of church, in which a person was automatically considered a Christian—and worthy of taking Communion—if he or she had Christian parents, participated in a Christian community, and refrained from blatantly ungodly behavior. Some ministers, including Edwards's grandfather Solomon Stoddard, wanted to open the Lord's Supper to nearly everyone, believing it to be "a converting ordinance" that might help nonbelievers come to faith. But Edwards was convinced that Scripture stood on the side of greater restriction.
"My appearing in this public manner on that side of the question, which is defended in the following sheets, will probably be surprising to many," Edwards writes in his preface.
As it is well known, that Mr. Stoddard, so great and eminent a divine, and my venerable predecessor in the pastoral office over the church in Northampton, as well as my own grandfather, publicly and strenuously appeared in opposition to the doctrine here maintained. … But the difficulties and uneasiness on my mind increasing as I become more studied in divinity and as I improved in experience; this brought me to closer diligence and care to search the scriptures, and more impartially to examine and weigh the arguments of my grandfather and such other authors as I could get on his side of the question. By which means, after long searching, pondering, viewing, and reviewing, I gained satisfaction, became fully settled in the opinion I now maintain as in the discourse here offered to public view, and dared to proceed no further in a practice and administration inconsistent therewith.
Edwards follows the preface with a meticulous description of God's work of salvation from Creation forward. He presents and answers objections from all sides to his emphasis on personal conversion, which involves more than showing up for church.
When refuting the argument that the church should be a school where people participate fully while learning to trust in Christ, he asserts,
I grant, that no other qualifications are necessary in order to being members of that school of Christ which is his visible church, than such as are requisite in order to their subjecting themselves to Christ as their Master and Teacher, and subjecting themselves to the laws and orders of his school: nevertheless I deny, that a common faith, and moral sincerity are sufficient for this; because none do truly subject themselves to Christ as their Master, but such as having their hearts purified by faith, are delivered from the reigning power of sin: for we cannot subject ourselves to obey two contrary masters at the same time.
Christians still debate how far "common faith and moral sincerity" can get you in God's kingdom. For a person like Edwards, who once resolved "To strive my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before," those qualities were only the beginning. And after all, that is the more important question—not how closely a person can toe the line of salvation, but how close he or she can draw to God.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
The full text of Edwards's "Inquiry," as well as many of his other works, is avis online at JonathanEdwards.com.
Christian History magazine, a Christianity Today sister publication, has covered Edwards in special issues on Edwards (issue 8), George Whitefield (38), and the Wesleys (69), all available at Christian History.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of communion issues includes:
Church of England Objects to Vatican Ban on Sharing Communion | Sharing of the Eucharist between Anglicans and Roman Catholics should not be reserved for the "end point of unity between separated churches," say leaders. (Mar. 23, 2001)
Catholics Not to Receive Anglican Eucharist | Dublin archbishop says Catholic policy doesn't allow intercommunion. (Feb. 26, 2001)
Reinventing Communion Prep | How fast can you fill those little cups? (Dec. 19, 2000)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)
Beyond Pearl Harbor | How God caught up with the man who led Japan's surprise attack. (June 1, 2001)
Rivers of Life | In Africa, survival depends on open waterways. Missionary explorer David Livingstone believed that salvation did, too. (May 25, 2001)
Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)
How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
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