The Disturbing Narrative Of Phebe Bartlet

She once of her own accord spake of her unsuccessfulness, in that she could not find God, or to that purpose. But on Thursday, the last day of July, about the middle of the day, the child being in the closet, where it used to retire, its mother heard it speaking aloud; which was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins! When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud. Her mother very earnestly asked her several times what the matter was, before she would make any answer; but she continued crying, and writhing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit. Her mother then asked her, whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She then answered, Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell! Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry, she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. But this did not quiet her at all; she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said with a smiling countenance, Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me! Her mother was surprised at the sudden alteration, and at the speech; and knew not what to make of it; but at first said nothing to her. The child presently spake again, and said, There is another come to me, and there is another, there is three; and being asked what she meant, she answered, One is, Thy will be done, and there is another, Enjoy Him for ever; by which it seems, that when the child said, There is three come to me; she meant three passages of her catechism that came to her mind.

—Jonathan Edwards, “The Conversion of Phebe Bartlet” (1740–42) (HT: Darryl Hart)

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  1. Would you please extrapolate on what is “disturbing” about this narrative? It’s rather similar to what I’ve heard from several modern-day “experiential” Calvinists.

    • Tim,

      Historically Reformed Christians have thought less in terms of religious crises especially of convulsions of the sort ascribed by Edwards to little Phoebe. Rather, we’ve tended to think in terms of covenant nurture. We neither assume nor presume that our children are necessarily converted but neither do we look for the sort of agony experienced by Phoebe. We initiate our covenant children into the visible covenant community through the new covenant sign and seal of initiation (baptism). We instruct them, we include them in our public worship services as members of the visible covenant community, and we pray that the Spirit will do his mysterious work (John 3). Most of our theologians and confessions would indicate that we don’t know when the Spirit works but according to his promise (“I will a God to you and to your children;” Gen 17; Acts 2:39) we expect and look for fruit according to God’s sovereign will.

      The emphasis in historic Reformed piety is on the ordinary, i.e., the ordained and even the usual. God usually works secretly but no less supernaturally.

      Had I been Phoebe’s pastor I would have encouraged her to trust the objective gospel promises made to Abraham and ratified in Christ’s blood and signified by her baptism. I would have discouraged the sort of fear and uncertainty to which Phoebe was led.

      Take a look at the chapter in QIRE in Recovering the Reformed Confession where I work through some of these issues.

  2. I can see how you might label it as “disturbing” with the emphasis on the need of a some kind of sensible experience. You do hear far stranger things: dreams, visions, etc seem pretty common fare for those who come out of I$1@m.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for responding to my question. I understand what you say about children in Christian households, but how would you handle the conversion of an adult coming from a pagan background? Would you counsel him to seek such an experience (i.e., that Edwards described), or to join a confessional Reformed church and then more-or-less follow the route you described of a covenant child (i.e., rely on the ordinary)?

  4. Tim, please provide examples showing how the passage quoted is “rather similar to what I’ve heard from several modern-day ‘experiential’ Calvinists.” Be specific or take back your claim.

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