The Myth Of The Bell Rope

Events described by the author of the Savage manuscript, in other words, provide an opportunity to reimagine Edwards as an active promoter of the most radical dimensions of the evangelical new birth experience—a figure who, during the early months of the Awakening, spent more time inciting the wild gesticulations of his audience than he did staring fixedly at the bell rope at the back of the meetinghouse.11

11. The legendary story of Edwards and the bell rope is one of the classic myths of early American religious history, and many scholars have followed Perry Miller in accepting its authenticity. “One who heard him,” Miller wrote in a seminal study of Sinners, “described his method of preaching: he looked all the time at the bell rope (hanging down from the roof at the other end of the church) as though he would look it in two; he did not stoop to regard the screaming mass, much less to console them.” According to Ken Minkema, this story first appeared in an early-twentieth-century manuscript notebook by William Edwards Park:

[Edwards’s] dignified attitude in the pulpit, however, did not restrain the levity of some who ought to have been impressed by it. In many old meeting houses of New England the bell rope descended from the belfry to the front gallery in full sight of the congre- gation. One Sabbath, the bell rope which had been worn out by long continued friction with the ceiling of the Northampton sanctuary parted and fell. Some of the young men who saw it amused themselves that the rope was cut asunder by his sharp eyes directed to that part of the ceiling where the pastor’s eye was turned to.

There is little contemporary evidence from the 1740s to support the authenticity of Park’s reminiscence. For one thing, Edwards’s pulpit faced the front entrance of the Northampton meetinghouse, and the bell rope hung out of sight in an enclosed tower at one end of the building. More important, Edwards—along with many of his itiner- ating peers that are discussed in the pages that follow—readily embraced the theatrical preaching innovations of George Whitefield. In the spring of 1741, for example, he started modifying his sermon notes in order to create space for extemporaneous speech and impromptu exhortations. Samuel Hopkins—Edwards’s student and an important figure in the Suffield story recounted here—also began preaching extemporaneously while living with Edwards’s family in Northampton during the winter of 1741–42. And yet the legend of Edwards’s “quiet intensity” and “dignified attitude in the pulpit” persists. Although several later sources suggest that Edwards preached “with solemnity” and “gravity” in a “low and moderate voice”—”destitute of gesture” and “without any Agitation of Body”—nearly all of them appear in the works of his students or descendants, who were committed to promoting a moderate revival tradition shorn of offensive enthusiasm. See Perry Miller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Great A wakening,” in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956), 155; William Edwards Park, “The Edwardean,” Jonathan Edwards Collection, box 37, folder 1668, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., 126; Kenneth P. Minkema, February 9, 2005, Internet; Wilson H. Kimnach, “General Introduction to the Sermons: Jonathan Edwards’ Art of Prophesying,” WJE, vol. 10, Sermons and Discourses, 1720–1723, ed. Kimnach (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 62–63; Samuel Hopkins, Journal, 1741–1744, Simon Gratz Papers, Sermon Collection, box 6, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 129. For images of the 1737 Northampton meetinghouse, see WJE, vol. 19, Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738, ed. Μ. X. Lesser (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 31; and Solomon Clark, Historical Catalogue of the Northampton First Church, 1661–1891 (Northampton, Mass.: Gazette, 1891). Later accounts of Edwards’s preaching style include Thomas Prince to Thomas Prince, Jr., 26 November 1744, The Christian History 2 (1744): 390; Samuel Hopkins, The Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards (Boston: S. Kneeland, 1765), 48; and Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, 4 vols., ed Barbara Miller Solomon with Patricia M. King (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 4:230–32.

DOUGLAS L. WINIARSKI, “Jonathan Edwards, Enthusiast? Radical Revivalism and the Great Awakening in the Connecticut Valley,” Church History 74:4 (December 2005), 689–90 (HT: Paul Grace).


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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