Contention is of the Devil!

Conference is on the way, people. It’s been, give or take, a hundred and fifty years since the conference pulpit has seen a little disagreement. But you never know!

The balance between the rational and the intuitive (in Mormonism we might say, reason vs. revelation, or the “mantle” vs. the “intellect”) — it’s not a new discussion. Roughly 300 years ago New England pulpits rang with polemics, preacher against preacher, over things like itinerancy, extemporaneous sermons, lay testimony and emotional conversion experiences. Each might be seen as either the work of the Devil or the work of God. Clerical conferences, used to a few quiet conversations over theological points, were torn asunder by bitter conflicts between extremes. The enlightened vs. the pious.

Pulpit debate was epitomized by good old Jonathan Edwards for “piety,” revivalism, the “affections,” and an active laity exercising significant control in church affairs. At the other extreme stood Charles Chauncy and the Harvard/Yale faculties. Opposed to the revival, Chauncy logged evidence of abuse and “enthusiasm” for several years.

The stationary or “located” minister, one who liked to dive into deeper doctrine in thoughtful ways was at a disadvantage when it came to the vigorous and exciting itinerant. Chauncy represented a move to frame the church with “understanding” and reason. Familists and Antinomians[1] disgusted Chauncy. You couldn’t argue with them through reason. “You might as well reason with the wind,” he complained (I admit to having a little sympathy with this statement in some church settings, but cast that aside). For Chauncy, the “spirit” worked according to the rational nature of man, as an “elevation” of reason. Conversion was a matter of reason over emotion – an enlightened mind rather than heightened feelings.

For Edwards, supernatural conversion was the key, whether immediate or gradual. Revivals were the salvation of New England, despite any excesses that might occur. The Holy Spirit acted on the affections of the heart.

I’m all for a middle road here, but don’t we often find ourselves in the midst of this debate still? The charge “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” is a favorite (mostly soto voice) among the Mormon Edwardsians, right? We have our share of rationalists too though.[2]

A complaint of rationalists about the itinerants centered in the nature of their preaching. I think you might see something interesting in the critiques offered by Harvard professors of the day (1740s)

. . . extempore preachers give us almost always the same things in the applicatory part of their sermons, [and it] is very little akin to their Text, which is just opened in a cursory, and not seldom [acontextual?] manner, and then comes the same harangue which they have often used before, as an Application.[3]

Itinerants could get away with this because they moved on. Few people trailed after them to hear the sermon in the next venue.

So, do you prefer your preachers as thinkers or feelers? (grin)

[1] For Chauncy, these movements, which he saw as irrational and underserving of belief, were an infective plague in New England Congregationalism. I think he used “Familists” as a kind of swear word (but maybe he was lumping them in with all the other Antinomians). Antinomianism eschewed moral law in favor of grace. Once grace overtook you, no law applied to you. You were free in a radical salvific sense. This has always been a bit of a bogeyman for Mormons I think, in the faith vs. merit debates.

[2] The nature of differences between Edwards and Chauncy is oversimplified in the post. In some ways, Edwards was more the intellectual. Edwards used more extrabiblical sources and current learning than Chauncy. Regarding Chauncy’s revival reporting, compare his own 1742 book, Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against.

[3] The Testimony of the President, Professors, Tutors, and Hebrew Instructors of Harvard College Against George Whitefield. (1747). Whitefield in his turn wasn’t shy about claiming that Harvard and Yale (ministerial schools) were spiritually empty, bankrupt. I admit to having some sympathy for both sides here. From the Harvard critique: “inafmuch as by a certain Faculty he hath of raifing the Paffions, he hath been the Means of roufing many from their Stupidity, and fetting them on thinking, whereby fome may have been made really better, on which Account the People, many of them, are ftrongly attach’d to him (tho’ it is moft evident, that he hath not any fuperior Talent at inftructing the Mind, or fhewing the Force and Energy of thofe Arguments for a religious Life, which are directed to in the everlafting Gofpel)”


  1. Thinkers please.

  2. I want both, since I believe both have something important to offer – and my favorite sermons of all time have come from both groups.

    I wrote the following three weeks ago:

    “We Can’t Have Only Leaders Who Agree with Us” (

  3. One more from four years ago, reflecting on General Conference that year:

    “Paul v. John – Oaks v. Anderson: Why We NEED a Quorum of 12 Apostles” (

  4. We have been provided divine attributes to guide our journey. We enter mortality not to float with the moving currents of life but with the power to think, to reason, and to achieve.

    – President Thomas S. Monson, April 2012 General Conference

  5. I think that there is an interesting tension between the extemporaneous past as emphasized in local and regional meetings and the heavily edited and revised reality of the modern church (GenCon, curricula, etc.).

  6. J., you make a good point. There is more here than just logic v. ethereal. Listening to recent local speeches by apostles makes one wish for the old days in a way. There would certainly be more to talk about. And that’s not all bad. Mostly good, I think.

  7. Ray, thanks for the links.

  8. Thinkers, as guided by the Spirit in their preparation. Unfortunately, this seems to be very rare in contemporary Mormon sacrament meeting talk presentation. However, it is hard to blame the speakers for a complete unawareness of context or history applicable to scriptures, or for a lack of ability in presenting the subject matter rationally, logically or by appeal to reason. We aren’t brought up to think that’s important, in most cases. All too often, all that matters from the scriptures for many Mormons, it seems to me, is the value they serve as proof-texts for particular, current teachings of current General Authorities.

  9. Like Joseph Smith, I am wary of both the “enlightened” and the “pious”, the “thinkers” and the “feelers” : “… those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” – JS-History 1:19

  10. Can I choose thinking feelers? I also can muster a loving tolerance for preaching that rasps against my soul, knowing that it inspires someone for whom I care. Hope I’m not in some kind of trap.

  11. stephencranney says:

    I used to be annoyed with the feelers and want more thinkers until I read Rodney Stark’s “Churching of America,” where he makes a fairly compelling case that the colonial feelers you mention helped revitalize church attendance and growth, whereas the thinkers hanging out in prestigious divinity schools presided over moribund religious congregations. It helped me appreciate the role of emotion in energizing religiosity. I figure if churches run by intellectuals can’t ever seem to maintain their numbers or activity, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with that approach, even if aspects of it might be appealing to me personally.

  12. Everlafting gofpel – that just made my day better.

  13. “Thinkers, as guided by the Spirit in their preparation.”

    This. Meaningful spontaneity, if that is what we value, arises from a deep well of preparation, which might include experience and education, not a superficial appeal to the Spirit upon taking the stand.

  14. Being pacified is ALSO of the Devil. Which is worse?

  15. Meldrum the Less says:

    What I see too often at local meetings is a drought of both thinking and feeling. Give me either one. Boredom is driving me crazy. A few sleep and about half are playing with some digital contraption. I rarely see that in other churches I attend with “less active” family members.

    General Conference is the very last place I believe I will see any substantial change in my life time. I think J. Golden Kimball pretty much finished off GC. Especially when he asked, “How am I supposed to get the Spirit with this damned microphone in front of me and President Grant’s boots behind me? You need go little further in order to explain what happened. Another nail in the coffin; In an effort to keep him out of trouble J. Golden was given a talk to read written by President Heber J. Grant himself in his famously beautiful handwriting. J. Golden stuttered a couple of lines then grumbled: “Hell Hebe, I can’t read yer damned handwriting.”

    Thinking and feeling, slaughtered by technology and authority.

  16. Billy the Law says:

    Anyone that’s done any real thinking doesn’t attend/view general conference anymore…it’s a nonsensical question.

  17. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thanks for your helpful, non-pejorative comment, Billy!

  18. neither, to be honest.

    the idea of preachers is one that should be discarded as it sets people against each other in hierarchical patterns of organization. better to have conversations between equals than to pursue the idolatry of preachers. if preachers must be had, however, i would prefer to have doers over thinkers or feelers.

    that being said, i do believe that there is a place for *teachers*, who are experts in this field of study or that, and learning from their knowledge, with the intent to bring that knowledge into the *conversations* that, in my opinion, should form the substance of our experience of ‘preaching’.

  19. I admit I am beginning to long for the days before “priesthood alignment” when Ezra Taft Benson and Hugh B. Brown would stand up publically disagree with each other. Let us seem some real diversity in thought from our leaders. We know that such diversity exists. Maybe completely hiding it has some long term costs to us as a community. I understand why Lee stamped this out, but a little “contention” might be a good thing.

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