“You might as well argue with the wind.”

Something about early American preaching that may have things to say about the Mormon pulpit and pew.

The discussion of the balance between the rational and the intuitive (in Mormonism we might say, reason vs. revelation, or the “mantle” vs. the “intellect”) is not a new one. 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.

The pulpit debate was epitomized by the grand American theologian Jonathan Edwards who was 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, often one who liked to dive into deeper doctrine in thoughtful ways was at a disadvantage when it came to the vigorous and exciting itinerant. Joseph Smith seems to have been motivated by the revivals in the Palmyra region and probably had some sense of the preaching of located ministers. He bore the marks of both Methodists and Presbyterians through his life. 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. 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. Edwards saw revivals as the salvation of New England, despite any excesses that might occur. The Holy Spirit acted on the affections of the heart, for him.

Don’t we often find ourselves in the midst of this debate still? The charge “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” is still a favorite (mostly sotto voce perhaps) among the Mormon Edwardsians (referring to Edwards, not the nineteenth-century anglo-aristocracy), right? We have our share of rationalists too, though.[2]

A complaint of rationalists about the itinerants centered in the nature of their preaching. There is 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 free grace advocates) probably because they didn’t have a separate meetinghouse or preacher, but captured the intellectual elite. These elites continued to be part of their congregation of convenience but by their distance from propaganda and reluctance to make public their “subversive” beliefs except among their fellows, weakened sect propagation. There is some irony here in the Mormonism of today. 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. On Chauncy’s campaign, see Harry S. Stout, New England Soul.

[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 (seminaries) 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)” Stout’s bio of Whitefiled (pronounced “Whitfield”) is essential: The Divine Dramatist.

Applicatory part refers to the typical plain preaching methodology: Announce a scripture text, derive doctrine, give application.


  1. Alpineglow says:

    “In your mind and in your heart.”

  2. Both and. What I don’t like is a thinker or a feeler arguing that their way is the one true way, or tearing down the other, or treating either as including both. There’s also a quality issue. I have no time for a poorly prepared, inconsistent, illogical “mind” sermon. I also have no time for a discordant “heart” sermon. If you want my mind, engage me. If you want my heart, move me.

  3. Chris, Would you give us an example of “treating either as including both”? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a thing, but maybe I haven’t grasped what you are describing.

  4. I like your subjects and the way you write, WVS. Even though I can never make a lucid comment about your posts, I ought to at least tell you once in a while that I read and that I enjoy and admire.

  5. If either Jonathan Edwards or the Harvard Divinity School had been a sufficient guide to salvation, there would have no need for Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration. If either contemporary Calvinism or the current Harvard Divinity School is now a sufficient means to salvation, there is no need for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to exist.

  6. I want thinkers who feel.

  7. Thanks, Ardis!

  8. I would settle for some semblance of balance. There was a time when that existed among the hierarchy. We had Roberts, Widtsoe, Talmage, McMurrin, Brown, Bennion, etc., but the itinerants have purged them from their midst (or at least ensured that they had few, if any, successors). And we are poorer for it.

    The result is general conference addresses that all too often (to use your Harvard quote) “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 manner [acontextual?], and then comes the same harangue which they have often used before….”

  9. JR: I don’t have an example ready to hand, nor do I remember this happening at General Conference where a talk would be easy to reference. On a more local level, I have heard talks on the “thinking” side that get wrapped up in the beauty of the logic, in the intellectual stimulation of the argument, to the extent of saying “this is it! No need for poetry, no need for feeling, it’s all here in the logic.” And I’ve heard talks on the “feeling” side that go far down the “everything is metaphor” direction so as to imply or even state that there is no substance to the logic and everything is feeling in the end. I don’t find sustenance in either extreme.
    On rare occasions I have heard both in one talk, both thinking and feeling. Perhaps this is Jason K.’s thinker who feels. I submit that that is rare, and that for mere mortals like me, we usually have to choose a mode, do one thing at a time. But in doing so we don’t have to diss the other, or try to subsume it.
    This is all from the perspective of an analytic tax lawyer who is married to a poet/artist/creative writer. One might view our life together as a commitment to “both and” rather than “either or.”

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Perhaps my most successful attempt to combine thinking and feeling, the only time the square root of seven held a place in my heart: link.