What Did It Look and Sound Like in Jonathan Edwards’ New England?
Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP, 2009), 24-26:
Perhaps the first thing you would notice as you entered one of the small towns that structured Edwards’ world is the quietness of the daily lives of its residents. To be sure, you would hear noises—people talking and working with tools, the rhythmic clopping of horses’ hooves, the lowing of cows and bleating of sheep. But you would not hear any engines, whether of cars or heavy machinery. You might well hear a town crier making announcements to the community with the help of a hand bell, a conch shell or even a drum. But you would not hear any planes, trains, automobiles or trucks. Nor would you hear the steady humming, beeping, honking and general wailing of industrial equipment. In fact, the loudest sound to be heard in many early New England towns was the ringing, by the sexton, of the church bell.
As you traversed the town green, you would notice the smell of dung. (In early New England these spaces were often used for grazing.) But once you became inured to it, and learned to watch your step, your gaze would likely be fixed on the most important building on the green, the local church, or “meeting house,” as the Puritans usually called it. You would not find it impressive. England’s neogothic churches were aesthetically far more pleasing. From cavernous, cross-shaped naves, they attracted attention heavenward with their massive, vaulted ceilings, then to the altar, richly adorned and set in the center of the chancel. Worshipers walked forward reverently at the height of the liturgy to kneel at the rail (which divided nave and chancel very clearly), meet the priest, and then receive the body of Christ.
Walking into a meeting house in Puritan New England, by comparison, was like walking into a barn. In Edwards’ day, many churches sought to improve their meeting houses, adding pew cushions, arched windows, bell towers and spires. But the whitewashed, neoclassical, picture-perfect churches featured in regional tourist guides are the results of nineteenth-century nostalgia.
In colonial New England, churches were plain and sided with clapboard that was often left unpainted. As members entered them for worship, their gaze was not drawn toward the heavens or toward the Lord’s table. Ceilings were low. Most of the time members went without the Eucharist, and when they did commune, they usually sat at portable tables.
The center of attention in the Puritan meeting house was the pulpit, or “the desk,” as New Englanders commonly dubbed it for its importance as the locus of biblical scholarship in their midst. . . . from start to finish Puritan worship services centered on the Scriptures. Most of the liturgy was abandoned, as were visual and musical arts. Puritans called their churches meeting houses in order to mark this change.
They ruled out crosses, stained glass windows, indeed all manner of “graven images”—everything they thought would distract attention from the Word. They sang the Psalms a cappella, banning the use of musical instruments and resisting the use of hymnody in worship. (. . . Edwards and others would come to favor the use of hymns, causing a stir among traditionalists in the region.) Their clergy shed their vestments (ornate liturgical clothes), preaching instead in academic gowns that symbolized their calling to learned, biblical ministry (rather than sacramental priesthood). In short, they organized their towns, built their churches and planned their services to fix people’s attention on the Word.