Last week we saw the context in which directly preceded the work of Edwards.  This week we'll look at what was happening when he began his work in his church in Northampton.  By the time Jonathan Edwards began his work in Northampton in the late 1720s there were numerous changes occurring to the social structures of Puritan religious, family and economic life.  The first major shift was that of the parent-child relationship.  Brekus notes that the power parents had over their children began to weaken significantly in the eighteenth century due to a variety of sociological and other cultural forces and Edwards observed much disrespect by youth for their parents and a lack of control of youth by their parents.[1]

One of these cultural forces was a major issue of land ownership, which was occurring during Edwards’s time at Northampton.[2]  In previous generations land was given to young men as they came of age so they could start their own families.  However, land was now becoming scarce, and land had to be either purchased or inherited.  Failing this, the purchase or inheritance of land, young men would have to move to a different town or out to the frontier.  Ava Chamberlin notes that previously, the giving on land to a young man was part of his ‘coming of age’ and so the lack of land led to a prolonged ‘adolescence’ among young people who could not go through the rites of passage of land ownership, marriage and family creation. [3]  The average age of marriage rose to 28.6 years and a distinctive youth culture began to emerge.[4]  This culture was, ‘marked by rebellious and socially unacceptable behaviour’ and Edwards noted, at the beginning of his pastorate in Northampton, that the youth were, ‘very much addicted to night walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices’.[5]  This evidence contradicts a prevailing view outlined previously amongst youth ministry specialists that adolescence began in the 18th Century and therefore there was no youth ministry prior to this.[6]   Patricia Tracy adds to the work of Chamberlin and shows that there was a ‘crisis of adolescence’ in the 1730s and 1740s that contributed to the success of the Northampton revivals. [7]
‘It was at this time in much of New England that young people first had to confront the necessity of making a choice about what vocation to follow, or even what town to live in, for the rest of their lives.  Socioeconomic change was cutting them off from the moorings of traditional concepts of work and community life, and Calvinist doctrines [that Edwards preached] may have eased the tension of facing a new world.’[8]

So it is clear that Edwards ministered in a time of fairly rapid change.  Tracy notes that the,
‘Changing circumstances of practical life were bringing young men more and more into conflict with their fathers.  Their “wild” behaviour, as commented upon by Edwards and others, signified both their own assertions of independence and the difficulties that their parents were having in asserting and enforcing their own authority.  When the advice that an older generation could give no longer seemed to fit present social realities, and when parents could no longer use economic rewards to govern their children, there was indeed a decline in traditional family government.’[9]
It is into this decline of family government, and growing sense of ‘adolescent’ crisis that Edwards began to adapt his theological views of youth and children and the way he did ministry with and to them, and it is to Edward’s response and thought that we now turn.

[1] Brekus, ‘Children of Wrath, Children of Grace: Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Culture of Child Rearing’, 308.
[2] Ava Chamberlain, ‘Edwards and Social Issues’, in The Cambridge companion to Jonathan Edwards (ed. Stephen J. Stein; Cambridge companions to religion; Cambridge ; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 330.
[3] Chamberlain, ‘Edwards and Social Issues’, 330.
[4] Chamberlain, ‘Edwards and Social Issues’, 330.
[5] Chamberlain, ‘Edwards and Social Issues’, 330.
[6] Chap Clark and Mark Cannister both argue that adolescence is a recent social phenomenon. However simply because it has only being recently described and explained by sociologists does not mean that it did not exist in historical contexts prior to its definition. In fact it is likely that sociologists did not begin to describe the phenomenon until it was well established. If we are able to trace the key features of “adolescence” to Edwards’s day as Chamberlin and Tracy do, then we can show that youth ministry was practiced in that time. Chap Clark, ‘The Changing Face of Adolescence: A Theological View of Human Development’, in Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (ed. Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, and Dave Rahn; Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan/Youth Specialities Academic, 2001), 44–45; Cannister, ‘Youth Ministry’s Historical Context: The Education and Evangelism of Young People’, 81.
[7] Patricia J. Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton (American Century Series; New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 88.
[8] Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton, 88.
[9] Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth Century Northampton, 88.