THE DREADED PASTOR HASTINGS
Molly figures that if she and Elijah can be married from the Congregational Meeting in Yarmouth, the opinion of Mother Merrick and Rockford won’t matter – the deed will be done. She scurries over to the house of Pastor Hastings, minister of the Yarmouth Church of the Standing Order, Congregational, to see if he will help. This is where we learn how the church operates, in respect to sinners:
“You would join our congregation?”
“Well.” He coughed. “I’m delighted to hear it. And naturally I would be happy to instruct you, baptize you and, I hope, find you worthy of membership. We do not practice public confession so very much these days, But I think in your case it would be quite appropriate; the congregation would hardly accept you otherwise. Then, after your confession, I’ll instruct and baptize you. When the time is right, you will be admitted to full membership. I think the congregation will be willing to accept that, having been convinced of your repentance.”
“You will have to explain to me what you mean, sir, by confession. Of what do I repent that will so please your congregation?”
He looked stunned.“You can hardly expect my flock to accept the illegitimate daughter of a whore!”
(This is Jonathan Edwards, who was the first to take personal aim at his congregation, challenging them to look into their own hearts instead of listening to him drone on and on, reading from a text he’d written as was the practice at the time.)
Bastardy and fornication were constant subjects in the annals of early American church history. In time, though, people became lacidaisical until the Great Awakening, when they joined with the preacher (evangelist) as he spoke to them about sin and repentence, rolling on the ground and moaning and fainting and seeing visions. Jonathan Edwards, a mystic, softened them up so that by the time George Whitfield arrived, Americans were ready for their religion to be an emotional experience rather than an encounter with theology.
Whitfield preached for many years, up and down the east coast of America and in England, as well. He started the new trend of addressing audiences wherever he found them (or where they found him) so he didn’t have to worry about being invited to speak from a church’s pulpit. He was a great friend of Benjamin Franklin, who did not share his views, (Franklin being a Deist) but apparently could hold his own with the great scientist and politician. Franklin figured out the radius of the circle that figuratively surrounded Whitfield when he spoke, and calculated the preacher had a range of five miles. Thousands of people at a time heard him in the cities, and without fail, they were totally enchanted with him.
Or, at least, many were. As is usually the case, when under attack the wagons will circle; Congregationalism became vigilant in the pursuit of its own purity, returning to the practices that had dominated it from the start. Its ministers had the respect and reverence they’d been accustomed in the good ol’ days. The “New Lights” (Methodists) had made inroads by the time Elijah interviewed Pastor Simmonds on the subject of his cousin, Tony Gray marrying Olive Snow; you may remember Pastor Simmonds is nervous about the possibility that Snow would leave Rockford’s Church and attend a New Light establishment in the South Precinct. The writing was on the wall, of course, but in an isolated place like Cape Cod, it would have been easy to miss it. And Simmonds did.