Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two
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Second difficulty in converting the Indians, viz. To convey divine truths to their understanding, and to gain their assent.

Another great difficulty I have met with in my attempts to Christianize the Indians, has been to “convey divine truths to their understandings, and to gain their assent to them as such.”

In the first place, I laboured under a very great disadvantage for want of an interpreter, who had a good degree of doctrinal as well as experimental knowledge of divine things: in both which respects my present interpreter was very defective when I first employed him, as I noted in the account I before gave of him. And it was sometimes extremely discouraging to me, when I could not make him understand what I designed to communicate; when truths of the last importance appeared foolishness to him for want of a spiritual understanding and relish of them; and when he addressed the Indians in a lifeless indifferent manner, without any heart-engagement or fervency; and especially when he appeared heartless and irresolute about making attempts for the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, as he frequently did. For although he had a desire that they should conform to Christian manners, (as I elsewhere observed,) yet being abundantly acquainted with their strong attachments to their own superstitious notions, and the difficulty of bringing them off, and having no sense of divine power and grace, nor dependence upon an Almighty arm for the accomplishment of this work, he used to be discouraged, and tell me, “It signifies nothing for us to try, they will never turn,” &c. So that he was a distressing weight and burden to me. And here I should have sunk, scores of times, but that God in a remarkable manner supported me; sometimes by giving me full satisfaction that he himself had called me to this work, and thence a secret hope that sometime or other I might meet with success in it; or if not, that “my judgment should notwithstanding be with the Lord, and my work with my God.” Sometimes by giving me a sense of his almighty power, and that “his hand was not shortened.” Sometimes by affording me a fresh and lively view of some remarkable freedom and assistance I had been repeatedly favoured with in prayer for the ingathering of these heathens some years before, even before I was a missionary, and a refreshing sense of the stability and faithfulness of the divine promises, and that the prayer of faith should not fail. Thus I was supported under these trials, and the method God was pleased to take for the removal of this difficulty, (respecting my interpreter,) I have sufficiently represented elsewhere.

Another thing that rendered it very difficult to convey divine truths to the understandings of the Indians, was the defect of their language, the want of terms to express and convey ideas of spiritual things. There are no words in the Indian language to answer our English words, “Lord, Saviour, salvation, sinner, justice, condemnation, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, grace, glory, heaven,” with scores of the like importance.

The only methods I can make use of for surmounting this difficulty, are, either to describe the things at large designed by these terms, as, if I was speaking of regeneration, to call it the “heart’s being changed” by God’s Spirit, or the “heart’s being made good.” Or else I must introduce the English terms into their language, and fix the precise meaning of them, that they may know what I intend whenever I use them.

But what renders it much more difficult to convey divine truths to the understandings of these Indians, is, that “there seems to be no foundation in their minds to begin upon;” I mean no truths that may be taken for granted, as being already known, while I am attempting to instil others. And divine truths having such a necessary connexion with, and dependence upon, each other, I find it extremely difficult in my first addresses to pagans to begin and discourse of them in their proper order and connexion, without having reference to truths not yet known, without taking for granted such things as need first to be taught and proved. There is no point of Christian doctrine but what they are either wholly ignorant of, or extremely confused in their notions about. And therefore it is necessary they should be instructed in every truth, even in those that are the most easy and obvious to the understanding, and which a person educated under gospel-light would be ready to pass over in silence, as not imagining that any rational creature could be ignorant of.

The method I have usually taken in my first addresses to pagans, has been to introduce myself by saying, that I was come among them with a desire and design of teaching them some things which I presumed they did not know, and which I trusted would be for their comfort and happiness if known; desiring they would give their attention, and hoping they might meet with satisfaction in my discourse. And thence have proceeded to observe, that there are two things belonging to every man, which I call the soul and body. These I endeavour to distinguish from each other, by observing to them, that there is something in them that is capable of joy and pleasure, when their bodies are sick and much pained: and, on the contrary, that they find something within them that is fearful, sorrowful, ashamed, &c. and consequently very uneasy, when their bodies are in perfect health. I then observed to them, that this which rejoices in them (perhaps at the sight of some friend who has been long absent) when their bodies are sick and in pain, this which is sorrowful, frighted, ashamed, &c. and consequently uneasy, when their bodies are perfectly at ease, this I call the soul. And although it cannot be seen like the other part of the man, viz. the body, yet it is as real as their thoughts, desires, &c. which are likewise things that cannot be seen.

I then further observe, that this part of the man which thinks, rejoices, grieves, &c. will live after the body is dead. For the proof of this, I produce the opinion of their fathers, who (as I am told by very aged Indians now living) always supposed there was something of the man that would survive the body. And if I can, for the proof of any thing I assert, say, as St. Paul to the Athenians, “As certain also of your own sages have said,” it is sufficient. And having established this point, I next observe, that what I have to say to them, respects the conscious part of the man; and that with relation to its state after the death of the body; and that I am not come to treat with them about the things that concern the present world.

This method I am obliged to take, because they will otherwise entirely mistake the design of my preaching, and suppose the business I am upon, is something that relates to the present world, having never been called together by the white people upon any other occasion, but only to be treated with about the sale of lands, or some other secular business. And I find it almost impossible to prevent their imagining that I am engaged in the same, or such like affairs, and to beat it into them, that my concern is to treat with them about their invisible part, and that with relation to its future state.

But having thus opened the way, by distinguishing between soul and body, and showing the immortality of the former, and that my business is to treat with them in order to their happiness in a future state; I proceed to discourse of the being and perfections of God, particularly of his “eternity, unity, self-sufficiency, infinite wisdom, and almighty power.” It is necessary, in the first place, to teach them, that God is from everlasting, and so distinguished from all creatures; though it is very difficult to communicate any thing of that nature to them, they having no terms in their language to signify an eternity a parte ante. It is likewise necessary discourse of the divine unity, in order to confute the notions they seem to have of a plurality of gods. The divine all-sufficiency must also necessarily be mentioned, in order to prevent their imagining that God was unhappy while alone, before the formation of his creatures. And something respecting the divine wisdom and power seems necessary to be insisted upon, in order to make way for discoursing of God’s works.

Having offered some things upon the divine perfections mentioned, I proceed to open the work of creation in general, and in particular God’s creation of man in a state of uprightness and happiness, placing them in a garden of pleasure; the means and manner of their apostacy from that state, and loss of that happiness. But before I can give a relation of their fall from God, I am obliged to make a large digression, in order to give an account of the original and circumstances of their tempter, his capacity of assuming the shape of a serpent, from his being a spirit without a body, &c. Whence I go on to show, the ruins of our fallen state, the mental blindness and vicious dispositions our first parents then contracted to themselves, and propagated to all their posterity; the numerous calamities brought upon them and theirs by this apostacy from God, and the exposedness of the whole human race to eternal perdition. And thence labour to show them the necessity of an almighty Saviour to deliver us from this deplorable state, as well as of a divine revelation to instruct us in, and direct us agreeable to, the will of God.

And thus the way, by such an introductory discourse, is prepared for opening the gospel-scheme of salvation through the great Redeemer, and for treating of those doctrine that immediately relate to the soul’s renovation by the divine Spirit, and preparation for a state of everlasting blessedness.

In giving such a relation of things to pagans, it is not a little difficult, as observed before, to deliver truths in their proper order, without interfering, and without taking for granted things not as yet known; to discourse of them in a familiar manner suited to the capacities of heathens; to illustrate them by easy and natural similitudes; to obviate or answer the objections they are disposed to make against the several particulars of it, as well as to take notice of and confute their contrary notions.

What has sometimes been very discouraging in my first discourses to them, is, that when I have distinguished between the present and future state, and shown them that it was my business to treat of those things that concern the life to come, they have mocked., and looked upon these things of no importance; have scarce had a curiosity to hear, and perhaps walked off before I had half done my discourse. And in such a case no impressions can be made upon their minds to gain their attention. They are not awed by hearing of the anger of God engaged against sinners, of everlasting punishment as the portion of gospel-neglecters. They are not allured by hearing of the blessedness of those who embrace and obey the gospel. So that to gain their attention to my discourses, has often been as difficult as to give them a just notion of the design of them, or to open truths in their proper order.

Another difficulty naturally falling under the head I am now upon, is, that “it is next to impossible to bring them to a rational conviction that they are sinners by nature, and that their hearts are corrupt and sinful,” unless one could charge them with some gross acts of immorality, such as the light of nature condemns. If they can be charged with behaviour contrary to the commands of the second table, with manifest abuses of their neighbour, they will generally own such actions to be wrong; but then they seem as if they thought only the actions were sinful, and not their hearts. But if they cannot be charged with such scandalous actions, they seem to have no consciousness of sin and guilt at all, as I had occasion to observe in my Journal of March 24. So that it is very difficult to convince them rationally of that which is readily acknowledged (though, alas! rarely felt) in the Christian world, viz. “That we are all sinners.”

The method I take to convince them “we are sinners by nature,” is, to lead them to an observation of their little children, how they will appear in a rage, fight and strike their mothers, before they are able to speak or walk, while they are so young that it is plain they are incapable of learning such practices. And the light of nature in the Indians condemning such behaviour in children towards their parents, they must own these tempers and actions to be wrong and sinful. And the children having never learned these things, they must have been in their natures, and consequently they must be allowed to be “by nature the children of wrath.” The same I observe to them with respect to the sin of lying, which their children seem much inclined to. They tell lies without being taught so to do, from their own natural inclination, as well as against restraints, and after corrections for that vice, which proves them sinners by nature, &c.

And further, in order to show them their hearts are all corrupted and sinful, I observe to them, that this may be the case, and they not be sensible of it through the blindness of their minds. That it is no evidence they are not sinful, because they do not know and feel it. I then mention all the vices I know the Indians to be guilty of, and so make use of these sinful streams to convince them the fountain is corrupt. And this is the end for which I mention their wicked practices to them, not because I expect to bring them to an effectual reformation merely by inveighing against their immoralities; but hoping they may hereby be convinced of the corruption of their hearts, and awakened to a sense of the depravity and misery of their fallen state.

And for the same purpose, viz. “to convince them they are sinners,” I sometimes open to them the great command of “loving God with all the heart, strength, and mind;” show them the reasonableness of loving him who has made, preserved, and dealt bountifully with us: and then labour to show them their utter neglect in this regard, and that they have been so far from loving God in this manner, that, on the contrary, he has not been “in all their thoughts.”

These, and such like, are the means I have made use of in order to remove this difficulty; but if it be asked after all, “How it was surmounted?” I must answer, God himself was pleased to do it with regard to a number of these Indians, by taking his work into his own hand, and making them feel at heart, that they were both sinful and miserable. And in the day of Gods power, whatever was spoken to them from God’s word, served to convince them they were sinners, (even the most melting invitations of the gospel,) and to fill them with solicitude to obtain a deliverance from that deplorable state.

Further, it is extremely difficult to give them any just notion of the undertaking of Christ in behalf of sinners; of his obeying and suffering in their room and stead, in order to atone for their sins, and procure their salvation; and of their being justified by his righteousness imputed to them. They are in general wholly unacquainted with civil laws and proceedings, and know of no such thing as one person being substituted as a surety in the room of another, nor have any kind of notion of civil judicatures, of persons being arraigned, tried, judged, condemned, or acquitted. And hence it is very difficult to treat with them upon any thing of this nature, or that bears any relation to legal procedures. And although they cannot but have some dealings with the white people, in order to procure clothing and other necessaries of life, yet it is scarce ever known that any one pays a penny for another, but each one stands for himself. Yet this is a thing that may be supposed, though seldom practised among them, and they may be made to understand, that if a friend of theirs pay a debt for them, it is right that upon that consideration they themselves should be discharged.

And this is the only way I can take in order to give them a proper notion of the undertaking and satisfaction of Christ in behalf of sinners. But here naturally arise two questions. First, “What need there was of Christ’s obeying and suffering for us; why God would not look upon us to be good creatures (to use my common phrase for justification) on account of our own good deeds?” In answer to which I sometimes observe, that a child being never so orderly and obedient to its parents to-day, does by no means satisfy for its contrary behaviour yesterday; and that if it be loving and obedient at some times only, and at other times cross and disobedient, it never can be looked upon a good child for its own doings, since it ought to have behaved in an obedient manner always. This simile strikes their minds in an easy and forcible manner, and serves, in a measure, to illustrate the point. For the light of nature, as before hinted, teaches them, that their children ought to be obedient to them, and that at all times; and some of them are very severe with them for the contrary behaviour. This I apply in the plainest manner to our behaviour towards God; and so show them, that it is impossible for us, since we have sinned against God, to be justified before him by our own doings, since present and future goodness, although perfect and constant, could never satisfy for past misconduct.

A second question, is, “If our debt was so great, and if we all deserved to suffer, how one person’s suffering was sufficient to answer for the whole?” Here I have no better way to illustrate the infinite value of Christ’s obedience and sufferings, arising from the dignity and excellency of his person, than to show them the superior value of gold to that of baser metals, and that a small quantity of this will discharge a greater debt, than a vast quantity of the common copper pence. But after all, it is extremely difficult to treat with them upon this great doctrine of “justification by imputed righteousness.” I scarce know how to conclude this head, so many things occurring that might properly be added here; but what has been mentioned, may serve for a specimen of the difficulty of conveying divine truths to the understandings of these Indians, and of gaining their assent to them as such.

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