The Reverend Solomon Stoddard was one of the most important puritan religious leaders in the colonial period and was the grandfather of the famous Rev. Jonathan Edwards. For 55 years, Stoddard held an unprecedented amount of power in the Connecticut River Valley. His opponents disparagingly called him "Pope" Stoddard, rhetorically placing him in the locally detested camp of the Roman Catholic Church. His theology was not widely accepted. He is remembered as the author of the Halfway Covenant, his attempt to save his church from a "dying religion", and the cause of one of the biggest controversies in 18th century New England. His ideas covered a wide variety of topics, often contrasting with mainstream Puritan thought and foreshadowing much of modern theological thought.
Solomon Stoddard's life began in Boston in 1643. He was the son of Anthony Stoddard, a wealthy Boston merchant, and Mary Downing, a niece of Governor John Winthrop. This placed him in the highest level of aristocratic New England. Solomon graduated from Harvard College in 1662. Shortly thereafter he was appointed “Library keeper," and Library Laws were enacted specifying that he should keep the Library "duly swept" and the books "clean and orderly." The following is found in the records of Harvard College:
March 27, 1667, "Mr Solomon Stoddard was chosen Library keeper." "For the rectifying of ye Library & Rules for the Library Keeper," sixteen "orders wer made." "No prson resident in the Colledge, except an Overseer," and "no Schollar in the Colledge, under a Senior," could borrow a book, and "no one under master of Art (unless it be a fellow) . . . without the allowance of the President."
To improve his health, Stoddard went to Barbados and served as a chaplain from 1667 to 1669. But he soon felt the need to return to England. As he prepared to depart he received the calling to Northampton Church to replace the late Eleazar Mather. Stoddard accepted the offer, and relocated to Northampton in 1670. Within a few months, Stoddard had married Mather's widow, née Esther Warham, moved into his house, and took over his pulpit to become Northampton’s second minister. He held the post for 55 years, and he and Esther produced thirteen children.
Although well versed in the Latin and Hebrew of the Boston Puritan Elite, he preferred to use the common language of the frontier in his sermons. A sense of the frontier life may be gleaned from his proposal in 1703 to use dogs “to hunt Indians as they do Bears”, the argument being that dogs would catch many an Indian who would be too light of foot for the townsmen. This was not considered inhuman, for the Indians, in Stoddard’s view, “act like wolves and are to be dealt with as wolves.” Three years later Massachusetts passed an act for the raising of dogs to better secure the frontier borders.
Stoddard is credited with The Halfway Covenant, a relaxation of the rules of Communion that accompanied a decline of piety in the Congregational church. Stoddard's interest was to insure the growth of church congregations in a colony of second-generation pilgrims who were increasingly interested in politics and economics, and less interested in religion than their immigrant parents. He taught that people who had grown up in the church, who were not scandalous in behavior could receive communion as a means of grace and have their children baptized, despite the fact that the Puritan tradition had required members to be limited to those who had experienced a spiritual "conversion".
In his theology, Stoddard contradicted nearly every standard belief of his Puritan colleagues. Puritan theology stressed a strict methodology in salvation. Stoddard believed that everyone had to experience God's glory for himself through Nature or through Scripture. When one sees this glory for himself, his will is automatically affected. Stoddard explains, "The gloriousness of God has a commanding power on the heart". According to Stoddard's thought, conversion came experientially rather than through any set process or amount of education. Though a Harvard education may aid in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, the sermon is useless unless the minister has experienced God's saving grace.
Stoddard's concepts of theology were not widely accepted either by fellow clergy or laymen, in New England. As Stoddard felt the ministry was key in bringing people to the Lord, his main goal, was converting the hearts of sinners. Stoddard believed that the only source of salvation was God's Word, especially as related through the sermon. He felt that if a community continued to remain unconverted, then (1) the preacher himself was unconverted, or (2) the preacher needed to upgrade his sermons to reach the unconverted. This called for a revision in church policy. Stoddard wanted to develop the "Instituted Church" in order to preserve purity among the ministers. Each individual church would be instructed through a national church, which would determine the proper qualifications for ministers. The redemption of the sinner's soul was to be the evangelical purpose of this church. The idea gained no support from either his congregation or others. Therefore one assumes that Stoddard's popularity and influence in New England stems from his personality, rather than his theology.
Stoddard's position was expressed through debates with Cotton and Increase Mather. As leaders of one of Boston's primary churches, Cotton Mather held an enormous amount of influence during Stoddard's lifetime. Stoddard, however, could not be swayed by Mather's arguments. Although Congregationalism eventually adopted Stoddard's stance on communion, Mather remained a formidable opponent for Stoddard.
Another contrast between Stoddard and the other Puritan leaders of his time was his belief in the strict dichotomy between the converted (or regenerate) and the unconverted. Stoddard rejected the Puritan claim that no one could discern whether he was saved. Like his own conversion experience, he believed that a person would know when he had been converted, because there exists a wide gap between those whom God had saved and those who were unregenerate. This belief led to the communion controversy: Because of his conversion experience, Solomon stressed the importance of an open communion which would be used as a converting ordinance. In 1677 all members of the community who were instructed in Christian doctrine, made a public profession of faith, and were living decent lives, could participate in communion. Stoddard explained that there was no biblical justification for allowing only regenerate members to take communion.
Stoddard's change in the sacraments produced little increase in the number of communicants. Because of this, Stoddard made two motions to the Northampton Church in 1690; first, to abolish the public profession of faith and second, to appoint the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. The first passed by a majority and as a result the population of Northampton doubled from 500 to 1000 in twenty years. The second motion was opposed by the elders of the church and the motion was denied, although the younger people supported it.
In 1725, his congregation decided to bring in an assistant to help him. They chose his grandson, Jonathan Edwards. Stoddard had a major influence on his grandson and was succeeded by him as the pastor of the church at Northampton.
Edwards later repudiated his grandfather's views, becoming the most famous and fiery orator of the Great Awakening of 1735-1745. The Great Awakening was to some extent a reaction to the failure of The Halfway Covenant to strengthen the church. But Stoddard's influence was long-lasting. Ultimately, Edwards’ views displeased his parishioners, and he was dismissed from the Northampton pulpit.
Stoddard may have been too liberal for his grandson Jonathan Edwards, but he was apparently lampooned for prudishness concerning petticoats by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Stoddard published a pamphlet in 1722 entitled "Answer to Some Cases of Conscience" in which he argued that the newly fashionable hoop petticoats were immoral. He stated that the petticoats were "Contrary to the Light of Nature" and that "Hooped Petticoats have something of Nakedness". Franklin's satirical response was an anonymous pamphlet entitled "Hoop-Petticoats Arraigned and Condemned, by the Light of Nature, and Law of God".
Ultimately, Stoddard's power seems to derive more from his personality, political influence, and preaching ability, than from the force of his ideas. One man describes Stoddard with a poem:
His venerable Looks let us descry He taller was than mean or common size, Of lovely Look, with majesty in's Eyes. From Nature's Gate he walk'd like King's on Earth There's scarce such Presence seen 'mongst human breath