Dr William Shippen gave Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) the controversial smallpox inoculation that ended his effervescent life. Later, Shippen who would be a representative at the Continental Congress. He also attended the untimely death of Edwards, and wrote as follows to the widowed Sarah Edwards:
This afternoon, between two and three o’clock, it pleased God to let him sleep in that dear Lord Jesus, whose kingdom and interest he has been faithfully and painfully serving all his life. And never did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm, cheerful resignation, and patient submission to the divine will, through every stage of his disease, than he; not so much as one discontented expression, nor the least appearance of murmuring, through the whole.
Christian history is replete with narratives of “good” deaths, like that of Edwards, as people faced the end of life with vibrant faith, demonstrating courage and making inspiring comments to the loved ones and supporters that surrounded them. From 1984 to 1991 as I spent huge amounts of time in Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist archives, I noted many stories of those who cherished the idea of a good death. One of the most notable of these narratives was that of the Rector of the Irish College in Rome whose experiences during the 1890s I traced in his copious letters to Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran in Sydney.
But back to Edwards for a moment. Often Edwards is portrayed as a “hardline Calvinist” who had little to offer except opposition to the Arminianism (you can Google this subject in the SDA Periodical Index and note, especially, the landmark 2010 conference on this subject at Andrews University) that is so precious to Seventh-day Adventists. He did, however, subject his body to an important medical experiment. In an age when so many people accepted even serious disease as an expression of the will of God, Edwards confronted this idea by submitting to an experimental injection that it was hoped may parry the scourge of smallpox. Some of his contemporaries interpreted this courageous act as motivated by a serious lack of faith. Even much later many Christians would question whether or not women’s pain in childbirth may be lessened with newly-discovered anaesthetics; didn’t God infer in Genesis chapter three that the process would be painful? Should mere mortals interfere with God’s decree? Since 1915, Adventists have often told the story of Ellen White’s good death (see Volume 6 of Arthur White’s biography of his grandmother, pages 429-431, for instance). Mrs White is frequently quoted as saying in a faint whisper on her death-bed, “I know in whom I have believed.”
Those who have read the trilogy of narratives on this website (Posts 91, 92, 93) may have been thinking about the way that Adventist worldviews influence how we tell our personal stories. The three stories narrate events that happened within our family during the 1940s, but I only narrated them (in writing) during 1972, close to the time when I finished my first two graduate degrees. The assumptions that lie behind the stories include a God who intervenes in our lives, sometimes saving us from an untimely death or at other times calling us to a particular avenue of service. Such assumptions raise a multitude of questions.
We Adventists place a huge dependence on William Miller as the pioneer herald of “the Advent near,” riveting our attention on the Second Coming of Christ. Jeff Crocombe’s thesis shows so clearly how much Miller cherished Bible study as “a feast of reason.” While he changed his orientation from Deism to an evangelical faith, he continued to be influenced by the “Common Sense” philosophy that was so pervasive in North America during the early nineteenth century. This attitude that we Sabbatarian Adventists have inherited from Miller owes much to the Enlightenment that we usually date as beginning about 1750. Suffice it to say that if we examined our assumptions with rigor, it may even help us with the current debate about how to understand God’s two books, Scripture and science.
The entire picture for Adventists has become much more complex in recent times, in part because of the worldwide influence of Pentecostalism. From our early beginnings we were deeply appreciative of the role of the Holy Spirit (I unpacked some of this reality in the 1999 Record articles that popularise “heavier” papers available on the Internet). Especially since the dawn of the twentieth century, we have been a bit wistful about the interventionist God of the Pentecostals, who performs miracles in abundance. The shoe pinches most acutely when we see our fellow-believers waiting on God to reveal, supernaturally, patterns of action that some of us think he leaves us to chart with the help of the capable minds he has given us.
The theological ideas of John Calvin (1509-1564), Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Ellen White (1827-1915) and many recent thinkers impact Adventists and their worldview. This post simply invites us to become aware of the important assumptions that so deeply influence what we think and what we do.
Arthur Patrick, 28 January 2013