The calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent his later years as pastor of the church in Stockbridge MA. and a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. Stockbridge was also the hometown of author Catherine Maria Sedgwick. In Sedgwick’s novel, A New England Tale, calvinist beliefs similar to those of Edwards are shown in a dark light through the character of Mrs. Wilson, the stern and uncaring aunt of the heroine, Jane Elton. Mrs. Wilson, like Edwards, is a staunch Calvinist, and Sedgwick portrays her as being more concerned with outward displays of piety than actually practicing Christian virtue. She uses her strict religious beliefs to justify her cold hearted treatment of others, specifically her authoritarian parenting style and her lack of charity towards her orphaned niece. Some of her most notable traits are her sense of superiority and lack of empathy. Throughout the novel, she harshly judges people and feels no obligation to help them. The character of Mrs. Wilson feels like a negative of parody of beliefs espoused by the likes of Jonathan Edwards.
When Mrs. Wilson is introduced in chapter one, she is presented as an unkind and judgemental figure. She tells the recently orphaned Jane that the untimely deaths of her parents were due to their sinfulness,
“I told her the judgements of an offended God were made manifest towards her in a remarkable manner; and then I put it to her conscience, whether if she was sure her mother had gone where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched, she should be reconciled to the character of God, and be willing herself to promote his glory, by suffering that just condemnation.”
She dismisses Jane’s suffering as “God’s will” and a just punishment for her family’s shortcomings. In his best known sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards shows a similar lack of compassion,
“They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between Him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell”
According to Mrs. Wilson and Jonathan Edwards, anyone who does not live up their idea of Christian virtue is beyond redemption and bound for hell.
In Chapter eight, Mrs. Wilson refuses to aid her profligate son, David, when he is in financial trouble, claiming that these troubles are a punishment from God for his dissolute lifestyle and that because he is sinful, he deserves these punishments.
“If my children, though they are my flesh and blood, are not elected, the Lord is justified in their destruction, and I am still. I have done my duty, and I know not ‘why tarry His chariot wheels.’”
It is a tenant of Calvinist theology, known as predestination, that a select few were born holy and destined to go to heaven while the majority are inherently sinful and hellbound. The sinful majority deserve whatever punishments they get because it is God’s will. This is the theme Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which Edwards tells his congregation that God can strike them down into hell any moment and if it his will to do so, then it is perfectly justified.
“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using His power at any moment to destroy them, Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down, why cumbereth the ground?” Luke 13.7. The sword of divine justice is at any moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s will, that holds it back”
Both Jonathan Edwards and Mrs. Wilson have negative and unforgiving views on human nature and are quick to turn against anyone who does not fit their idea of holiness.
Edwards begins his sermon by referencing Deuteronomy 32.35 “Their foot shall slide in due time”. He describes the sinful as being in a slippery place where they can slide into hell at any moment. They do not know when they are going to fall but that end is inevitable.
“It implies that they were always exposed to to sudden unexpected destruction. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall, he cannot foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once without warning: which is also expressed in Psalm 73.18-19 “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castest them down into destruction: How are they brought into desolation as in a moment!”’
In chapter fifteen, the dying Mrs. Wilson is informed of the further iniquity that her son, David, has fallen into. She tells Jane, the only person who bothered to visit her on her deathbed, “…he has gone out from me, and he is not of me; his blood be upon his own head; I am clear of it. My ‘foot standeth on an even place’” (Sedgwick 166). Mrs. Wilson sees herself as a model of holiness and,therefore, not on Edward’s slippery slope. There is a degree of snobbishness which colors the doctrine of predestination; the elect (those chosen by God to go to heaven) are an elite group who judge and look down the rest of the population. People like Mrs. Wilson see themselves as above everyone else and do not feel responsible for people they see as beneath them.
In contrast to the harsh calvinism of Mrs. Wilson and Jonathan Edwards, Sedgwick advocates a more compassionate form of Christianity. She characterizes people like them as using religion to feed their their own sense of self-righteousness.
“Mrs. Wilson was often heard to denounce those who insisted on the necessity of good works, as Pharisees;-she was thankful, she said, that she should not presume to appear before her Judge with any of the the ‘filthy rags of her own righteousness;’-it would be easy getting to heaven if the work in any way depended on ourselves;-any body could ‘deal justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.’ How is easy it is, we leave to those to determine, who have sought to adjust their lives by this divine rule.
Mrs. Wilson rejected the name of the Pharisee, but the proud, oppressive, bitter spirit of the jewish bigot was manifest in the complacency with which she regarded her own faith, and the illiberality she cherished towards every person, of every denomination, who did not believe what she believed, act according to her rule of right)
Sedgwick would say that someone like Mrs. Wilson may be outwardly christian but do not practice christian charity and compassion. Her idea of what Christianity should be is expressed in the words of John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity: “Secondly, the former propounds one man to another, as the same flesh and image of God; this is as a brother in Christ also, and in the communication of the same spirit and so teacheth us to put the difference between Christians and others” (167). A proper christian, according to Winthrop, treats everyone with respect and compassion.
The character of Mrs. Wilson in A New England Tale shows how strict religious views, like those of Jonathan Edwards, can be negative. They feed into a smug sense of superiority and foster a lack of sympathy for others, these, in turn, can make a person selfish, cruel, and intolerant. People like this feel that can do whatever they want to others because they see themselves as superior. A New England Tale, in the form of the virtuous heroine, Jane Elton, advocates kindness, compassion, and humble dignity and more uplifting and inclusive forms of Christianity.