Friday, June 30, 2017

Joseph Bellamy's Tall Pulpit

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: When 19-year-old Joseph Bellamy headed north from the mother church in Woodbury, CT, in 1738, called to preach during “winter privileges” to the first settlers of the “North Purchase,” it was pioneer territory. Bellamy had recently completed his studies at Yale, spent a year in Northampton, MA, studying and living with Jonathan Edwards, greatest preacher/theologian of the age, and he was newly licensed to preach by the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut.

Bellamy was a towering man in a powdered wig and black robe; an imposing 300-pounder with a thundering voice. He was one of the "New Lights" of the Great Awakening, who rejected the “mechanistic views” of the Deists and their “Clockmaker God” and favored transformation from the heart, not a lifeless god of the head. It was, perhaps, the pre-dawn glow of a transformation in style that we now call Romanticism. Style is the outward form of spirit and in this, art never lies.

In 1740 George Whitfield came to America to preach a series of sermons that would awaken religious fervor and ignite the Great Awakening. He often preached in the open air and to working people. That year Joseph Bellamy had begun year-round ministry at the new North Purchase outpost, and he would not only go on to become its wealthiest and most prominent citizen and to live in its finest home, opposite his church at the head of the green, but he would give the North Purchase its name, Bethlem (later Bethlehem) and go on preaching there for a half century until his death in 1790.

During Bellamy's first two years in Bethlehem, while the awakening blazed, he traveled widely, spreading the flames in more than 450 sermon until the fervor of the First Great Awakening began to fade. However, he had gained a wide reputation which he later burnished from his home in Bethlehem with writings that include 22 books. Like Edwards, who preached we are all “sinners in the hands of an angry god,” Bellamy believed humankind to be utterly degenerate, but his preaching style became gentler, and he told a novice, “When I was young I thought it was the thunder that killed people; but when I grew older and wiser, I found it was the lightening. So I determined to do what I advise you to—thunder less, lighten more!”

In addition to preaching and writing, Bellamy opened “a school of prophets," the first theological school in America. He eventually trained at least 42 students including Jonathan Edwards Jr. who was pastor in New Haven and wrote articles advocating abolition of slavery in 1773, Aaron Burr who became Vice President and later faced charges of treason, and Timothy Dwight who would be president of Yale College, appoint the first science professor in our history, and train many ministers of the Second Great Awakening including Lyman Beecher.

Bellamy supported the national cause, and he led his congregation though the difficult years of the Revolution into a new age. The first thing one learns about the current Congregational Church of Bethlehem (built 1839) is that the pulpit is the one built for Joseph Bellamy, and that all subsequent ministers have needed a foot stool to see the congregation over it.

“LET us stop here, a few Minutes, and think, what the Consequences would be, should Righ|teousness which is the Glory of the Deity, and the very Beauty of Heaven... descend on crowned Heads, and fill the Courts of Princes, and spread down thro' every Rank, even down to the meanest Cottage, and to the poorest Beggar. What would the Consequences be? Heaven would soon begin on Earth.

"PRINCES, even the most haughty Monarchs of the Earth, who, to gratify their Pride and Ambition, do often now, in the present state of things, summon mighty Armies, spread war, devastation and ruin thro' whole Countries, would be at once turned into other men, "be Converted and become as little Children," as harmless as Doves, as meek as Lambs. Such would be their humility, their self-abhorrence, their penitence, their reverence toward the Deity and love to the human kind, that they would, speedily and with the utmost sincerity, begin to concert measures for a universal, perpetual Peace. Ambassadors for that End would be sent from, and to, every Monarch, Prince and Court — and Orders be soon dispatched to Fleets and Armies to stop the effusion of human Blood. — The thundering Cannons would cease to roar—Peace, universal Peace be soon proclaimed; for every Monarch, from the heart, would soon begin to say, to each other, "Take your right my Brother, and let me have mine, and let us live in love and peace, and seek the true happiness of our subjects, and no longer go on sacrificing thousands of precious lives, in quarrels, which honest men might settle with the utmost ease.”

Joseph Bellamy from a sermon delivered before the General Assembly of the colony of Connecticut, at Hartford, on the day of the anniversary election, May 13th, 1762.

My thanks to the Bethlehem Congregational Church for allowing me to photograph and for providing historical materials that helped in the preparation of this post.

The "ballot box" with the marbles was an essential part of many Puritan congregations who had to address issues of membership for new settlers coming to a town. After listening to the applicants story of his coming to the faith, elders might vote discreetly by dropping a marble into the small hole in the face of the box. Those receiving a black marble were blackballed thus assuring the congregation of "the elect" remained pure. Only those full members could enjoy the benefits of voting membership in the community.