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Solomon Stoddard

Solomon Stoddard

Solomon Stoddard (1643-1728/1729), American colonial Congregational clergyman, was for nearly 60 years the dominant civil and religious figure in western Massachusetts.

One of 15 sons, and grandnephew of John Winthrop, Solomon Stoddard was born in Boston in September 1643. He graduated from Harvard in 1662. He became the college's first librarian (1667-1674), though during part of this period he served as Congregationalist chaplain to Bermuda. He preached at Northampton after 1669; asked to be regular pastor, he formally accepted in 1672 and continued in that post until his death. In 1670 he married Esther Warham Mather; the couple had 12 children.

As pastor, Stoddard accepted the Puritan "Half-way Covenant," approved by the Synod of 1662, but soon came to feel it inconsistent to deny Communion to those who had been baptized but lacked a conversion "experience." Seeking to convert the unregenerate, he began teaching that Communion was itself a converting ordinance, and he extended membership privileges to penitents professing faith, irrespective of their certainty of their salvation. This "Stoddardeanism" was accepted by the Reforming Synod of 1679, but Increase Mather and others objected, believing that it made the Church (by opening membership to all) indistinguishable from the world at large. Stoddard defended his position in a series of trenchant pamphlets.

Stoddard was a highly effective minister; his open invitation combined with warnings of damnation to produce great increases in Church membership. During five "harvests" (periods of revivals) between 1679 and 1719, many—young people especially—were converted. He taught his grandson (and associate pastor) Jonathan Edwards the revival methods which produced religious "experiences," though Edwards later rejected Stoddardean leniency in acceptance into Church membership.

Liberal with respect to membership, Stoddard was conservative in other areas. He wanted the Church to be governed by a synod, leaving the laity only the right of electing their ministers. He berated wicked behavior and extravagant dress, helped engender the province's sumptuary laws (1676), and condemned worldly trends at Harvard. His letters to Boston shaped governmental policy, particularly concerning frontier defenses, and he so controlled his congregation that critics called him "Pope."

Impressive in appearance and conversation, Stoddard was an original and forceful writer, publishing over 20 pamphlets and sermons. Significant among these were The Doctrine of Instituted Churches (1700), The Inexcusableness of Neglecting the Worship of God, under aPretence of Being in an Unconverted Condition (1708), The Efficacy of the Fear of Hell to Restrain Men from Sin (1713), and An Answer to Some Cases of Conscience Respecting the Country (1722). He died on Feb. 11, 1728/1729.

Further Reading

John Langdon Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, vol. 2 (1881), gives most of the facts of Stoddard's life. Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Jonathan Edwards (1940), contains illuminating information concerning Edward's grandfather. See also James R. Trumbull, History of Northampton, Massachusetts (2 vols., 1898-1902). □

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