The Phebe Bartlet Syndrome

Leon Brown wonders:

Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”

Could the reason be a piety in which earnestness only counts as genuine faith?

Discerning the Spirit (or swallowing Him feathers and all)

Since I managed to attract the experimental Calvinists’ attention with a few questions about the need to read the Bible in a way that inflames readers, maybe the glowing ones can help with a question I posed once before but never received a convincing answer. (BTW, isn’t it a good thing if someone simply — sorry for the adverb — reads the Bible? Am I inadequate if I don’t guzzle the words of life? And for those who cite the Psalms to defend an earnest reading of Scripture, I sure wish they could keep in mind that this desire came at a time when Bibles were not exactly handy — cheap or widely distributed.)

Here’s the question, if earnestness is so desirable, even necessary (?), why does it not prevent the likes of Jonathan Edwards from seeing the problems of a four-year old who goes through what Phebe Bartlet did to obtain the effects of a conversion? The fans of Edwards generally gloss over Phebe’s conversion, but Edwards did not since it was a prime example of the positive benefits of the awakening in Northampton:

She was born in March, 1731. About the latter end of April, or beginning of May, 1735, she was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted a little before, at about eleven years of age, and then seriously talked to her about the great things of religion. Her parents did not know of it at that time, and were not wont, in the counsels they gave to their children, particularly to direct themselves to her, being so young, and, as they supposed, not capable of understanding. But after her brother had talked to her, they observed her very earnestly listen to the advice they gave to the other children; and she was observed very constantly to retire, several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer. She grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises. Her mother often observed and watched her, when such things occurred as she thought most likely to divert her, either by putting it out of her thoughts, or otherwise engaging her inclinations; but never could observe her to fail. She mentioned some very remarkable instances.

She once of her own accord spake of her unsuccessfulness, in that she could not find God, or to that purpose. But on Thursday, the last day of July, about the middle of the day, the child being in the closet, where it used to retire, its mother heard it speaking aloud; which was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins! When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud. Her mother very earnestly asked her several times what the matter was, before she would make any answer; but she continued crying, and writhing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit. Her mother then asked her, whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She then answered, Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell! Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry, she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. But this did not quiet her at all; she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said with a smiling countenance, Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me! Her mother was surprised at the sudden alteration, and at the speech; and knew not what to make of it; but at first said nothing to her. The child presently spake again, and said, There is another come to me, and there is another, there is three; and being asked what she meant, she answered, One is, Thy will be done, and there is another, Enjoy Him for ever; by which it seems, that when the child said, There is three come to me; she meant three passages of her catechism that came to her mind.

After the child had said this, she retired again into her closet, and her mother went over to her brother’s, who was next neighbor; and when she came back, the child, being come out of the closet, meets her mother with this cheerful speech; I can find God now! referring to what she had before complained of, that she could not find God. Then the child spoke again and said, I love God! Her mother asked her, how well she loved God, whether she loved God better than her father and mother. She said, Yes. Then she asked her, whether she loved God better than her little sister Rachel. She answered, Yes, better than any thing!

So many problems here, among them publicizing a piety that is a tad self-righteous — “I love God more than my parents do.” If any minister today wrote about a four-year old conversion in this manner, chances are his session or consistory would advise against publication, and the parents might ask for the pastor to stay away. Who wants to see a four-year writhe out of spiritual anguish (who wants to see a twenty-two year old writhe during conversion?)? But Edwards gets a pass because he is — well — Edwards. Yet, what kind of discernment did he show in his observations about Phoebe or having them published internationally as evidence of the awakening’s benefits? Furthermore, is this lack of discernment what comes with a quest for zeal? As long as someone is moved, quickened, earnest, we don’t raise questions about the manifestations of that zeal?

Some people seem to think I need help. I am asking for it.