Lemuel Haynes and ‘Little Adults’: Race and the Prehistory of Childhood in Early New England
Philip Greven has described the Congregational minister, theologian, and writer Jonathan Edwards as ‘the most articulate rationalizer and defender of eternal punishment in American history,’ and Edwards’s writings abound in evidence both of this view and of the steady severity with which he applied his central truth, original sin, to his society’s thinking about children. ‘As innocent as children seem to be to us, yet, if they are out of Christ, they are not so in God’s sight, but are young vipers, and are infinitely more hateful than vipers,’ Edwards affirms in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742). In that work, Edwards defended the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, in which he was a central figure, against critics whose rejection of the legitimacy of the region’s religious revivals evinces an unease that is not unlike Greven’s with Edwards’s readiness to preach hellfire to children. The chapter ‘Ministers blamed for speaking terror to those who are already under great terrors,’ in which Edwards’s (in)famous remark about child-vipers appears, steadily and vividly presents the peril of damnation as the inescapable condition of both children and adults. But, at the same time, this insistence on the common vulnerability of all people has a levelling potential: all people—regardless of age, gender, race, class, or even the religion into which they are born—are doomed to burn unless they receive God’s grace. Edwards does not speak gently to children, instead condemning as negligent those who would shield children from the threat of damnation. ‘Why should we conceal the truth from them? Will those children that have been dealt tenderly with, in this respect, and lived and died insensible of it, till they come to feel it in hell, ever thank parents, and others, for their tenderness, in not letting them know what they were in danger of?,’ he writes—a remark that interestingly carries a rationale not only for the cruelty that Edwards’s critics see but also for the potential acceptance of pious children’s superiority to impious adults, of children’s right to meet to pray and talk apart from adults, and of the rhetorical authority of child preachers.