Sinners in the hands of an angry mob

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To put it biblically, Jonathan Edwards begat Timothy who begat Jonathan who begat Richard who begat Ogden who begat George who begat Richard who begat Janet who last month joined two women in marriage and now wonders what the Presbyterian Church plans to do about her.

Jonathan Edwards  

The wedding announcement hit the newspaper June 28, informing readers of the union of Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn. Cole's position as a research psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, McConn's retirement from Xerox Corp., their mutual love of bird watching and horseback riding were duly noted. Then came this:

"The Reverend Doctor Janet Edwards officiated in a ceremony integrating the couple's Buddhist and Christian traditions. Dr. Edwards is a Presbyterian minister active in advancing the full recognition of gay persons within the Pittsburgh Presbytery."

Last week, an unhappy church member registered an official complaint with the church. A hearing appears to be forthcoming.

The Reverend Doctor Janet Edwards is also a descendant of a theological colossus who casts a shadow all the way from 18th-century New England into the far reaches of contemporary American Protestantism. Jonathan Edwards is famous for his hellsfire sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which posits that the failings of mankind can yet be forgiven by the Almighty, but not, apparently, without a good scare first. While his famous sermon twice mentions Sodom, with nary a good word for the place, Edwards might have been less horrified by the absence of a groom than by the presence of a Buddhist.

With great prescience, he caught the forthcoming American spirit of humans tormenting each other in the name of a merciful God: "There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell."

Janet Edwards has long advocated for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons -- GLBT is the shorthand used in the movement -- and, after some skirmishes within the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which oversees the church, a sort of truce evolved.

"I knew I was breaking that truce," she said. It is something of her style. "I stay quiet for a while and then I do something, then I stay quiet for a while and then I do something."

This time, the something she did was to violate the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church USA. The rules allow a blessing service over a gay couple so long as it is not represented as a marriage.

Janet Edwards, much like her vigorous forebear, has no time for pretense. She knows exactly what she did and exactly why she did it.

Less clear is what happens next.

"The most radical punishment that has happened so far in the Presbyterian Church is a rebuke," Janet Edwards said. She has no congregation to lose, because Edwards is assigned as an "at large" minister, who works mostly through the Community of Reconciliation, an Oakland-based ecumenical congregation that remains open to sexual minorities.

Sitting in the study of her Squirrel Hill home, its walls lined with double rows of books, Edwards, who is descended from the McCune family fortune on her mother's side, spoke of an uncle who visited from California on rare occasions.

"Nothing was said until the early 1990s," she said. Twice in his youth the man had been sent to sanitariums in New England to cure him of his homosexuality. Understandably, the West Coast proved a better cure for what truly ailed him: intolerance.

From this strange seed, a church dissenter was grown, and Janet Edwards has made her uncle's legacy as much a part of her religious fervor as her sixth-great-grandfather's struggle to reconcile Calvinist traditions, ranging from predestination to man's inherent sinfulness, with the age of enlightenment.

George Marsden, a Notre Dame historian who wrote the definitive biography of Jonathan Edwards, doubts his descendant can invoke him in her defense.

"He was a genius at defending tradition rather than defying tradition," Marsden said. The last Edwards descendant to get in notable trouble was a grandson named Aaron Burr. Something about treason.

If Janet Edwards isn't following her ancestor's orthodoxy, she can lay claim to at least a bit of his temperament. Jonathan Edwards was tossed out of his congregation in Connecticut late in his life and sent to Stockbridge, Mass., a missionary settlement where there were matching churches for the white settlers and the Indians.

"He preached the same sermon to both churches on a Sunday," she said. "I see a parallel between GLBT people today and the Native Americans then, because Native Americans at that time were viewed to be subhuman, just because of who they were." Jonathan Edwards didn't buy that theory back then. His great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter isn't buying it about another tribe today.

"Every day I read three chapters of the Bible," she said. "Here I am, and over and over again Jesus' word to me is GLBT people are people. We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are all offered God's love, which trumps God's anger."

Whether it trumps man's indignation is the test of a woman whose conscience spoke louder than her pedigree.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist (, 412-263-1965).


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