Posted by: Kenn Hermann | October 8, 2006

Recovering the Puritan Mystery of the Lord’s Supper

After noting two serious deficiencies of Puritan theology in an earlier post, I must hasten to add a note on what I have found to be a profound strength (among many). My early interest in the Puritans, following Perry Miller’s lead, focused almost excusively on their theology and intellectual life. Their poetry and literature, being just ‘fluff,’ so I naively thought, could be easily ignored. Then I read Charles Hambrick-Stowe’s The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth Century New England (1986). There I was introduced for the first time to the profound mystical power of the Puritan meditative tradition with roots going back to John Donne and George Herbert. That, in turn, led me to the poetry of Edward Taylor, whom I had read about but had never read deeply. His poetry, founded on deep Reformed theological foundations, still grips me.

Edward Taylor (1642-1729), born at the very beginning of the English Revolution, emigrated to New England as a young man in 1668. Following three years of study at Harvard College he accepted a call as minister for the fledgling congregation in Westfield, then the western-most settlement of Massachusetts Bay, deep in contested indian country. He devoted virtually all of his spiritual energies for the next 40 years to exploring the mystical depths of meaning in the Lord’s Supper. During most of that time he had a running theological battle with the liberalizing communion tendencies of Samuel Stoddard, Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, just up the road in Northampton. During that period he wrote 217 Prepatory Meditations to prepare himself to administer this sacrament. These poems were unpublished during Taylor’s lifetime and unknown until Thomas Johnson discovered them in the Yale library in 1936 and published them. Since his poems were discovered, Taylor has been hailed as America’s first great poet.

To whet your appetite for reading more, ponder and reflect on the intricate and luminous beauty of this, my favorite.

The Living Bread (John 6:51)

I kening through Astronomy Divine
The Worlds bright Battlement, wherein I spy
A Golden Path my Pensill cannot line,
From that bright Throne unto my Threshold ly.
And while my puzzled thoughts about it pore
I finde the Bread of Life in’t at my doore.

When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my Corps) to tweedle praise
Had peckt the Fruite forbad: and so did fling
Away its Food; and lost its golden dayes;
It fell into Celestiall Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsell more.

Alas! alas! Poore Bird, what wilt thou doe?
The Creatures field no food for Souls e’re gave.
And if thou knock at Angells cores they show
An Empty Barrell: they no soul bread have.
Alas! Poore Bird, the Worlds White Loafe is done.
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.

In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run
Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife
The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.

Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,
Which from his Table came, and to shine goeth?
Doth he bespeake thee thus, This Soule Bread take.
Come Eate thy fill of this thy Gods White Loafe?
Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take
And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.

What Grace is this knead in this Loafe? This thing
Souls are but petty things it to admire.
Yee Angells, help: This fill would to the brim
Heav’n s whelm’d-down Chrystall meele Bowle, yea and higher.
This Bread of Life drops in thy mouth, doth Cry.
Eate, Eate me, Soul, and thou shalt never dy.

Taylor had absorbed Calvin’s own sense of the mystical presence of Christ as our life-giving food in the Lord’s Supper. Read what Calvin has to say about this precious food for our souls in the The Institutes, Book 4, chap. 17. I would be delighted if the resurgent interest in the Puritans captured this profound understanding of Communion. Not too many could remain Zwinglian memorialists if they did.

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