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Phoebe Bartlett (1731-1805) experienced an emotional religious conversion at age 4. She became the most famous exemplar of childhood piety in late Puritan New England after the colonial minister Jonathan Edwards described her transformation in a popular treatise. Her conversion occurred amid the religious revivals in western Massachusetts led by Edwards (1703-1758), early America's most important Calvinist theologian and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Northampton. Bartlett and a young woman, Abigail Hutchinson, were Edwards's (1738) principal case studies in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which provided a model script for later evangelical Protestant revivalists. Four-year-old Phoebe's story began in the spring of 1735, when she took a keen interest in the religious talk of her 11-year-old brother, who had recently experienced the life-changing conversion that New England Puritans demanded as evidence of a person's election to salvation. Soon Phoebe was retreating five or six times a day to her closet for secret prayer. During one of these sessions, her mother overheard her begging the Lord for forgiveness of her sins. Emerging from the closet in uncontrollable weeping, Phoebe resisted her mother's efforts to comfort her until suddenly she stopped crying and exclaimed, "Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!" (Goen, 1972: 200). In the months that followed, she continued to grow in holiness, strictly observing the Sabbath and counseling other children in spiritual matters. She also showed great love toward her pastor, as Edwards himself reported. His account does not describe her adult life, although parish records indicate that she was not admitted to full communion until shortly before her marriage in 1754, a common practice among adults in Puritan New England.
Edwards's narrative of Phoebe Bartlet's conversion reflects the ambivalence toward children's religious experience in late Puritan culture. On the one hand, Edwards and other orthodox clergy believed that children and adults inherited Adam's sin, and thus deserved eternal punishment. In sermons preached to special meetings of children, Edwards emphasized God's anger at their sins and warned them of the danger of dying in childhood before being born again in Christ. On the other hand, Edwards saw children as capable of genuine saving faith and took their spirituality seriously. During the 1734-1735 revivals he admitted 20 children under the age of 14 to full communion, a practice shunned by earlier ministers.
Edwards's views of children have had a similarly mixed influence on later Protestant culture. On the one hand, his writings provided subsequent evangelicals with a weapon against the Enlightenment's rejection of original sin and other Augustinian doctrines. On the other hand, his idealization of childhood (and female) piety ironically paved the way for Victorian Protestantism's sentimental views of human nature and domestic piety.