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Edwards Unbound

By October 16, 2003 No Comments

The life of Jonathan Edwards, born 300 years ago this month, is a tale of a singular but complex vision crossed by paradoxical outcomes under sometimes extreme conditions. The boy was reared in a nearly all-female family under the close watch of a rigorous father. Absorbed from the start with the demands of a fearsome deity, he broke through in his late teens to a vision of that same God being, literally, sweetness and light. Plagued by a brittle personality and blessed (if such it is for young males) with remarkable intellectual powers, he had a hard time of it vocationally until his maternal grandfather hired him as assistant pastor in his parish at Northampton, Massachusetts. There, in his and the century’s mid-30s, Edwards led a religious revival that brought him instant international fame. Within ten years, however, he was revising his opinions about revivalism; a few years later, in 1750, he was ousted from his pulpit by popular vote, including the votes of many erstwhile converts.

Relocating to the frontier town of Stockbridge, Edwards ministered to a mixed-race church, helped out at a Mohawk mission school, and in little more than five years set down the most influential corpus of philosophical theology that North America has ever seen. In consequence, he was appointed president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) but died within three months of assuming office from complications of a smallpox inoculation. A favorite daughter died two weeks later, following her husband and the college’s immediate past president, Aaron Burr, to the grave by one year. Edwards’s wife Sarah joined them all six months later. This pattern of high achievement and untoward suffering remained a legend to the next century of evangelical believers, and still poses an apt test case for Edwards’s theology. The contest over his intellectual work has reverberated down to the present, with great effect on American thought and letters.

The controversy started at Edwards’s high tide courtesy of Charles Chauncy, a prominent Boston minister and a member of what Edwards called the “the broad and catholick” party of the time: Arminian in inception, Unitarian in effect, and appealing most to the prosperous merchants of the New England maritime. Given the tides of Enlightenment and Revolution, Chauncy’s rationalism seemed to have time on its side. But Edwards’s successors in the Connecticut River valley struck back with one of the most remarkable campaigns of intellectual and ecclesiastical organization the United States has ever seen, making his legacy the agenda with which Northern Protestantism had to wrestle over the whole first half of the nineteenth century. Around 1850, however, a neat 100 years after the dismissal from Northampton, Edwards’s star began to fade again. Early in the twentieth century, when New England religious culture had devolved into the national literary establishment, Edwards was assigned just one piece in the American canon, his 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Its function was to demonstrate what thinking people, and the masses they shepherded, ought not to believe.

Then, around 1950, toward the end of his massive rehabilitation of American Puritanism, Harvard English professor Perry Miller reversed that fate by claiming Edwards as the first of America’s Moderns and the greatest of its minds, possessed of a spirit far deeper and a vision entirely more valuable than the pallid sentimentalities that the anthologizers had nominated as the American word. That Miller was a self-declared atheist made the irony only more, well . . . divine. Since then, academic research on Edwards has exploded: studies of his theology, his philosophy, his psychology, his rhetoric, his pastoral work, his revivals, his legacy, and his attitudes toward history, other religions, and science. Edwards’s writings and sermons, many from heretofore almost unusable manuscripts, have been published in a score of volumes with full critical apparatus by Yale University Press; more will come.

This heritage leaves two questions for the would-be Edwards biographer: what new thing can possibly be said of the man, and how can the prolix data now available be brought into synthesis? George Marsden gives the same answer to both challenges. He immerses Edwards fully in context as an eighteenth-century New England provincial who was passionate about answering the burning questions of the day with utter faithfulness to the understanding of God and Scripture that came to him from the Reformed tradition as he knew it. That Marsden makes a brilliant success of the job owes to his consummate craft as a historian, practiced now for over thirty-five years, and to his own commitments as a Reformed Christian–to its spiritual sensitivities, to its proverbial work ethic, and above all to the tough realism it encourages (no, commands) toward all human projects, not least those mounted in the name of God.

The most striking feature that Marsden restores from the times has been hiding in plain sight all along: Edwards lived very close indeed to the Anglo-French-Indian wars that decided the future of North America. The infamous raid at nearby Deerfield (1704) cost the infant Jonathan some relatives; the French and Indian War was still in process at the time of his death. In fact, to the artillery that Karl Barth heard during World War I with revolutionary consequences for twentieth-century theology should now be added the cannon-roar and rumors of war that Edwards could hear in his manse-become-fortified-blockhouse at Stockbridge while he composed his treatises on Original Sin, The Nature of True Virtue, and The End for Which God Created the World. For philosophers and theologians, the arguments in those works need to be judged on their own merits, but surely that assessment can benefit from the historian’s illumination of the original context, particularly when one realizes that the contemporaneous efforts by Edwards’s great counterpart, Benjamin Franklin, were being conducted in the two most populous and secure cities in the British Empire: London and Philadelphia.

Marsden’s second recurrent theme highlights Edwards’s enmeshment in the system of hierarchy and deference that characterized eighteenth-century society. Edwards had standing and security in the Connecticut River valley because of the power of his kin-patrons, and every time one of these died, he hit a crisis–including the terminal one at Northampton. Edwards was thus caught in the paradox of co-generating a revival movement that helped spawn democracy while falling to the displeasure of a people that could not–and would not–match his elevated standards of piety. That the wealthy of the region were the worst offenders on this score makes plain that his was a spiritual aristocracy of austerity and hard self-examination. Edwards was a monk with a wife and eleven children, often anxious about material support, and happiest with a twelve hour day in the study.

Finally, Marsden traces Edwards’s part in the emerging trans-Atlantic evangelical-Reformed network of the day, the source, perhaps, of his subject’s most ambiguous legacy. Loyal Calvinists admire the Edwards who set out to reaffirm the hard points of that tradition–divine election, original sin, the limited freedom of human will–as being essential not just to Reformed orthodoxy but to Christianity, even to philosophical coherence per se. Without adding much new to this analysis, Marsden blends old themes with new (particularly the centrality of Edwards’s Trinitarianism) to write as solid an overview of the master’s thought, both in its core and the interlinkages of its various parts, as can be found in the literature (Chapter 28). But he also brings out the Edwardsean themes that evangelicals have subsequently amplified: the missionary and millenarian zeal, both suffused with anti-Catholicism. If the Calvinist is the Edwards that Perry Miller could like, this is the Edwards for TV preachers, as weird as Jack Van Impe. But even this Edwards–or especially this Edwards–was an e
ighteenth-century man. With other Enlightenment thinkers, Edwards saw epochal changes a-borning, unprecedented possibilities of human well-being that owed much to and could be predicted by new measures of science and technology. He crunched Scriptural numbers as devotedly as, and simultaneously with, Isaac Newton so as to date the coming fall of the Roman Antichrist. He calibrated the exponential growth of the human race under the benign conditions of the millennial interlude (Benjamin Franklin’s computations ran instead on the bounty of the American backcountry) to calculate a census of the redeemed so much larger than that of the damned as to remove the sting of double predestination. Before revival backsliding became predictable, he counted on the once-converted to remain always converted and to enfold others in the bargain. Even after this expectation was empirically falsified and the self-centeredness of too many evangelical enthusiasts became an object of his own critique, he kept on expecting revivals to bring the rapid regeneration of Christendom, the equally rapid conversion of Jews and Muslims, and finally the evangelization of “pagans” so that the millennium would commence around the year 2000.

That it has turned out otherwise the Calvinist Edwards could readily ascribe to the plans of a wholly-other God. That he would call for another concert of prayer (one of his co-inventions), another rational calculus, another burst of missionary zeal, his biblicist-revivalist progeny might equally expect. Both sides set store by miracles. Perhaps for now we can be content with the wonder that George Marsden has made such contrasts understandable to the lay reader and substantial enough for the scholar in one volume that, for all its 500 pages of text, remains gripping to the end.

James D. Bratt is professor of History and director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. He is the author of several books including Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, widely considered the definitive Kuyper biography.