Jonathan Edwards

With the possible exception of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) must count as the only American theologian who can claim equal (well, almost equal) rank with such greats as John Calvin and Augustine. Son and grandson of Congregational ministers, at thirteen he entered Yale, where he quickly surpassed other students in his mastery of logic, close reading of John Locke and Isaac Newton, and pioneering scientific observations (his study of the behavior and life cycle of spiders is still cited). His reading certainly made clear to him how provincial his religion would look to British sophisticates. Yet, unlike so many bright young men in England, he found in his youthful intellectual and spiritual crisis at Yale a crucible from which he emerged more committed than ever to his faith. Upon graduation, he was convinced that Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty was not only viable but the answer to all questions posed by skeptical Enlightenment thinkers.

After a few years of tutoring, Edwards took a position as minister of a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and became perhaps the most intense pastor American Christianity has ever known. Rising around four or five in the morning, he usually devoted thirteen hours a day in his study, generally refusing to make clerical house calls or to engage in empty rectory socializing. Far from resembling an ineffectual bookworm, Edwards unleashed a firestorm of revivalist Christianity up and down the Atlantic seaboard, the so-called Great Awakening, an event that many historians see both as a harbinger of the American Revolution and as the most determinative episode in the entire history of American Christianity.

Edwards left behind a large body of both published works and an even greater cache of unpublished manuscripts (in next-to-illegible handwriting), which have only recently seen the light of published day. For that reason, both historians and the reading public have long needed a new critical biography of this quintessential American figure, and George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life fulfills this need magnificently. Clearly sympathetic to his subject without ever becoming an outright apologist for either his character or his theology, Marsden has read through all of Edwards’s works, and, as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame, directed several dissertations on the man. Moreover, he writes with such verve that he has given us not only the definitive biography but also a narrative that reads like a novel-that most appropriate art form for examining the interior drama of the soul.

Novelistic flair for explaining interior drama is certainly useful here, for all Calvinist ministers had to be experts in the science of conversion. “Nothing was more challenging than to be able to tell what was truly a work of God and what was self-deception,” Marsden observes. “Nothing had more resting on it.” Yet any reliable indicator that a certain religious affection might be the work of God could easily lead to smugness in the believer’s soul, which by an easy logic would then lead to the Protestant horror of works-righteousness: “Seldom has there been a spiritual discipline where so much effort was put into recognizing the worthlessness of one’s own efforts.”

It must be frankly admitted that Edwards never really resolved that conundrum, a failure that soon emerged when he insisted that no one could be admitted to the Lord’s Table in his Sunday services who did not show evidence of inner conversion. He had always admitted that it was impossible to judge the human heart, that one could only judge divine election by probabilities. He ran aground, though, when he insisted that a congregant must show some believable evidence of being truly godly. What of those who, out of genuine humility or even simple shyness, had scruples about trumpeting their own godliness? As more and more perfectly upstanding citizens (often of phlegmatic character) were barred from Communion, town fathers in Northampton grew increasingly baffled, then outraged. Finally Edwards was expelled from his pulpit and had to accept a position at an Indian mission in Stockbridge, in western Massachusetts.

Marsden’s account of this sad tale demonstrates that John Henry Newman was right when he wrote, roughly a century after these events in his Lectures on Justification, that Luther “released [Christians] by his doctrine of faith and then left them in bondage to their feelings.” This is the central paradox of Protestantism. For Newman, a Christian’s faith avails to salvation only when he does not think of it as availing. To do otherwise is thereby to cast one’s gaze from Christ and onto the self, and “the more you fasten men’s thoughts on themselves, the more you lead them to unconscious show, pretence, and duplicity.”

This dilemma not only constitutes the central pathos of Protestantism but was also the fundamental besetting paradox of Edwards’s ministry, and his failure to resolve it led not only to his eventual ouster but to pastoral tragedy as well. Marsden tells the harrowing tale of how Edwards’s transparent integrity, limpid soul and relentless logic led to the conversion of nearly every adult and adolescent in Northampton-except one, a successful merchant and cattle broker by the name of Joseph Hawley and, as it happens, Edwards’s own uncle. To confess the atoning death of Jesus as availing, prospective converts first had to know themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” to quote the title of Edwards’s most famous sermon. Then came the acknowledgment of one’s complete inability to make oneself pleasing to God, for sin was inescapable, making obedience to the law impossible. Finally, in the midst of this “Slough of Despond,” the prospective Christian would cast his gaze on “Christ and him crucified,” who would demonstrate God’s continuing love of the sinner. Gratitude would immediately flood the soul; and liberation to obey the law would seem, if not easy, at least possible.

One Sabbath morning in June 1735, after having fallen into a deep melancholy and suffered from insomnia for two months, Hawley slit his throat and died within a half-hour. Given Edwards’s own relentlessly logical Calvinism, his response to his uncle’s death was predictable, if shocking to modern ears: “God sometimes expresses his wrath towards wicked men in this world not only outwardly but also in the inward expressions of it on their consciences.” Sometimes terrible sufferings in this world, he said, “are but forerunners of their punishment.”

Such a gulf separates us from Edwards that Marsden has performed a near miracle by making the man truly sympathetic to the modern reader, or at least to readers willing to concede Marsden’s point that “we will never learn anything from sages of the past unless we get over our naive assumption that the most recently popular modes of thought are the best.” Under that rubric, his biography lets Edwards’s magnificence shine through, despite the tragedy-both personal and pastoral-of his ministry. Although his new post in Stockbridge entailed real financial hardship (his wife Sarah bore him ten children), he finally had time to write and penned brilliant defenses of such central Calvinist doctrines as biblical inspiration, the freedom and servility of the will, original sin and the total depravity of man.

Despite Edwards’s perhaps exaggerated views of human nature and his at times unbending ways as pastor, he could also be a brilliant and incisive reader of souls. The Great Awakening, in fact, began when young males in their teens and twenties were drawn away from their farms and their fixation on sex to, of all places, Edwards’s private study: “Persuasion had softened hearts that coercion alone would have only hardened,” Marsden rightly notes. And one evening the Spirit came swooshing down in a Pentecostal rush on this youthful gathering, and history was made.

Even though Edwards was hobbled with a theology of conversion that would eventually be his undoing, he also proved to be a master spiritual director, so much so that some of his writings on the subject sound remarkably like those of Ignatius of Loyola: “I am determined never to do any manner of thing,” he said, “whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God....The person of Christ appeared to me great enough to swallow up all thought and conception. [This vision] lasted about an hour, which kept me in a flood of tears and weeping aloud.” Both men were also quite willing to instill in others a vivid, sensible fear of hell as a prelude to knowing the mercies of Christ.

Edwards’s wife Sarah was even more of a mystic, and Marsden’s descriptions of her ecstasies will remind any reader of Teresa of ¡vila:

[A visiting preacher] offered a prayer during which Sarah found herself wishing he would address God as “Father.” She greatly desired to be able “without the least misgiving of heart, to call God my Father.” Retiring to be alone to contemplate this, she was overcome with ecstasy. “God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons,” she later recounted, “both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness, and mildness, and gentleness”.... The next morning in a similar setting she was even more overcome, first falling down in a swoon and later leaping from her chair when especially moved.

At least since the days of H. L. Mencken, Puritan-bashing has been one of the favorite parlor games of Americans wishing to free themselves from Calvinist moralism. Not the least of George Marsden’s magnificent achievement is that he has shown Jonathan Edwards’s greatness to a culture nearly the opposite of the one he inhabited-and converted. end

Published in the 2003-06-06 issue: 
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Edward T. Oakes, SJ, is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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