by George M. Marsden
Yale University Press, $35, 640 pp.
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...