Jonathan Edwards: A Life
by George M. Marsden
Yale University Press. 615 pp. $35
Since Jonathan Edwards’ death 245 years ago, his reputation has undergone so many ups and downs that it is hard to get a fix on his identity. In the last century alone, he went from a narrow-minded provincial who wasted his life defending an outworn Calvinist creed—the picture painted by the “progressive” historians of the 1920s—to a solitary genius who “grasped in a flash” the whole direction of modern thought, the image projected by Perry Miller in his 1949 biography.
Both of these portraits contain elements of truth; what makes them seriously flawed is not so much willful misrepresentation as insufficient attention to facts that would complicate their portraits. In Jonathan Edwards: A Life, George Marsden provides a less tidy, which is to say, much more complete, account of Edwards’ life and work, bringing in a wealth of detail that forces us to qualify practically everything we had ever heard about Edwards. In writing it he has been aided by a project begun by Perry Miller at Yale in the 1950s and still continuing, a comprehensive transcription of Edwards’ writings, including most of those previously unpublished (many of them scribbled on the backs of receipts and miscellaneous scraps of paper), which when complete will comprise twenty-seven volumes.
What do we know, or think we know, about Jonathan Edwards? Well, we think of him as one of the promoters of the Great Awakening, a popular outburst of religious enthusiasm in New England during the early 1740s. In fact, as Marsden’s book makes abundantly clear, the Great Awakening was not confined to New England—there were similar movements in other areas, including New Jersey, which gave rise to Princeton University—and it began in earnest not in 1740 but in 1734, in Edwards’ Northampton, Massachusetts. In fact, by 1740 Edwards was starting to harbor suspicions about the depth and staying power of the revival. Though he wept at the emotional preaching of the famous English evangelist George Whitefield during his visit to Northampton in 1740, almost as soon as Whitefield left Edwards “delivered a series of sermons warning his congregation against being deceived by the enthusiasm that Whitefield so facilely generated.” (Whitefield, who attracted huge outdoor audiences and enjoyed rock-star adulation, never became close to Edwards. Instead, one of his best American friends was the skeptical Ben Franklin, who was fascinated by Whitefield’s theatrics and vocal power.)
Yet Marsden also makes it clear that the “zealous” stereotype of Edwards has some truth in it. In a 1741 address at Yale, Edwards claimed that the new evangelicalism marked the beginning of a worldwide spiritual phenomenon that would set the stage for the Second Coming, and in the published version of the address he “was daring in his condemnations, not only of those who opposed the awakening, but even of those who did not openly support it.”
Speaking of zeal, Edwards is also popularly, if vaguely, remembered for his fire-and-brimstone sermons, especially “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered at a church in Enfield, Massachusetts, in 1741. Here, in part, is what Marsden calls “the infamous passage” of the sermon:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. . . ; you are ten thousand times so abominable in His eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Fellow evangelist Isaac Watts called it “a most terrible sermon,” in need of gospel sweetening, but then added, “I think ’tis all true.” It was, Marsden reminds us, a thoroughly orthodox sermon, not unlike many other New England sermons of the time. Its effectiveness stemmed not from any consciously dramatic devices, for Edwards spoke very softly, but from its frightening precision. The image of the unredeemed sinner kept from falling into hell only by the hand of God was a perfect summary of Calvinist soteriology. Its premise, Marsden explains, was that “God does not create evil, but only permits it.” Unredeemed sinners eventually damn themselves. “The weight of their sins is so great that at any moment it would drag them down to the fury of unending hatred if God released His restraining hands.” The sermon also served the pastoral purpose of producing in sinners a sense of their own helplessness. “Paradoxically, only when they reached that point would their strenuous spiritual efforts be consistent with throwing themselves entirely on God’s grace.”
Anyway, the town of Enfield apparently needed a good scare. Unlike neighboring Suffield, which had already been awakened, Enfield still slumbered. Marsden quotes a contemporary observer who claimed that when Edwards entered the meetinghouse, the assembly “hardly conducted themselves with common decency.” This quickly changed. Before Edwards had finished people were crying and moaning so loudly that he “had to ask them to be quiet so that he could be heard.” He never finished the sermon that day, though its success prompted a number of repeat performances.
Among Edwards’ writings, the best known is his Treatise on Religious Affections, a defense of the Awakening against its critics, notably Charles Chauncy, the Boston minister who decried its emotionalism. Edwards forthrightly defended the role of the “holy affections” in religion, noting that Scripture itself places great emphasis on emotions such as joy and sorrow. Yet, Marsden notes, Edwards’ “first concern remained with those who already shared his own premises of the centrality of religious affections.” By this time (1746) the Awakening had largely played itself out, and Edwards blamed its demise in part on the excesses of the radical New Lights, who made it all into an orgy of subjective experience. What finally counted, Edwards insisted, was not the subjective but the objective. Yes, religion consists of “holy affections,” but the expressions of affection that truly matter are those which he called “practical exercises”—what they do, not simply what they feel. He concluded the treatise with the hope that “it would become fashionable for men to shew their Christianity, more by an amiable distinguished behavior, than by an abundant and excessive declaring their experiences.”
If Edwards was reminding his fellow revivalists that a tree must be known by its fruit, does that mean he was anticipating a more politically active Christianity? In a controversial 1966 book, Harvard literature professor Alan Heimert argued that Edwards, who died eighteen years before the Declaration of Independence, was advancing a populist religious agenda that would soon cross the line into political populism, setting the stage for the American Revolution. Though Heimert’s thesis was harshly criticized at the time, over the past quarter century it has enjoyed something of a revival at the hands of religious historians such as Mark Noll and Harry S. Stout.
Marsden weighs into the controversy, and concludes on an ambiguous note: Edwards was at once “an authoritarian conservative and a revolutionary.” He believes that the implications of Edwards’ “affective” theology were clearly egalitarian, quoting Edwards’ contention that “persons of mean capacities and advantages” can find spiritual light “as well as those that are of the greatest parts and learning.” Edwards also advanced a millennial view of history: “He projected a great worldwide revolution based on the combination of awakenings and Reformed theology.” More generally, Edwards’ whole project of welcoming and promoting the Awakening represented a challenge to the “standing order” of New England—not only its churches but its social hierarchy and patterns of deference to authority.
And yet, as Marsden notes at a number of places in his book, Edwards’ own social and political views were distinctly conservative. In the contentions between the “court” and “country” parties in Massachusetts, he sided with the former, delivering sermons on the evils of “envy” and deploring the “unsettled” state of affairs in society. He kept slaves and defended slavery (though he condemned the African slave trade), and governed his own family and congregation with “an old style of paternalism that was under increasing strain.” Indeed, in the end, it was this backward-looking tendency in Edwards that eventually led to the revolt against his pastorate in Northampton.
The alienation began when Edwards discovered that a group of young, unmarried men in the congregation had gotten hold of a midwifery manual and were lasciviously sharing its contents; some of them even taunted young women with them. Today they would probably be charged with sexual harassment. Edwards, whose Puritanism was of an earlier vintage, organized a committee to inquire into behavior “unbecoming a Christian” and tried to extract public confessions from the ringleaders. During the hearing the accused were openly defiant, one of them declaring, “I don’t care a turd” for any of the members of the committee. The episode of the “young folks’ Bible,” as one of the culprits jocularly called the midwifery book, left a bad aftertaste; many church members, particularly the young, thought that Edwards had overreacted. But what finally led to his undoing in Northampton was not his insensitivity to changing social mores but his attempt to turn back the clock on a long-settled policy of church membership.
The question of how to define a “church” was a long-running issue in Massachusetts. The Church of England defined it territorially: everyone in the nation was a church member except for those officially excommunicated. The Puritans, however, insisted on a “gathered” church: only those who were “visible saints” could be admitted. In the early years of the Puritan settlement in America, that meant people who were not only orthodox in belief and free from scandal but able to affirm that they had undergone a “conversion experience.” This was not very difficult for the first generation of Puritans, whose religious zeal had been tested by persecution in England. But what of their children, those born in America? Many could not testify to such a soul-wrenching experience, so they were barred from church membership.
But plummeting church enrollments eventually forced a compromise, known as the “Halfway Covenant”: the unconverted sons and daughters of church members were allowed to have their children baptized, but they could not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper until they could testify to a conversion experience. By the end of the seventeenth century the Halfway Cove-nant had became standard throughout most of Massachusetts. Then Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’ famous grandfather, who preceded him as pastor of the Northampton congregation, took the final step of admitting to full church membership everyone who was orthodox in faith and free from open scandal, in effect reconstituting a “national” church in the region.
Edwards had accepted this arrangement after becoming North-ampton’s pastor following Stoddard’s death in 1729, but with increasing pangs of conscience. In 1748 he tried to abolish it, going back not merely to the Halfway Covenant but all the way back to the total exclusion of the unconverted, the practice begun in the 1630s. Already unhappy with Edwards from his management of the “young folks’ Bible” incident and other matters, the community exploded in wrath and expelled him from the pastorate. Edwards moved to the frontier town of Stockbridge, tried with much frustration and little success to minister to the Indians, and was rescued by an offer to become president of a new, revival-inspired college in New Jersey called Princeton. In March of 1758, slightly more than a month after his installation as president, he died of a smallpox inoculation gone bad.
“It seems I am born to be a man of strife,” Edwards once lamented to his wife. Marsden attributes this at once to his virtues and his failings: a firm adherence to principle, a complete lack of political skills, a naïve belief that if people would just read his arguments they would agree with him. In other words, Jonathan Edwards was an intellectual. As the tensions with his Northampton congregation deepened, Marsden writes, “he suggested a number of times that he might not be suited for anything but writing.” And indeed it is those writings—on the human imagination and will, on the meaning of human freedom and divine sovereignty—that have long survived the disaster of his career and continue to engage us, when his “reasonable” opponents are interesting only historically. Marsden provides competent summaries of the arguments in some of Edwards’ major works, particularly Freedom of the Will and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, whetting the appetite for deeper study.
If, as Marsden claims, Edwards’ thought, particularly his theology, sometimes reached “breathtaking” heights in explaining how a sovereign God allows autonomy to rational creatures, one would like to see more analysis and evaluation of his arguments. But it would be ungrateful to demand them in this volume. What Marsden has done, by painstaking attention to his writings in the context of his life and times, is to give us the prolegomena to any future intellectual biography of Jonathan Edwards. No one, after reading Marsden’s book, can be satisfied with any easy generalizations about Edwards. By the sheer weight of facts Marsden forces us to regard Edwards as “simultaneously a strict conservative and an innovator,” as a man of the eighteenth century who nevertheless saw many of its blind spots, and as an evangelical who publicized the Awakening, even tried to institutionalize it, yet feared its consequences. By showing the complexity of the man and correcting many of the misunderstandings about him, Marsden has prepared the way for serious conversation with him.
George McKenna Professor of Political Science Emeritus at City College of New York, is writing a book on the Puritan origins of American patriotism.