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One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards
by gerald r. mcdermott
pennsylvania state university press, 203 pages, $29.95

Gerald McDermott, who teaches religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, has written a persuasive revisionist account of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and public life. The standard picture that has been passed along by some of the great figures in twentieth-century history writing (including Perry Miller and H. Richard Niebuhr) is that Jonathan Edwards was largely apolitical. McDermott shows, by contrast, that Edwards regularly commented on public events and, moreover, that he did so with at least some of the same genius as is present in his more narrowly religious work.

Apart from the great care McDermott devotes to the published record, the book achieves its useful results the old-fashioned way—by assiduously pursuing the non-published sources for Edwards’ career. Edwards, it turns out, left substantial evidence concerning his social views in notebooks, letters, and, above all, a substantial cache of unpublished sermon manuscripts, like those delivered during the two wars of Edwards’ adult lifetime in which New England joined Britain in combat against France. Although some of McDermott’s conclusions are preliminary, his book represents one of the fullest examples to date of the fruit to be harvested from patient attention to the private, as well as published, Edwards. 

An aside is appropriate at this point to note how much McDermott benefits from the boom in the study of Edwards that has been racing ahead full blast for nearly half a century. Pioneering labor in the 1930s and 40s by Perry Miller, Richard Niebuhr, and others whom McDermott and a generation of younger colleagues are now revising stirred the modern interest in Edwards, whose theocentric Calvinism had made him an anachronism during the heady days of Progressive expansionism from the Civil War to the 1930s. During the past half-century, however, the disruptions of Western society undermined the tendency to patronize earlier theological realists, and Edwards’ multifaceted genius at last received its due. The splendid Yale edition of Edwards’ works (now advertising the tenth substantial volume in its series—the first printing ever of Edwards’ early sermons from 1720 to 1723) has been the most visible fruit of the Edwards revival. Some taking part in this revival are most interested in Edwards’ aesthetic instincts, some in the clarity of his moral reasoning, some in his innovative metaphysics, some for his attention to the psyche, and some for his sublime Calvinist theology. And Gerald McDermott, who attends to several of the dimensions of Edwards’ great mind, is in a particularly good position to bring the significance of Edwards into the present.

The special value of McDermott’s work, then, is his illustration of how deeply Edwards did in fact concern himself with politics, economics, and social issues. Earlier interpreters had not merely described Edwards as apolitical, they had also contended that he contributed indirectly to the rising American messianism that would climax during the Revolutionary era—when many ministers claimed, in the words of a Pennsylvania Presbyterian, that “the cause of America is the cause of Christ.” Edwards supposedly contributed to that process by using New England’s hereditary covenant theology as a way of congratulating the colonies for their special status with God and by proposing that the millennium would begin in New England as a result of the eighteenth-century Great Awakening.

McDermott persuasively tells another story. For Edwards, covenant theology functioned not so much to give America special privileges, but to call for extra duties. McDermott shows beyond reasonable doubt that Edwards’ millennialism was a universal concept only incidentally related to New England. By employing the work of Sang Lee on Edwards’ philosophical theology, McDermott traces Edwards’ social ethics back to his more basic understanding of God and the world: God had ordained economic, social, and political life; he sustained this sphere of existence by his constant Providence; but he also subordinated the virtues of public life to the virtues of “true religion.” McDermott also demonstrates that Edwards applied a modified form of “country” ideology to warn magistrates of the corruptions of power and to encourage citizens to perform their public duties faithfully, as unto God.

McDermott is especially convincing on the question of Edwards’ relation to the American Revolution. Against those who read a straight path from Edwards’ depiction of the Christian’s warfare against spiritual tyranny to the patriots’ struggle against the “tyranny” of Parliament, McDermott has a more nuanced conclusion. Edwards, though a traditional hierarchialist with respect to the duties of magistrates and citizens, was nevertheless a spiritual egalitarian. He held that all people stood equally alike before God in their need to repent; that women, children, slaves, and the poor were special objects of divine love because of their status as “the least of these my brethren”; and that, according to McDermott’s careful distinction, although Christianity in its essence had to be “private,” it could never be “privatized” and remain true to its character.

It was by means of this theology—rather than through visionary millennialism or a self-congratulating covenant theology—that Jonathan Edwards may have contributed to the revolution in heart that John Adams perceived behind the American War for Independence. But such a contribution would have been indirect rather than overt. In addition, as McDermott points out, the application of Edwardsean theological categories to American political events was not nearly as important to Edwards as the application of redeemed life to the day-to-day structures of social, economic, and political life.

The book has other virtues that can only be mentioned briefly. McDermott successfully brings his conclusions about Edwards to bear on the complexities of the contemporary discussions of “republicanism.” He is equally skillful at rendering the relation between Edwards’ theology and the theologies of his contemporaries. Moreover, although McDermott is clearly partisan about his subject, he does honestly deal with the limitations of Edwards’ thought (e.g., his animus against the Roman Catholic Church was so strong that he regularly concluded he was witnessing the Church’s collapse when he was merely projecting his own ideological hopes onto the screen of contemporary events). McDermott is also not afraid to spotlight certain weaknesses of Edwards’ character (such as that he could be overbearing and almost suffocatingly self-righteous).

In the end, however, it is not Edwards’ blemishes but his substantial contributions as a public theologian that mean the most. McDermott, through his assiduous work in unpublished sources, has rescued from historical oblivion a powerful set of theological observations on public duty. He has also provided much food for thought for those in the present who, with Jonathan Edwards, seek two things: a private faith uncontaminated by the perilous allure of public power, and a private faith honorably committed to the God-ordained purposes of public life.

Mark A. Noll, a frequent contributor to First Things , is author most recently of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans).