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Greatest Preachers

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

1703 - 1758

JONATHAN EDWARDS was born on October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut, into a Puritan evangelical household. His childhood education as well as his undergraduate years (1716-1720) and graduate studies (1721-1722) at Yale College immersed him not only in the most current thought coming out of Europe, such as British empiricism and continental rationalism, but also in the debates between the orthodox Calvinism of his Puritan forebears and the more "liberal" movements that challenged it, such as Deism, Socinianism, Arianism, and especially Anglican Arminianism. From early in his life, Edwards committed himself to vindicating his beliefs before the foreign luminaries of the Enlightenment by recasting Calvinism in a new and vital way that synthesized Protestant theology with Newton's physics, Locke's psychology, the third earl of Shaftesbury's aesthetics, and Nicholas Malebranche's moral philosophy.
EDWARDS DEVOTED his collegiate and graduate writings to natural philosophy and metaphysics. Simultaneous with and yet distinct from the great English idealist George Berkeley, Edwards formulated a metaphysical system that was idealistic and challenged Aristotelianism. Edwards refuted both Hobbesian and Cartesian speculations about the nature of reality and substance in ways that, as modern commentators have remarked, anticipated theoretical physics. His metaphysics also had a singularly aesthetic component to it, as Roland Delattre has shown. For Edwards, an essential aspect of an entity was beauty, which subsisted in the harmony or agreement of its parts. This approach continues to inform modern ethics.

FROM 1726 TO 1750 Edwards served as the pastor of Northampton, Massachusetts, the largest and most influential church outside of Boston, succeeding his grandfather, the famous revivalist Solomon Stoddard. Turning his attention from theoretical to practical divinity, Edwards himself gained international fame as a revivalist and "theologian of the heart" after publishing "A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God" (1738), which described the 1734-1735 awakening in his church and served as an empirical model for American and British revivalists alike.

THE WIDESPREAD REVIVALS of the early 1740s, known to historians as the "Great Awakening," stimulated one of the two most fruitful periods for Edwards' writings. Edwards furthered his renown as a revivalist preacher who subscribed to an experiential interpretation of Reformed theology that emphasized the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind, the reality of hell, and the necessity of a "New Birth" conversion. While critics assailed the convictions of many supposed converts as illusory and even the work of the devil, Edwards became a brilliant apologist for the revivals. In "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" (1741), "Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival" (1742), "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections" (1746), and "The Life of David Brainerd" (1749), he sought to isolate the signs of true sainthood from false belief. The intellectual framework for revivalism he constructed in these works pioneered a new psychology and philosophy of affections, later invoked by William James in his classic "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902).

PERRY MILLER, the grand expositor of the New England mind and founder of the Yale Edition, described Edwards as the first and greatest homegrown American philosopher. If the student penetrates behind the technical language of theology, Miller argued, "he discovers an intelligence which, as much as Emerson's, Melville's, or Mark Twain's, is both an index of American society and a comment upon it." Although nineteenth-century editors of Edwards "improved" his style out of embarrassment for his unadorned, earthy, and earnest language, today Edwards is recognized as a consummate and sophisticated rhetorician and as a master preacher. Literary scholars connect Edwards' psychological principles with his emphasis on rhetoric as a means of eliciting emotional responses, most readily seen in the most famous sermon in American history, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741). They also point to Edwards' "Images or Shadows of Divine Things" (1948) as an innovative application of typology that anticipated Transcendentalism by including nature as a source of revelation.

EDWARDS' PUBLISHED writings at Northampton also reflect strong millenarian and prophetic interests. In "A History of the Work of Redemption," originally preached as a sermon series in 1739 but not published until after his death, Edwards cast theology into "a method entirely new" by showing God's work as a history structured around God's scriptural promises and periods of the outpouring of the Spirit. "An Humble Attempt to Promote . . . Extraordinary Prayer" (1747) was part of a larger movement towards Anglo-American "concerts of prayer" and was an important contribution to millennial thought. Scholars such as Alan Heimert have recognized the signal importance of these works in American history, particularly their contribution to revolutionary ideology. Both of these works have already been published in the Yale Edition (1989).

IN 1750 EDWARDS' church dismissed him from Northampton after he attempted to impose stricter qualifications for admission to the sacraments upon his congregation. Concerned that the open admission policies instituted by Stoddard allowed too many hypocrites and unbelievers into church membership, he became embroiled in a bitter controversy with his congregation, area ministers, and political leaders. His dismissal is often seen as a turning point in colonial American history because it marked the clear and final rejection of the old "New England Way" constructed by the Puritan settlers of New England. In her study of Northampton during Edwards' pastorate, Patricia Tracy described the social and political forces at work in the town as a reflection of larger economic, social and ideological forces then reshaping American culture. Ironically, then, the colonial theologian who best anticipated the intellectual shape of modern America also was its first victim. Edwards' struggle with these forces is recorded in the many manuscript sermons that have too long been unavailable to scholars and that form a central portion of "The Works of Jonathan Edwards."

FROM NORTHAMPTON, Edwards went to the mission post of Stockbridge, on the western border of Massachusetts, where he served from 1751 to 1757. Here he pastored a small English congregation, was a missionary to 150 Mahican and Mohawk families, and wrote many of his major works, including those that addressed the "Arminian controversy." Foremost among these was "A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will . . ." (1754), in which he attempted to prove that the will was determined by the inclination of either sin or grace in the soul. This book, one of the most important works in modern western thought, set the parameters for philosophical debate on freedom and determinism for the next century and a half. Also written during this period were "The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended" (1758), in which Edwards asserted that all humankind has a natural propensity to sin due to its "constitutional unity" in Adam; and two major statements on ethics, "The Nature of True Virtue" and "The End for Which God Created the World" (1765). Since their publication in the Yale Edition, the latter two dissertations have enjoyed renewed scholarly attention.

THOUGH STOCKBRIDGE provided something of a haven for Edwards, he could not avoid the limelight. In late 1757, he accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). However, he did not live to leave a permanent mark on the college. After only a few months there he died on March 22, 1758, following complications from a smallpox inoculation. He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery.

EDWARDS' REPUTATION grew rapidly after his death. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, his writings were excerpted and reprinted as weapons in the polemical wars between rival evangelical and liberal religious schools. In the 1840s, however, George Bancroft began the first effort to reconsider Edwards' role as a formative figure in American history. Bancroft believed that Edwards' writings determined the American debates over religious psychology, moral agency, and social ethics. Even those who, like early twentieth-century historian Vernon Parrington, disdained Edwards as the "Great Anachronism" of his age, had to acknowledge his prodigious intellect and promise. By mid-century, the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme. The great neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr pointed to Jonathan Edwards to help a stunned world understand the human catastrophe of World War II and recover its moral bearing. Perry Miller simply declared that Edwards was a true "modern," so modern, in fact, that the current age has yet to catch up with him. Today, at the end of the twentieth century, as both the American scholarly community and the nation at large are rediscovering religion's role in the formation of our country and are grappling with the issues of religion and society, the name of Jonathan Edwards continues to be invoked.

AS EDWARDS has been studied over the generations, he has come to emerge as a quintessential "representative man," not in the usual sense but because in some profound sense he marked the culmination of one era and prefigured a subsequent one. While other colonial figures exerted comparable influence on their own age, none, with the possible exception of William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, so completely anticipated the subsequent shape of an American culture, at once material and spiritual, piously secular and pragmatically sacred, as did Edwards. It is due to the intersection of Edwards' colonial times with an ever-changing American "present" that he enjoys a uniquely representative status in American thought and letters.


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