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Jonathan Edwards: colonial preacher who influenced reform movements, modern day

Jonathan Edwards
"Jonathan Edwards". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jonathan_Edwards.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Jonathan_Edwards.jpg

"Jonathan Edwards: A Life" by George Marsden

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Though some of his descendants, such as grandson Aaron Burr (1756-1836), are better remembered than he himself is (at least outside evangelical circles), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) had enormous influence in his day, in large part through what’s now known as the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through Great Britain, New England and even had some echoes in the German Pietist movement in the 1740s. It was marked by itinerant preachers, such as George Whitefield, preaching dramatic sermons to large and often hysterical crowds. Indeed, when Edwards preached what would become his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the crowd was so taken, he couldn’t finish.

While Edward’s brand of Calvinism developed into various forms of modern Protestantism, particularly Evangelicalism, it also had influence in the development of the United States outside the religious sphere. According to author George Marsden, it laid the ideals for reform movements of the 19th century, especially in the temperance and the abolitionist movements. He traces this directly in one instance to the professional association between a grandson of Edwards’s and an ancestor of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Nevertheless, Stowe herself famously repudiated her Calvinist background.

The author tells the reader that one of his themes is the role of an exclusive religion in a pluralistic society. One may not immediately think of colonial New England as pluralistic, but Edwards became involved in mission work to Indian tribes. His opinion of Indians--and Africans--is examined in detail and is surprisingly modern in some respects, but again, Edwards is a product of his times. While several full communicants (a status not easily or quickly achieved) in his churches were black and Native American, people of color were still in many respects separated socially from whites.

The clergy formed the educated elite and as much of a leisure class as existed. There was none of the science and religion conflict that we in the 21st century are familiar with. Edwards read Newton, for instance. The natural world was something to be investigated and understood, even if it didn’t appear to make sense at first, for there was an underlying reason:

“That sort of beauty which is called ‘natural,’ as of vines, plants, trees, etc., consists of a very complicated harmony; and all the natural motions and tendencies and figures of bodies in the universe are done according to proportion, and therein is their beauty. Particular disproportions sometimes greatly add to their general beauty, and must necessarily be, in order to a more universal proportion.” p. 78

It is surprising to see how sophisticated his thought is in some regards yet there is never any question in his mind that god is sovereign in all aspects of life. Marsden shows how this is reflected in family life, with the pater familias acting as the head of the family controlling all facets of family life.

Marsden’s portrait is that of a rigid, driven man, who can show compassion but whose life--in every feature--is turned over to the idea of the sovereignty of god. He is as hard on himself as is he is on everyone else, and is, at the same time, subject to episodes of ecstasy. If there is a fault with Marsden’s portrayal, it is perhaps that he is a little too quick to excuse Edwards’s behavior in some instances. More to the point, he does not try to interpret Edwards in light of 21st century mores but leaves him in context of his own time and place.

Edwards died shortly after being installed as president of Princeton. He and his family received smallpox inoculations which, at the time, involved using live smallpox viruses. It was not risk free. His mouth and throat became infected and he was unable to swallow liquids. He died March 22, 1757,

This is a thick, long 505 pages of text to get through, plus some genealogical tables, an index, and notes. Marsden’s writing does much to clarify Edwards’s abstract theology and philosophy. I can’t say this was always enjoyable, as it is a heavy, ponderous read, but it is interesting, and I can easily recommended for anyone interested in American colonial history.

*An earlier version of this review appeared on Epinions, which is no longer active.*