"Edwards Was Extraordinary."
Celebrating the birth of Jonathan Edwards, pastor, scholar, prodigy.
12:00 AM, Oct 6, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
HISTORIAN GEORGE MARSDEN begins his excellent new biography of Jonathan Edwards, born 300 years ago last week, with this brief sentence: "Edwards was extraordinary." It is hard to imagine a better summation of the life of a man many Americans remember only for his oft-anthologized sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Edwards was extraordinary even as a boy, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew while composing reflections stunning for their grasp of science and philosophy. He entered Yale University at age 12 (the average age of matriculation then being 16) and, after a short stint as Yale's head tutor, followed his father into the pulpit.
In 1729, he was named the sole pastor of the Congregational Church in Northhampton, Mass. In 1734, his sermons ignited a remarkable local revival. As revivals appeared elsewhere in New England, dividing the clergy, Edwards defended the "awakenings" even as he cautioned against their excesses. By 1742, they had spread throughout the colonies.
Edwards remained a faithful pastor, delivering more than 1,200 sermons, all of them long (to very long) by modern standards. But in 1748, he found himself at odds with his Northhampton congregation because he wanted to exclude from communion those who hadn't experienced conversion. Two years later, the church voted him out.
Edwards accepted a call to an Indian mission in Stockbridge, Mass. He had long supported missions, having written a biography of a missionary of ardent faith who had died at a young age. At Stockbridge, Edwards wrote several books, including "Freedom of the Will," which, together with "Religious Affections" and "The Nature of True Virtue," still stand, writes Mr. Marsden, "as masterpieces in the larger history of Christian literature." Because of those books and the rest of his voluminous writing, which Yale University Press has been publishing over the last four decades, Edwards is justly regarded as America's best theologian ever and one of our few truly outstanding philosophers.
In 1758, Edwards, who with his wife, Sarah, raised 11 children, became president of Princeton University, where he hoped to write more books. But Edwards barely had settled into his new position when he died of a smallpox inoculation.
So it was that Edwards didn't live to see the American Revolution and its aftermath. But American history is poorly comprehended without taking the extraordinary Edwards into account. Consider four reasons for his importance.
First, Edwards is a reminder of where an important part of America came from. Puritans settled New England in the 17th century, and Puritanism still dominated the region when Edwards came of age. Puritanism, as Marsden points out, was "in many respects closer to the world of medieval Christendom than it was to that of even 19th-century America." It was part of a Calvinistic movement to reform Christendom, the goal being to establish one pure church supported by each Christian state.
Edwards never wavered in his commitment to the purity of the church. Indeed, his view of communion, which led to his dismissal from Northhampton, was a product of that commitment. Nor did he question the Puritan assumption regarding church and state. Yet--and here is a second reason for Edwards' importance--the revivals he initiated and defended, and indeed the Great Awakening that he encouraged, while based on claims of truth that were universal and exclusive, helped undermine the idea of a state-supported church and inevitably assisted the cause of religious liberty.
Moreover--a third reason for Edwards' importance--the awakenings were populist movements (which would have surprised Edwards) that, in Marsden's words, "promised a new definition of the individual." The awakenings helped promote a national unity that emphasized the rights of individuals. Historians not unreasonably credit the awakenings with paving the way for the American Revolution.
Fourth, throughout much of the 19th century, Edwards' theology shaped the voluntary religious culture that the Constitution guaranteed. Evangelism and social reform movements were common, with followers of Edwards dominating most of the nation's leading colleges.
In recent decades, scholars (including many who don't share his faith) have found new reason to read Edwards. Shocked by the horror of two world wars and of September 11, they find Edwards compelling for his refusal--against the dominant view of the philosophers of his time--to regard man as naturally good. Instead, of course, the Calvinist Edwards insisted that man is a sinner with the capacity to do awful things.
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" wouldn't appear--not yet--to be dated.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.