Jonathan Edward’s Religion

Most people who have heard of Jonathan Edwards only know of him through “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This sermon was included in my 11th grade English literature book in Georgia, and I must admit it did not entice me to read more of his writing. I dismissed him as one of those goth-like puritans from the days when black was the Christian color, and thought little more about him. I still have read very little by him. This post arises from reading Perry Miller’s biography of Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards was contemporary to Benjamin Franklin, though the two never met. They are the two polar opposites of mid 18th century America, the two intellects of their age, the two who together represent the full range of the American psyche as it has unfolded over the centuries. Isaacson’s biography of Franklin left me with a good grasp of a person whom I expected to admire but eventually couldn’t. Miller’s biography of Edwards left me with a good grasp of a person of whom I was skeptical but have now been persuaded to admire.

What I want to do here is reflect on Edward’s spirituality, as I earlier tried to reflect on Franklin’s spirituality. Edwards was as internally complex as Franklin. He was the quintessential Puritan, a Calvinist to the core with never a moment of wavering from that set of convictions. He was one of the chief instruments that brought about the Great Awakening; the notorious sermon so many of us have read was a significant part of that phenomenon. For a brief period of time, Edwards was the leading figure in Massachusetts, and his reputation spread to Scotland and England where such notables as the Wesleys and Isaac Watts admired his writing.

Ultimately, though, a biography is nearly always a tragedy. At least, if the biography is well written and balanced, it will show both the strengths of the great people and their weaknesses, both the successes they are remembered for, and the ultimate failures inherent in their humanity. Franklin was a man who went from glory to glory and his failures were mostly on a small scale, personal, the sort of failures only gossips might talk about. Edwards was the opposite: he went from glory to public disgrace, but his strengths were inward and personal, the kind only those who were close to him might notice.

Franklin and Edwards both had decided what kind of people they were going to become by their early teens. Franklin was repulsed by the Puritan culture he lived in and soon rejected it; he took a while to settle into a qualified deism, but it was as predestined as a personality can make it. Edwards was perfectly at home with his heritage. He loved his traditions; he loved his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who was the great Puritan minister of his day; and he had a direct religious experience with the God whom he believed. But both Franklin and Edwards rose above the life of their day. Both Franklin and Edwards could stand apart from their worlds and see them critically and with some objectivity. Just as Franklin was no typical deist, Edwards was no typical Puritan. Or rather, Edwards was the quintessential Puritan, he was the kind of Puritan that Puritanism was intended to produce and seldom did, in a land that had become Puritan only in name.

The principle determining factor in Edwards’ life was that he was a Puritan living in a Puritan land that was ceasing to be Puritan at all. By the time he came along, mainly only the lip-service to the Puritan tradition was left. Puritan was what everyone had to pretend to be without ever admitting, usually without knowing, they were pretending. Therefore, when the genuine article came along, he came like a prophet, calling people back to their roots from the errors they had drifted into. Edwards lacked the charm and wit of Franklin, and so his prophetic demeanor was not softened by any hint of humor. He was a serious man preaching to serious men about matters of life and death.

He was the pastor of the Northampton church for nearly all of his adult life, until being ignominiously fired by his congregation and sent away to a wilderness post. It took only a few years for him to fall from most revered to most despised, a man who was no longer welcome even to speak at Harvard or at Yale, his alma mater. And it was his integrity as a person that destroyed him.

Ultimately there were four causes of his fall from the high office of public opinion. First was his alienation from his own relatives, the far-flung clan descended from Solomon Stoddard. It was shortly after he took over his grandfather’s church that he began to preach against the tendencies of Massachusetts to forsake their Calvinist heritage and embrace Arminianism. This may require a bit of explanation. In theology, an Arminian is one who emphasizes the freedom of the will as opposed to the predestination of God. In Edwards day, Massachusetts was finally making the transition from a frontier to a settled and prosperous colony. The kind of place that a man could get rich in, provided the inherited rules that restricted the acquisition of wealth could be circumvented.

The original Puritans had had a strict code of economic behavior as well as moral behavior in general. Their economic morality was so strict as to exclude the development of an economy in the modern sense of the word. I believe Heilbroner makes this point in The Worldly Philosophers. The kinds of business practices that were growing up in pagan America would not have been allowed among the founders, but Massachusetts, along with the rest of America, was finding it easy to compromise economic morals in favor of getting rich. Arminians were identified with this process; emphasizing free will they found it to be a short step to emphasizing free enterprise, and by “free” enterprise they meant “free from meaningful ethical or moral restraints”. In the present day, the same traditional Christian scruples about money must be ignored and compromised in order to make free enterprise possible. The real catch was that many of Edwards’ own relatives were involved in the very business practices their forefathers would have condemned. So when Edwards preached he making enemies of his own cousins as well as the powerful people in his region.

So much for the rich. What about the shabbily respectable, the intellectuals, the pillars of the community? These people were drifting into what we call liberalism; out of Edwards generation grew the present day Unitarians. It was the age of John Locke and Isaac Newton; these two were the cutting edge of human thought in the English speaking world. Of all the people in the American colonies, perhaps only two men (that we know of) had the intellectual capacity to read Locke and Newton and understand them:  Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards. Neither Franklin nor Edwards were any good at mathematics, but both of them could absorb the implications of the physical theories of Newton, and both could comprehend the implications of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

I do not know if Franklin ever read Locke’s essay, but if he did he would have found it congenial. In retrospect, Locke was at war with Christianity; certainly the effect his philosophy had was the undermining of belief in the traditions of Christianity. In England, Locke is credited with making the Anglican church utterly insipid in its spirituality for a century. Whether that is true or not, it would be expected that when Edwards encountered Locke’s essay as a student at Yale, a teen, he ought to have found Locke to be hostile to everything he was committed to. Here is where the true genius of Edwards is most visible: Edwards was capable of reading his “enemy” and receiving whatever truth he found there.

And he found a lot of truth in Locke. Rather than finding Locke a subversive influence, he found insights of Locke to be transformative. Rather than being re-created as a crypto-Unitarian, Edwards found his Calvinism rejuvenated by the real wisdom he discovered in Locke. Ultimately, Edwards commitment was to the person of Jesus revealed through the Christian tradition. Ultimately, Edwards saw that Locke’s insights rendered some of the theological baggage that went with the Puritan system meaningless, but that the meaningless baggage was non-essential. He was more grateful to Locke than otherwise, grateful to have theological non-sense pointed out so that it could be jettisoned.

But here, he had to tread a delicate path: he could not openly advocate Locke’s ideas. Not many of his friends were able to make the leap of understanding that Edwards could. They would have seen abandoning the peripheral accretions as being abandoning the center. They could not distinguish what Puritanism truly stood for from what it had come to stand for. Over the century of Massachusetts existence, the theological jargon they used had gradually altered in meaning into something that was really different from the original but which still seemed to be the real thing. Their “fundamentals” had little by little crawled to a very different place and carried them with it. For Edwards to openly say what he thought would have gotten him branded, inappropriately, as a traitor. So he had to try to push the fundamental concepts back onto their original foundation. It made the liberals hate him, and it made those who ought to have been his natural friends suspicious.

As the Christian/Unitarian battle lines were being drawn, a series of sermons on Justification by Faith became the instrument of the first instance of the Great Awakening. Next to Arminianism and Anglicanism, the Puritans feared Enthusiasm, what we would call emotionalism, outward drama. His grandfather Stoddard had encouraged the routine of having revivals, and in his day it was looked on with suspicion except that it worked. What happened with Edwards far outstripped his grandfather. By the end of the year, virtually the entire village had been affected and become communicant members of his congregation. Their long problem of gossip and strife and feuding ended and they enjoyed a time of peace and unity in their community that they had never had. Adolescents became respectful and carousing and swearing nearly disappeared.

And then Edwards’ cousin committed suicide. The records are very silent on the details of why it happened; families did not talk about family secrets. One of his relatives had ordered him to stop preaching the sermons on Justification; too many of the applications challenged their business practices and their privileged social position. Justification by faith is the great leveler of all people, after all. The son of the suicide was a youth and developed a hatred for Edwards and plotted his slow revenge, but when the revenge was finally extracted and Edwards was sent from the town in disgrace and had died, that son wrote a public letter apologizing to the colony for the evil they had committed against Edwards. Thus the most intriguing event in Edwards life remains unknowable.

The suicide, however, ended the renewal at that time and the town went back to its argumentative ways. But the Awakening returned after a little over a year when Whitefield came to town. Again, there were dramatic manifestations of the Spirit, much like the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements of today, but this time the effects on the community were quite different from the year when Edwards had been the vanguard. The internal strife in the community did not decrease but actually increased. In part this resulted from Whitefield’s message which encouraged Christians to judge their ministers and leave churches in which, in their opinion, the minister was unconverted. Churches split around the colonies wherever Whitefield preached and a spirit of judgmentalism grew . But this spell of Awakening also involved a dramatic increase in promiscuity and in illegitimate pregnancies. By the time the tendencies of this Awakening were obvious, Whitefield had moved on and Edwards was left holding the bag.

Edwards was appalled at the direction things were going and decided that he would have to now turn his preaching against the extremes he saw coming out of the movement, urging people to focus on what was real and what was important, to not be deceived by the flesh. He wrote a book on the true marks of a work of the Spirit. Still to those who were caught up in the excitement of the movement, especially in his own town, he now seemed to be a traitor.

But this was the pattern of the Great Awakening everywhere in the colonies: divisions, quarrels, animosity, and licentiousness, disrespect toward human authority. The situation became so bad that it alarmed even the people involved in the movement. Before long the sanity of the people of Massachusetts made them turn against the Awakening; and the liberal leaders, who had never supported the Awakening in the first place, seemed vindicated. But Edwards, who had been the leader was still imagined as the cause of the problem. In this way Edwards became an outcast to both sides.

There was yet one more strand in the tragedy of his life. He had been installed at his grandfather’s church and was looked upon as his grandfather’s successor. Solomon Stoddard had been legendary in Massachusetts in his day, the “Pope of the West” he was called, and he had hand picked his successor. Edwards had a lot to live up to in a society that revered their heritage. While Edwards was seen as Stoddard’s successor, nothing could hurt him. It was at this point that he stepped outside his grandfather’s shadow and the result was fatal.

Solomon Stoddard had made the unprecedented move of opening church membership to anyone, without requiring them to make a profession of faith. It was called “the Half-way Covenant”. People were admitted to church on the basis of the expectation that they would come to faith eventually. The excesses of the Awakening convinced Edwards that this was a mistake that could no longer be allowed. He re-instituted the practice of requiring a public profession of faith from people seeking church membership, and “all hell broke loose”. Now Edwards became a traitor to their heritage, to his own grandfather. Even the liberals, who only used the words of the Puritan tradition but had long since abandoned the meaning of the words, could point to Edwards as a traitor. His fall from esteem but meteoric and final.

He left Northampton in disgrace, but never betrayed to the people of the village what he must have been feeling. He went on to be the pastor of a white church that had been established as a mission to the Indians in western Massachusetts. It had been successful when it was first established, but by the time Edwards arrived it had fallen into being a spiritual pretense for greed, an instrument to exploit the Indians and take their land. Again, it was one of Edward’s relatives who was the leading culprit and against whom he spent his last efforts. By the end of his few years there the situation was dangerous enough that he sent his children away for their safety. At last, exhausted physically, he was offered the position as President of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton.  He didn’t want the job because he felt that he wasn’t qualified, but his fellow ministers urged him to take it. When he arrived in Princeton, they were in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. He had himself vaccinated, but was too weakened by long grief and age that he contracted the disease and died before he could begin his new duties.

With the right screen play and the right director and the right actors, Edwards’ life could make an excellent film. Therefore I hope no Christian group tries to do this as a project. No offense to Christians in the arts, but making art as an evangelistic tool is to make non-art, and it would ruin the material for anyone else who might think of doing a similar project. Edwards’ life was a tragedy, but exactly the kind of tragedy that Jesus’ life was. The town of Northampton did everything, short of crucifixion, that they could have done to him, as Perry Miller pointed out. On the other hand, his life was exactly the sort of the tragedy that is the highest calling we can have, to suffer in the same way God has suffered. Edwards, of course, was not sinless. He was just an ordinary person, unusually bright, but seriously convinced of certain ideas and principles that he held to. Some of his theology is alien to me, but that cannot hide our kinship, and it cannot ultimately tarnish his final admirability. Well done good and faithful fellow servant.

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6 Comments on “Jonathan Edward’s Religion”

  1. culturemonk Says:

    Well I have the complete works of Edwards and have read about 70 or 80% of it all……

    I appreciate what Edwards did for theology, i appreciate where he was coming from, I appreciate the moniker that some people label him as being “the last puritan” …but there are a lot of problematic issues that historians like George Marsden (I’ve read 6 biographies on Edwards) often downplay.

    1. although there is ample attention to the critiques of Edward’s as a pastor. I still don’t believe enough dialogue exists on this subject.

    Let’s call a spade a spade. In the context of being a shepherd as Jesus was towards the disciples, Edwards is guilty of an EPIC fail.
    He was a lousy shepherd. Locked away in his room all day long. with the exception of the daily devotions he conducted with his family, his slaves, and and whatever visitors were in the house…..
    Edwards should of just been a professor and things could have been different in regard to his legacy…but the reality is that
    Edwards spent nowhere near the amount of time he should of been spending in discipleship

    and that brings me to number 2

    2. Discipleship.
    I am convinced Edwards is a key figure in the reformed faith in contributing to this silly belief that discipleship occurs on Sunday Morning.

    Look, I love sunday morning liturgy. But discipleship as modeled by Christ goes WAY beyond Sunday morning.

    But for people like Edwards, SUnday morning encompassed 90% of his discipleship efforts.

    God bless him but he was wrong.

    That is why people like yourself and I became infatuated with men like Francis Schaefer for periods of our life (of whom I of course own every book he and Edith wrote, along with all of the new books Frank has been writing in recent years)

    We became fascinated with concepts like La’brie because it appeared to resemble something a little bit closer to what we saw in the New Testament……of course Schaefer and La’brie had a ton of other problems but that is a different story for a different time.

    3. Edwards and the issue of slavery

    As much as I love my previous pastor Dr. Sproul (whose church I used to attend when i Lived in florida) ….I just can’t get behind the whitewashing he and Piper, and Marsden do with the whole slavery issue in colonial America.

    As much as theologians like them want to throw the slavery issue to the side and say, “Well it was just cultural back then”

    I’m sorry…but it WAS A BIG DEAL!

    Edwards owning slaves leaves a massive black dot on his legacy.
    And the fact that Reformers and protestants alike don’t want to admit this…..well….it says a lot about them.

    oh well,
    dat’s enough for now


    • Excellent comments. Your objections are well taken. Slavery, in particular, was a black spot against him, against 99% of protestantism and there were worse accusations we can make. I do think we must allow for cultural blindness. It is something of a miracle when a person perceives the evil that pervades everyone around him; it is what a prophet is sent for. Jonathan Edwards was no prophet, at least not in regard to slavery. He was however prophetic in his opposition to the rise of capitalism, which really did conflict with the Puritan understanding, and which earned him the wrath of his neighbors and my respect. I agree that we should not – er, whitewash – the slavery issue, but it is probably more worthwhile to use it to examine ourselves whether we might unknowingly be doing the same thing in a different way.
      As to his pastoral work, he fulfilled the puritan ideal of the pastor, I think. I agree that this was not what a pastor should be, but the failing is in puritanism and in him insofar as he didn’t transcend his theological upbringing.
      I thoroughly disagree with his signature sermon, the Sinners in the Hands… and find it reprehensible theologically as well as the model of so much that is wrong in fundamentalist preaching even to this day. His value to me is as a model of how he reacted to the ill treatment of his congregation and as a warning about how easy it is to be blind.
      I had no idea you were so influenced by Francis Schaeffer. At one point I read all his books that I could get. There is much from my upbringing that may have been necessary to my development but of which I am now ashamed to have admired. R.C. Sproul I am not as familiar with but trying to read him now is very difficult, I am so alienated from that approach. When I was in seminary – and I didn’t last long – I was excited about the neo-Puritanism that was so fashionable there but have grown gradually convinced that they made some really serious errors right at the foundation of their theology.
      It sounds like we had very similar formation in our early years and have ended up in somewhat similar places. I have not gotten so much grief from my family as you may have – they are all 1500 miles away – but I have been welcomed out of a few congregations. Now that I am getting old, I feel mainly grief at it all.
      Thanks for coming by and leaving such a cogent comment. God’s peace be on you and on your household.

  2. culturemonk Says:

    Reading your bio a while back I would agree that our backgrounds are a bit similar….you have a few years on me though 😉

    As to “Sinner’s in the hands” …..I’m a bit ambivalent, i don’t hate it, I don’t love it……

    It seems to be so representational of that era that I guess I would say I’m just ‘used to it’

    I mean I’ve read most everything by Edwards that is in print form, everything by John Owens, and at least 30 other Puritans so I have just come to expect that way of thinking of theirs….

    I definitely don’t agree with their way of thinking.

    The Puritans were about as far from libertarianism as you can get and I am something of a moderate libertarian.

    It’s similar to my view of Calvin and Luther…..When I read the Institutes and then read all of Luther’s complete works….I got ALOT out of reading them. There is so much depth in what they had to say, and the passion they had for Christ was literally contagious…..

    but when reading Calvin and Luther I have to remember the context that they are so often writing from; “The roman catholic church is the whore of Babylon” ……that context annoys the hell out of me because I don’t feel the same way about Rome…..

    Obviously, had I been living in their day and age I might have been pretty mad at Rome….but its the 21st century and Rome is hardly what it once was.

    But even more to the point…..As much as I understand the reformation, and as much as I was told to value the reformation and celebrate it…..I don’t know if it was a good thing… fact I lean towards thinking that reformation was a bad thing….AND I’m not even Roman Catholic!!!

    But the same goes with the great schism, Rome was clearly at fault for what they did to Byzantium…and when I look at the schism I wonder how much better the world could be if Rome hadn’t of been so power hungry.

    As to Sproul….yes, he is definitely one of the top 10 names now-a-days when it comes to what you referred to as neo-puritanism or more specifically to modern day reformed theology (Piper, D.A. Carson, and a few others would be some of the other names of course)

    Sproul was a positive element in my life for years…but as i moved towards a more moderate christian walk, and a more moderate view of reformed theology…there was of course little room left for me to stay connected to the movement.

    To be honest, I am only 35 and I have not had the experience of being kicked out of church or being apart of church splits the way people like my parents, relatives and others have experienced…..

    My demeanor is laid back and very congenial and graceful, and just because my personal theological library is in the multiple thousands….I don’t ram my beliefs down people’s throats and so most churches have been very welcoming to me……because I generally don’t tell them what i disagree with them about!! lol

    Its really only my relatives that i receive the hostility from because they know me intimately (or rather they knew me) and it makes them very mad that I am no longer charismatic (like my parents) and no longer fundamentalist baptist reformed charismatic (like my wife’s parents)

    Well, hows that for a rambling rambling post…..something like Steve Martin’s song the rambling man…..


  3. You are much more widely read than I am. The best way to read, as you seem to know, is to take what is best out of the book and let the rest of it slide. The Reformation was good in a lot of ways and I think it was bad in a lot of ways. Luther meant to stay Catholic but it was the next reformers who had no intention of staying Catholic and were eager to set up on their own that I fault. The unity of the Body of Christ was not a minor point in Christ’s agenda, but we have made it a joke. When I got in trouble with a congregation it was for suggesting just such a thing: that it was a sin to separate from Catholics. I wish I could say that I handled the hostility better…
    but mainly I got mad. It was all happening at the same time as the Clinton impeachment and it seemed to me then that our congregation was a microcosm of the country as a whole. I might as well have been having an affair with an aide as suggesting that Catholics were acceptable to God and that infant baptism (that was a hot issue) was consistent with the Bible. I was an “elder” in the church at the time and it was very much like an impeachment.
    If I dwell on things like this I can easily get those old feelings of bitterness and they are definitely unhelpful. Reading about Edwards made it sound like he went through a very similar experience with his own congregation and I think that similarity went a long way to helping me appreciate him.
    In the end, I am mainly happy that God delivered me through it all and opened my eyes to some of the unhelpful ways I was thinking. I am out of Egypt, and I am not going back.
    Thanks for your extensive and thoughtful comments.

  4. culturemonk Says:

    Based on what I’ve read in your comments and a couple of the things you’ve posted on your blog…..have you ever considered writing a more practical/living/daily/Christianity type blog? A lot of your stuff on this particular blog might be a bit weighty for the average nominal xian?

    Your comments always seem to have a generous dose of grace and humility in them and as each day goes by there are more and more disillusioned evangelicals out there.

    There are a lot of “post” evangelical blogs out there, in fact it was reading a few for years that motivated me to start my blog…..but most of them, in my ever so humble opinion aren’t very good. Even the really famous national blogs that everyone reads are often so anti-evangelical that they border nastiness.

    At any rate I though I’d mention it for whatever it’s worth 🙂

  5. Thank you very much. You are very kind. I think the closest I ever get to a more practical/daily living thing is the verse by verse commentary on Galatians I am doing on Caleb’s Eye II and that one is not very close to what you mean. I am a very theoretical and abstract person and I am not sure I am capable of anything more accessible than what I am doing. When I started this, I imagined it as more appealing to the average Christian, but you can see how far I am from that goal.
    The most important thing you said is that you found my comments gracious and humble to some extent. I hope for that, I strive for that but it always seems out of my reach. I do pray that somehow these posts I make will bear some fruit for someone somehow. So thank you again for your encouragement.

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