Over the centuries, Jonathan Edwards’s name has become synonymous with religious revival and the strict tenets of Calvinism. Most students of American literature are introduced to Edwards’s work through his hellfire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he paints a horrifying picture of the torments offenders will surely suffer unless they throw themselves on the mercy of God and repent of their wrongdoings. Hell has lost much of its terror for twenty-first century society and has become a mythological concept instead of a real place. Edwards and his congregation took Hell’s existence for granted. This difference in belief highlights the huge cultural, social, intellectual, and spiritual divide that separates modern people from their eighteenth century counterparts. As author George Marsden observes, “Few today, including many who affirm traditional Christian doctrines, have sympathies to take seriously some of the deepest sensibilities of ordinary eighteenth-century colonials.” Drawing on newly available material, Marsden attempts to make Edwards’s post-Reformation world comprehensible to today’s readers and also to present Edwards within the context of his time. In doing so, Marsden humanizes the severe Northampton preacher, reveals the vitality of his wide-ranging intellect, and provides a lucid analysis of his life and work.
Born in 1703 to a leading New England family, Edwards grew up in East Windsor, Connecticut. His father, the Reverend Timothy Edwards, was the local pastor. His mother, Esther, was the daughter of respected Northampton clergyman Samuel Stoddard and Esther Warham Mather, whose first husband was Eleazer Mather, brother of Increase and uncle of Cotton. A year after Edwards was born, Deerfield, Massachusetts, was attacked by the French and their Indian allies. Three hundred residents were killed, among them two of Edwards’s cousins. This event, along with reports of other conflicts, shaped Edwards’s early perceptions of the dangerous world in which he lived as well as his spiritual sensibilities. Marsden notes that the earthly war in colonial New England mirrored a far more crucial spiritual battle between cosmic powers: “a nation God had favored with true religion versus peoples in Satan’s grip, Catholics and pagans.”
Although Edwards lived on the edge of the frontier, he was exposed to the works of the most brilliant minds of the Enlightenment. A precocious child and youth, he entered Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, at the young age of thirteen. There he studied the thought of Isaac Newton, John Locke, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele, among others. Early in Edwards’s academic career, his readings exacerbated his reservations concerning the Calvinist doctrine of the total sovereignty of God. These agonizing doubts, however, were eventually resolved, although Edwards in his diaries does not say precisely how.
Not only was Edwards a devoted philosopher; he also was a keen observer of nature. His meticulous work on spiders, which he attempted to publish in 1723, is still cited as a landmark study. Edwards’s observations of nature and the influence of Newton’s ideas profoundly affected his conception of God. Unlike the deists, who viewed God as a distant creator who did not personally intervene in the cosmos, Edwards saw nothing in Newton’s conception of a mechanical universe to negate God’s intimate involvement in creation. In fact, Newton’s views on gravity, for example, only bolstered Edwards’s belief that “gravity depends immediately on the divine influence.”
Edwards’s prodigious intellect rivaled his rigorous spirituality. His quest to know God was all-consuming, and overcoming his doubts about his Calvinist heritage proved to be a defining moment in terms of his spiritual growth and experience. Marsden relates that soon after becoming reconciled to Calvinist doctrine, Edwards read I Timothy 1:17: “Now unto the King eternal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen,” and became enraptured. His subsequent mystical experiences increased in intensity, especially when he walked through the woods and fields, where God spoke to him through the language of nature. Although Edwards skillfully wielded the tools of reason and logic in his subsequent sermons and writings, he believed that the intellect was subordinate to the heart when it came to experiencing God’s love and grace. This belief became the cornerstone of his theology and the guiding principle of his subsequent ministry.
Marsden’s thorough examination of the cultural, social, intellectual, and spiritual forces that shaped...
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