Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2567
Article abstract: The greatest Puritan theologian in America, Edwards tried to establish an intellectual foundation for Puritanism, to find a rational interpretation of predestination, and to justify the ways of God to man.
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Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703. Sited on the Connecticut River, East Windsor was still frontier, where worshipers carried muskets to church. Edwards was the only boy among ten sisters, but there were seven boy cousins living next door and a number of boys attending school under Edwards’ father, the Reverend Timothy Edwards. Educated by his father, Edwards was a precocious boy who was ready for college at the age of thirteen. When he was eleven, he wrote a paper on flying spiders that is remarkable for both its scientific observation and its literary skill. As a teenager, Edwards was already dedicated to religion as his unquestioned calling. Sober and meditative by temperament, he had a private place of prayer deep in the woods.
In 1716, he entered Yale College, founded only fifteen years earlier, with a freshman class of ten. At this time Edwards experienced an intense religious struggle, which he later described in his “Personal Narrative”; in particular, he had been “full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell.” This doctrine appeared horrible to him, but somehow he managed to accept it and to delight in God’s absolute sovereignty. After graduating from Yale at seventeen, in 1720, Edwards studied theology for two years in New Haven, after which he served for a year and a half as pastor to a Presbyterian church in New York City. For the next two years, Edwards was a tutor at Yale. On February 22, 1726, he was ordained at Northampton, Massachusetts, as assistant minister to his eighty-four-year-old grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. About twenty-five miles north of East Windsor, on the Connecticut River, Northampton was then an isolated frontier village, cut off by forests from the wider world. In July of 1727, Edwards married Sarah Pierrepont, the daughter of a founder of Yale. Edwards was then twenty-three, his bride seventeen. She was apparently the ideal wife for him, a capable manager, a devoted mother to their surviving three sons and seven daughters, a deeply religious person able to share her husband’s spiritual life. When the famous evangelist George Whitefield visited the Edwards family in 1740, he was so impressed with Mrs. Edwards that he wished he could marry someone like her. When Solomon Stoddard died in 1729, Edwards, at twenty-six, became the minister of the chief parish of western Massachusetts.
Coming of age when the Puritan oligarchy had crumbled and when Puritan theology was being challenged by Deism and by more liberal Christian denominations, Edwards tried to create a philosophical justification for Calvinist dogma. Calvinism can be summed up in the acronym TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. First proclaimed in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), these doctrines had been the backbone of Puritanism. The most thorny of them were the ideas that humanity is not merely in a state of Original Sin (which is not total and is balanced by human goodness) but is totally depraved; everyone deserves damnation, and most will receive it; only a limited few will be saved by God’s inscrutable mercy. Along with this doctrine is the idea of predestination; there is no free will, and every detail of each individual’s life is predetermined by God, including salvation and damnation, which are ordained before birth, so that no amount of good works can merit salvation for one who is not among the elect.
Calvin offered no proof of these grim doctrines; he merely maintained that God’s majesty is so great that humanity is nothing beside it. By Edwards’ time, the Puritans had lost their monopoly on the northern colonies; other denominations preached a more merciful creed, according to which salvation was available (though not guaranteed) for everyone, while Deism threw out Christianity altogether, denying miracles, original sin, the incarnation and resurrection, and proclaiming that “whatever is is right.”
Edwards has been maligned as the quintessential “hell-fire and brimstone” preacher, chiefly because of a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which he gave at Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8, 1741. In it he dramatized the concept of total depravity, arguing that everyone deserves to be cast into Hell, so that divine justice never stands in the way, for sinners are already under a sentence of condemnation and only God’s restraints keep them out of Hell. Yet people cannot count on those restraints, for “the God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” The flaming mouth of Hell gapes wide, “the bow of God’s wrath is bent,” the wrath of God is like great waters damned but ready to be released. Edwards piles up more metaphors for God’s wrath but then urges his congregation to repent so that they may receive divine mercy.
Indeed, it is that mercy which Edwards stressed in most of his work. In his entire career, he gave only two sermons on hellfire, the other being “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (1734). Edwards was no ranter; he was slender and shy, with a thin, weak voice; he spoke his sermons with quiet intensity. What made them eloquent was his immense preparation, his ability to paint pictures that made the abstract visible in terms of familiar experience, and the sense of authority that made him seem merely the mouthpiece for God. He was not a fiery preacher, nor was he an ecclesiastical scold giving lurid exposés of community sins and laying down blue laws.
The problem that Edwards tried to cope with was that of reconciling a loving and merciful God with a God who predestined most of mankind to Hell before they were even born. If salvation or election is already determined, why should individuals strive for salvation, when they have no free will? Why should ministers call sinners to repentance?
Nevertheless, Edwards tried, stressing “the excellency of Christ,” and in 1734, he preached so eloquently that a revival broke out in Northampton (though he had not calculated to start one) and quickly spread to other towns. Seemingly wholesome at first, it turned to frenzied hysteria, with numerous suicides and attempted suicides. Edwards tried to tone down such bizarre behavior and “bodily manifestations,” writing in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) that “multitudes” felt suicide “urged upon them as if somebody had spoke to them, ’Cut your own throat. Now is a good opportunity.’”
The Northampton revival foreshadowed a much broader one, ushered in in 1740 by the visiting evangelist George Whitefield, who, unlike Edwards, was an itinerant preacher using the devices of theatrical showmanship; Lord Chesterfield said Whitefield could make people weep simply by the way he said “Mesopotamia.” Following Whitefield, a revival frenzy broke out all over New England, called the Great Awakening. After its initial inspiration passed, novelty took over, with ecclesiastical juvenile delinquents trying to take over services and with zeal considered more important than knowledge, so that there was danger that fanaticism would triumph.
In response, Edwards wrote one of his major works, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, preached in 1742-1743 and published in 1746, in which he tried to distinguish between genuine and false religious experiences. Edwards said that the Church should be concerned with souls, not bodily symptoms. He did not study the bizarre details but tried to examine the laws of human nature behind such behavior. Turning to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Edwards denied innate ideas and said that all knowledge comes through sensation, whereby one apprehends those ideas that God has willed to communicate. Accordingly, the imagination conjures up things that are not present objects of sense, and here is “the devil’s grand lurking place.” Edwards divided the mind into the Understanding and the Will; Reason belongs to the former, and though it is important, it is not, as the Deists maintained, sufficient, for Edwards believed that true religion comes from “holy love,” which is not in the Understanding but in the Will. Thus, echoing Saint Paul, Edwards wrote that “he that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.” The man who has received a divine light does not merely notionally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. Rational understanding alone is insufficient. There is, then, an essential emotional element in religion.
Edwards attempted to distinguish between the false emotionalism of revivalism, generated by mass hysteria, and a true religion whereby regenerate individuals receive a supernatural light from divine grace and are touched by the Holy Ghost, which acts within them as an indwelling vital principle. Therefore, enthusiastic delusions and bodily manifestations are merely from the imagination, not of love from and for God.
For modern readers, Religious Affections, which has been greatly condensed here, is likely to be the most meaningful of Edwards’ works. In his day, Freedom of Will (1754) was thought to be his masterpiece. In it he tries to reconcile human choice with the doctrine of predestination. Briefly, his reasoning is that each act of the will depends upon a preceding act of the will, back to the original act of creation in the mind of God. Accordingly, he concluded that one is free to do what one will but not to will what one will.
In 1747, when David Brainerd, missionary to the Indians, died, Edwards edited his life and diary, producing a popular book that spurred missionary activities. Then in June of 1750, Edwards’ congregation dismissed him after twenty-three years as minister. He had been too aristocratic for Northampton tastes, but the actual break came over the question of whether the unconverted should be admitted to Communion. When Edwards refused to admit those who would not acknowledge faith, he was defeated by a rigged election. Afterward, he moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as missionary to the Indians. He did not consider the Indians depraved; he respected their customs, was an able administrator, and earned the friendship and trust of the Stockbridge Indians, who protected him when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754. At Stockbridge, Edwards wrote Freedom of Will and “The Nature of True Virtue” (1765), in which he argues that true virtue must be disinterested benevolence. Unlike his contemporary, Benjamin Franklin, a Deist who tried to make himself morally perfect by a thirteen-point program of good works, Edwards argued that true virtue comes not from repeated good choices but only from the grace of God.
In 1757, Edwards was offered the presidency of the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton). A week after his induction on February 16, 1758, he allowed himself to be inoculated against smallpox; a month later, he died of smallpox at age fifty-four. A week later, his daughter Esther Burr also died of smallpox, and the following autumn, Mrs. Edwards died in Philadelphia. One of Edwards’ grandsons, Timothy Dwight, became a poet and president of Yale; another, Aaron Burr, became vice president of the United States.
Though Perry Miller has traced a line of influence from the Puritan Edwards to the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, most leading nineteenth century thinkers reacted against Edwards; Herman Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Leslie Stephens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe were all hostile to his Puritan doctrines, chiefly predestination, total depravity, and limited atonement. Among other things, Moby Dick (of Melville’s novel of the same title, 1851) symbolizes the Puritan God of wrath and vengeance; to Captain Ahab, this God is a tyrant whose “right worship is defiance.” Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote directly about Edwards, but his somber theology and psychology may have influenced such Hawthorne tales as “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The twentieth century, with its horrors, has in some measure rediscovered original sin (“from whose visitations,” wrote Melville, “in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance”), and Edwards has had a reappraisal, though few scholars any longer accept Calvinism uncritically. In the age of the late twentieth century, with its militant Fundamentalism and biblical literalism as well as its cults and gurus, Edwards’ Religious Affections takes on a new relevance, and though his reasoning in Freedom of Will may seem logic-chopping, many modern doctrines—behaviorism, Freudianism, communist dialectical materialism, to name a few—deny free will on secular but similar grounds. Edwards is now recognized not only as a writer of poetic prose but as the major philosophical and psychological thinker and writer of the Colonial era in America.
Cherry, C. Conrad. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966. Sees Edwards as a major figure in American literary and intellectual history in his application of philosophy to explicate his theology.
Davidson, Edward Hutchins. Jonathan Edwards: The Narrative of a Puritan Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. A slim volume (161 pages) in the Riverside Studies in Literature; presents Edwards struggling against and rejecting the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
Edwards, Jonathan. Representative Selections. Edited by Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson. New York: American Book Company, 1935. An anthology of the best of Edwards’ work, with an in-depth introductory essay.
Elwood, Douglas J. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Explores Edwards’ response to the problem of evil and his consuming awareness of God’s majesty and the ecstasy of divine grace.
Fiering, Norman. Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981. A study of seventeenth century moral philosophy and its influence on Edwards.
Griffin, Edward M. Jonathan Edwards. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. A forty-page pamphlet in the University of Minnesota series on American writers; a condensed study of Edwards’ life and works.
Levin, David. Jonathan Edwards: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. Contains Samuel Hopkins’ book The Life and Character of the Late Rev. Mr. Jonathan Edwards (1765), eight articles (including a chapter each from Miller, Parkes, and Winslow) by twentieth century writers, and two poems by Robert Lowell.
McGiffert, Arthur Cushman. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932. A portrait of Edwards as a religious psychologist.
Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949. The chief interpretive biography, by the leading scholar on American Puritanism; perhaps overstates Edwards’ modernity.
Parkes, Henry Bamford. Jonathan Edwards: The Fiery Puritan. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1930. Though Parkes is an important observer of the American experience, both the title and text of his study are somewhat misleading, failing to comprehend the range and complexity of Edwards’ thought, and perpetuating the caricature of the hellfire preacher.
Tracy, Patricia J. Jonathan Edwards, Pastor. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. A brief biography that focuses on Edwards’ pastoral role in Northampton.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1940. A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography; the most detailed study of Edwards’ life and times.