In Jonathan Edwards' Shadow
Douglas Sweeney's biography of the 19th-century theologian Nathaniel Taylor is part of a whole wave of scholarship on high American religious history propelled by Oxford University Press and Harry Stout's Religion in America series, and Eerdmans' Library of Religious Biography, edited by Mark Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and Allen Guelzo. This new religious history has many facets, but one of them, which Sweeney's Nathaniel Taylor exhibits, is the attempt to breathe life into the history of American divinity. The book under review is a more than competent examination of Taylor's ideas, but I am dubious if its style of presentation will resuscitate the subject.
Sweeney focuses on Taylor's theology, which he knows inside-out and which he lays out in an articulate fashion. Although the body of the book is short (150 pages), the 100 pages of notes are a treasure trove for the serious scholar. Sweeney aims to demolish the view of Taylor as a clever Arminian; he argues that while Taylor did have a major impact on evangelicalism and revivalism, it was beneficial and in the respectable and "orthodox" tradition of Jonathan Edwards. While Sweeney may be pushing the conventional interpretation of Taylor a bit, his characterization of Taylor as far more than a high-class Charles Finney is certainly correct. But Sweeney's overall strategy, which is to concentrate on Taylor's claims to be an Edwardsean, does not satisfy me.
As many readers of this magazine will be aware, Taylor made his career at the Yale Divinity School. When Congregationalism in New England seemed to have reached a dead-end composed of a rigid theoretical determinism, on the one hand, and an inability to combat various Massachusetts religious liberals, on the other, Taylor revitalized thinking by elaborating on a spontaneous human freedom. His scheme avoided problems of Calvinist fatalism and provided the framework for a socially concerned ministry to operate in southern New England. Taylor had a set of brains to marvel ...