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Allen C. Guelzo

Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities

Which Jonathan Edwards?

There has always been an element of special pleading mixed into the historical reputation of Jonathan Edwards. He was a controversial figure in his own lifetime, and people have continued to take sides over him ever since, and the question that begins to occur is whether the controversies have done more to create the historical figure of Edwards than Edwards' own words and deeds.

In a number of respects, Edwards' life was anything but historically exciting. While the 18th century's great wars of empire were being fought out, and while wit and music danced from the pens of Voltaire, Mozart, Kant, and Haydn, Jonathan Edwards occupied for 21 years the pastorate of the middling-size town of Northampton in western New England, where the guiding intellectual impulses were still being shaped by readings in Protestant scholastic theology. (That, at least, was the kind of education the young Edwards received when he entered Yale College, an institution consciously dedicated in 1701 to maintaining the "old logic.") He was never a particularly scintillating preacher, or, for that matter, a particularly graceful writer. His most public achievements came in the context of two revivals which swept through Northampton, a small-scale one in 1734–35 and a much larger one which occurred as part of the Great Awakening of 1739–42.

But that publicity owed more to Edwards' widely reprinted account of the 1734–35 revival, and then to a series of spirited defenses he wrote of the Great Awakening, than to his prowess as a husbandman of conversions. He might have qualified as the concertmaster in the Awakening's pit orchestra, but he was never the featured soloist that George Whitefield was. Once the climax of the Great Awakening passed, Edwards' pastoral ineptness triggered so much fury in Northampton that the exasperated townsfolk fired him in 1750. The philosophical works to which he devoted the remaining eight years of his life (while filling the post of missionary and pastor ...

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