Allen C. Guelzo
Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities
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 173435 and a much larger one which occurred as part of the Great Awakening of 173942.
But that publicity owed more to Edwards' widely reprinted account of the 173435 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 to the Indian mission in Stockbridge, Massachusetts) went largely unread, and the president of Yale predicted that "in another generation" Edwards would pass into a "transient Notice perhaps scarce above Oblivion."1
So much for the predictive powers of the presidency of Yale. Biographies of Edwards have won the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize; a five-decades-long project to publish the Works of Jonathan Edwards is now approaching thirty volumes; five major scholarly conferences since 1984 have produced as many volumes of learned essays on Edwards. He has managed to wedge his way into anthologies of American literature, into samplers of American intellectual history, and into the reading lists of high school ap history courses. Edwards has become "America's Theologian" (the title of Robert Jenson's paean of praise) and "America's Evangelical" (in this new book by Philip Gura); his name sits alongside that of Abraham Lincoln in Mark Noll's account of "America's God." Yet, in all the published editions of the pillars of 18th-century AmericaBenjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamiltonthe name of Jonathan Edwards does not appear once. This problem, as the gentleman from Baker Street might have said, has features of unusual interest.
And this is the very thing that drew Philip Gura to Edwards. "The fascination in writing his biography," says Gura in the preface, "lies precisely in this disjunction between his ebbing reputation in the 1750s and his subsequent canonization, half a century later, into the chief exponent of American revivalism."
There are a number of ways to deal with this "disjunction." One way would be to ignore the "subsequent canonization" and treat Edwards strictly as an 18th-century American figure, in a strictly historical manner. The results of this are likely to be limited. Biographies of Congregational pastors may have local or professional interest, or they may be cast (in the manner of Carlo Ginzberg or Robert Darnton) as cultural microhistory, but such ventures rarely result in canonization, and in Edwards' case, that retrospective reassessment cannot be easily ignored as a factor in why a biography is being written at all. Gura has opted to leap directly at the issue of canonization and "present Edwards as someone whose conceptions of man and the universe continue to challenge and enlighten us because of their universality." If Edwards seems to have made only a very modest impact on his own contemporaries, that is because he was speaking over their heads to ours.
To bring this off, however, Gura has to deal with the uncomfortable reality that "Edwards couched his vision in language that many today would find offensive, or at least unpalatable." Indeed he did, and not just by "many today." As the favorite son of a pastor's family, Edwards grew up never knowing what it was to duck an argument. He chided himself to behave with more "modesty" and to try "not only to silence but to gain readers." But there was an element of the prig in Edwards, a self-confidence in his own intellectual rectitude and virtuosity, which was the seedbed for most of the woes he endured in life. He was, said another Yale president, "of a strong brain and thoughtful," but "Narrow and odd in his sentiments." He painted a bull's-eye on himself early in his pastorate by entering a regional controversy over the appointment of an "Arminian," Robert Breck, to the church in Springfield, Massachusetts. From that point on, he swung away at the critics of the Great Awakening, at his own congregation over the terms of church membership, at the most prominent of Northampton's families over the behavior of their adolescents, at the sponsors of the Stockbridge Indian mission, and finally, in his last published works, at Isaac Watts, Thomas Chubb, Daniel Whitby, John Taylor, and Samuel Clarke
In almost every case, what Edwards was arguing for was the past, and especially the Puritan past of Massachusetts' first generation (restoring the strict membership criteria of the churches of the 1630s was the principal issue that caused his disastrous break with the Northampton church). "He was not a man of the moderate, rational, English Enlightenment of his day," Henry May once remarked, "Indeed, he was the most powerful enemy of that way of thought."2
This means that Gura's Edwards must not only speak over the heads of his own era. His "unpalatable" words must become a code that modern hearers can decipher and discover to be a relevant and friendly message for modern sensibilities. This is what goes into a great deal of modern scholarship on Edwards, whose authors hope devoutly that their recalcitrant subject can be made to yield neo-orthodoxy, postmodernism, semiotics, and other modern intellectual dividends. In Gura's case, the dividend he believes the modern reading of Edwards will yield is "a generous acknowledgment of our common humanity," a vision of "all souls as irreducibly equal" and capable of transformation "into benevolent beings." This means reading Edwards' relentless insistence on human depravity in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1758) as a device for demonstrating "an equality that made no one any better than another, man or women, master or slave, European or Native American." It also means that the "new simple idea" of grace which Edwards borrowed from John Locke to explain the core of the conversion experience becomes a model of generic "personal transformation," which can occur "as one reads a book, is in the midst of a battle, volunteers in the Peace Corps, or climbs Mount Ranier."
To do this, Gura has to commit an act of extraordinary historical violence, because it is safe to say that Edwards never had any notion of depravity or conversion like the ones Gura wants to ease him into. And this is a pity, because Gura's comparatively brief survey of Edwards' life packs a tremendous amount of personal detail, astutely and readably organized, into its 238 pages of text. Gura's capacity to thumbnail the world of the Connecticut River valley, the Yale "apostacie" of 1722, the ecstasies of the awakened, the "bad books" debacle, and the village politics of Stockbridge is a running delight. This is, after all, territory with which Gura has more than a little acquaintance: a number of his essays in the 1980s were focused on the Connecticut River valley in the 18th century, and his earliest books, The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the New England Renaissance (1981) and A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England (1984), showed a sure grasp of the complexities of Puritan theological language.
Still, there is a very real sense in which Edwards, if he cannot be stretched so thin as to provide a theologian for the age of therapy, still has reason to be considered "America's Evangelical." But even this is because the Edwards who survived the apparent death of his reputation in 1758 acquired his outsized standing over the following century at the expense of the very things the historical Edwards thought were the most important. Joseph Conforti made the unsettling point in 1985 that Edwards' posthumous fame was built, not on the great theological treatises of the 1750s (Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, the treatise on True Virtue) but on his popular writings, and principally Edwards' edition of the journal of the missionary David Brainerd.3
Even more curiously, the Brainerd journal was not confected by Edwards for the purposes for which its 19th-century readers were most like to employ itas a devotional incitement to missions recruitmentbut rather as a rebuke to the opponents of the Great Awakening. Brainerd had come to Edwards' notice after being bounced out of Yale for slandering one of the Yale faculty as having no more grace than a chair. Edwards pleaded, as a Yale alumnus, for Brainerd's reinstatement, but in vain. The edition of the journal that Edwards published after Brainerd's death was a starkly polemical effort to embarrass the anti-revivalists, and show what a better man Brainerd had been.
Gura is astute enough to see how American evangelicalism has re-made Edwards into something it can admire and "trumpeted him as the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality"; but apparently that only gives Gura permission to do likewise for those today who are "unaffiliated with any explicitly religious tradition" and who simply want to "reconceive the tenor of the spiritual life." And there is nothing which Jonathan Edwards would have found more bleakly abhorrent.
Gura pays tribute in his notes to a trio of latter-day Edwards biographers: Ola Elizabeth Winslow, George Marsden, and Iain Murray. Of the three, Murray's Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (1987) is probably the least-well-known, and certainly the least-well-spoken-of within the circle of Edwards' scholars. There are reasons for thisMurray did next to nothing in the way of primary research, frankly painted Edwards as a martyr to Calvinist truth, and published his book under what amounted to his own imprint, the Banner of Truth Trustyet Murray (who was, by the way, quite a good writer and quite well-read in Edwards' published works and the secondary literature on Edwards) may have caught far more accurately than his fellow biographers the Edwards whom Edwards himself would be most likely to recognize: an utter partisan of Calvinist orthodoxy with the brains and inclination to confront the most abstruse intellectual challenges to that orthodoxy, a man of the most solemn integrity who would rather be broken by the storm than bend to the self-serving wishes of his own times and his own congregation, a man of ideas for whom personalities come in a distant second.
It is precisely this which makes Gura fear that Edwards will turn out to be "unpalatable" to modern sensibilities, as he surely will. I suspect that turning Edwards loose like that on modern evangelicals would grate on their modern sensibilities, too. But Americans, fearful and resentful of being thought provincial, have always been hungry for intellectual champions to put on a par with Europe. The same spirit that moved Benjamin Franklin to appropriate Bishop Berkeley's promise that "the Arts delight to travel Westward," and drove Thomas Jefferson to denounce the Comte de Buffon's sniggering mockery of America, drives us today to locate a legitimate 18th-century philosophical virtuoso in America, and Edwards has long seemed the most obvious candidate. But to place Edwards on that pedestal requires that we seal his contentious Calvinistic mouth. We need his genius, but we cannot accept it. And he would not be in the slightest degree surprised.
1. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, ed. F.B. Dexter (Yale Univ. Press, 1916), volume 3, p. 275.
2. Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 49.
3. Joseph A. Conforti, "Jonathan Edwards' Most Popular Work: The 'Life of David Brainerd' and Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Culture," Church History (June 1985), pp. 188-201.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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