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Allen C. Guelzo

Insatiable Intellectual Curiosity

Jonathan Edwards, reading.

The appearance of Volume 26 in the Yale University Press edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards marks the conclusion of one of the great editorial projects in American letters, not to mention American religion. Begun in 1953 under the eye of Edwards' most famous biographer, Perry Miller, the edition began with four volumes of Edwards' most influential works: Freedom of the Will from 1754 (edited by the Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey), The Religious Affections from 1746 (edited by the Yale philosopher John E. Smith, who assumed the general editorship of the edition after Miller's death in 1963), the posthumously-published Original Sin (edited by Clyde Holbrook in 1970), and a collection of Edwards' shorter writings on the Great Awakening (edited by Clarence C. Goen, who had published a landmark study of separatism in New England in the 1740s). And at that point the edition stalled. Start-up funding for the series had originally come from Paul Mellon and the Bollingen Foundation, but after Mellon began to shut down the foundation in the mid-1960s, only two further volumes appeared, Steven Stein's edition of Edwards' Apocalyptic Writings and Wallace Anderson's long-awaited edition of Edwards' early Scientific and Philosophical Writings (in 1980), based on Anderson's 1961 University of Minnesota dissertation on "Mind and Nature in the Early Philosophical Writings of Jonathan Edwards."

Such was the situation when in 1986 Harry S. Stout moved to Yale to begin teaching American religious history. A Calvin College graduate with a PhD in history from Kent State, Stout seized hold of the moribund Edwards edition, found new funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lilly Endowment, and the Luce Foundation, created a research staff, moved the series headquarters to the Yale Divinity School, and dramatically ramped-up the assignment of new editors and the publication of new volumes in the series. Although Stout only assigned himself the editor's job for one volume among the twenty that have appeared on his watch, his role as the general editor of the series has been indispensable, and in many ways, this final volume in the Yale Edwards edition is almost as much a monument to Stout as to Edwards.

The downside of this has been to make the Edwards edition a very closed shop—and, perhaps as befits the writings of a man who was one of Yale's most famous graduates, a very closed Yale shop. Apart from Perry Miller (a Harvardian), all of the preliminary volumes of the Yale Edwards series were prepared by Yale faculty or Yale alumni (including Goen and Holbrook). This meant that a number of the most influential, but non-Yale-affiliated, scholars of Edwards in the 1970s and 1980s made no appearance as volume editors in the series—not John Gerstner, not Norman Fiering, not James Hoopes, and, most peculiar of all, not Alan Heimert. And even though Stout opened the doors of the Edwards edition to a number non-Yale editors—David Hall from Harvard Divinity, John F. Wilson and Sang Lee from Princeton, Steven Stein from Indiana University—even they frequently had at least some Yale connection (Hall's PhD is from Yale, as is Stein's).

But if this came as a disappointment to those who stand outside the sainted circle in New Haven, who can say this was a disservice if we can judge by this final installment of the Yale Edwards? Although an edition of Edwards' reading lists—his "Catalogues of Books"—may seem to bear as much potential for excitement as my collected 5th-grade spelling-papers, what Peter Thuesen's treatment of the 720 entries in the Catalogue offers us is a geography of the mind of Jonathan Edwards. It is a superb example of the scholarly editor's work, a major contribution to the intellectual history of the 18th century, and an indispensable adjunct to any understanding of Edwards' life as a theologian and philosopher. In addition to the Catalogue, Theusen's volume includes the book-lending entries in Edwards' "Account Book," an inventory of the books on offer to borrowers in the short-lived Hampshire county ministers' association library, and an index of books Edwards recommended to Sir William Pepperrell (the hero of Louisbourg and a patron of Edwards), of the library of Edwards' father, Timothy, and of Edwards' own hand-written marginalia and citations to books from his manuscripts and published works. Wisely, Thuesen warns us that none of these documents offers us a short-cut to understanding how Edwards constructed his mental universe. The Catalogue "appears to have been an ongoing record of his reading priorities and interests rather than a tally of books he actually read," and the inventory of Edwards' estate lists only the number of books he owned—301, along with 536 pamphlets and 25 of his own titles—not the individual titles, so we have no way of knowing how directly the books in the Catalogue represent Edwards' estimate of their importance, or even whether he was successful in buying or borrowing them.

But even on those terms, the Catalogue is a revelation of an insatiable intellectual curiosity, at a time when a single mind could still aspire to universal knowledge. Much of the Catalogue contains what we might be able to predict: the writings of the Stuart and Commonwealth Puritans (Richard Baxter, John Owen, John Flavel, Stephen Charnock, John and Richard Rogers, Thomas Watson, Thomas Manton), for instance, and the post-Ejection Dissenters (Philip Doddridge, Isaac Watts, Edmund Calamy, Matthew Henry). There are no medieval scholastics, and only one reference to Augustine's Confessions, but there are the heavy-weights of the Protestant Reformed scholastics, Francis Turretin and Peter van Maastricht (whose Theoretic-Practico Theologica Edwards did own and was ranked by Edwards as "much better" than "any other book in the world, excepting the Bible in my opinion"). The tendency, ever since Miller's Jonathan Edwards in 1949, to make Edwards into a paladin of Lockean empiricism will get a hard pull of the bit from scanning these titles. In the Catalogue, we meet instead the Edwards who was "mightily pleased with the old Logick"—the scholastic method of "opening-up" terms by the questio method, as opposed the "new" Cartesian logic, which began from the premise of doubt and worked backwards from doubt to certainty—because "it was very pleasant to see my thoughts, that before lay in my mind jumbled without any distinction, ranged into order."[1]

At the same time, however, if we take just the first twenty entries in the Catalogue (which begin in 1724 upon Edwards' return to Yale as a tutor), we also find the Lutheran pietist Johann Arndt's True Christianity, a two-volume collection of Joseph Addison's Guardian, Locke's Essay, Antoine Arnauld's Art of Thinking, and Paradise Lost. Here is an entirely parallel universe, the 18th-century "Republick of Letters," with continental pietism and epic poetry thrown in for good measure. Not only did Edwards take an outsize interest in the "polite" literary offerings of the London coffeehouses—in addition to Addison, Edwards was also interested in Richard Steele's The Gentleman's Library, Trenchard and Gordon's Independent Whig, and Addison and Steele's The Spectator, and even two of Samuel Richardson's novels—but he pursued Newton's Principia Mathematica, Nicholas Malebranche's The Search After Truth, the Transactions of the Royal Society, and George Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge. More surprising than this, however, was Edwards' desire to put his hands on the English Latitudinarians—Hoadly, Tillotson, Whiston—from whom no self-respecting New England Puritan could be more unlike. Of course, it may simply be that Edwards was fishing in these waters for bait. Yale had been rocked in 1722 by the great "Connecticut Apostasy," in which the rector of Yale and four of the tutors had defected from Puritan orthodoxy and sought ordination in the Church of England, and Edwards may have only been looking for material with which to join the chorus of denunciation.

Once Edwards took up residence in Northampton, Massachusetts, as assistant to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, the pastor of the Northampton Church, the Catalogue tails off. Almost half of the entries in the Catalogue were made before 1731, when Edwards succeeded Stoddard as the pastor in Northampton. Over the next four years (which is to say, before the outbreak of the first of the revivals Edwards would chronicle in Northampton), there are only 34 more additions to the Catalogue. But if the number is dramatically fewer, the same breadth of 18th-century interest abides. Alongside John Owen's A Display of Arminianism is William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature, Berkeley's Alciphron, Newton's Optics, and a three-volume collection of Locke's Works. Between 1735 and 1742 (and the high-point of the Great Awakening), the reading Catalogue stirs itself more aggressively, only now the balance swings heavily toward evangelical proclamation and apologetics: treatises "of that being born again without which no man can be saved," Cruden's Concordance, and even the Hymns and Sacred Poems of John and Charles Wesley. Still, not even the inrushing tide of the Awakening could extinguish Edwards' ongoing interest in "natural religion" (he had seen a notice in the London Magazine for a full set of the Boyle Lectures in four volumes, and wanted them all), Francis Hutcheson's Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, and Pierre Bayle's saucy Historical and Critical Dictionary. This, at the same moment when, in New London, the most radical fringe of the Awakening was consigning a large number of these same titles to a bonfire while "they cry'd out, Thus the Souls of the Authors of those Books, those of them that are dead, are roasting in the Flames of Hell."[2]

Following his dismissal from Northhampton, the self-imposed exile Edwards took up as a missionary to the Mohicans at Stockbridge—under the auspices of the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America—offered him an opportunity to turn his reading back into the old channels. The bulk of his greatest writing was done at Stockbridge—Freedom of the Will, the two "dissertations" on beauty and ethics, Original Sin—and almost all of it was sternly constructed with repudiating, rather than embracing, the bland naturalism of the English-speaking Enlightenment, and rebuilding the walls of his ancestral Calvinism.

But even in the desert of his exile in the 1750s, Edwards remains both in the 18th century and out of it. Freedom of the Will defends as no single work has done since the absolute sovereignty of God in creation and predestination; but it does so on the basis of Edwards' analysis of the psychology of volition, not an exposition of Scripture. And the books which surface in the Catalogue show the same in-and-not-in pattern: Diderot's Encyclopédie and John Gillies' Historical Collections on the evangelical revivals; Joseph Butler's Rolls Chapel Sermons and Herman Witsius' De Oeconomia Foederum; David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and John Owen's commentary on Hebrews. The last three entries, from 1757 and 1758, capture the pattern of Edwards' lifelong pursuit of books in microcosm: Archbishop Leighton's A Practical Commentary Upon the First Epistle General of St. Peter (a title he snagged from a citation in Philip Doddridge's Family Expositor), a two-volume abridgement of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, and "a brief & easy method" for mastering the "Elements of Geometry."

The Catalogue is a tantalizing document, as much for what it fails to say as for what it does. If this was a wish-list, what sparked the wishes? How many of the wishes were satisfied, and for what purpose? Edwards made no attempt to say, apart from a series of enigmatic markings which may—or may not—distinguish the books he actually read from those which were of only passing interest, or those he could only hope for. Something else which is peculiar by its absence from the Catalogue is any serious number of American imprints. An entry in the Catalogue from 1752 expresses a curiosity "after some Philosophical Treatise of the nature of Electricity, the best that is extant." This could hardly be unconnected with the sensational publication of Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which had been published the year before. But no trace of Franklin, or anything at all from Franklin's press in Philadelphia, makes an appearance in the Catalogue.

What the Catalogue does reveal, if it reveals anything about Jonathan Edwards, is that Edwards sought passionately to serve the New England church, but the weight of that passion was thrown into re-calling it out of its comfortable departures from its pristine 17th-century model. This was a parochial ambition, and not at all ignoble for being parochial; but Edwards (like Franklin) also had within him intellectual gifts that could not be easily subordinated to parochial ends. He dreamt, even in his college days, of reputation, not only in the New England church but in the larger transatlantic world of the first British Empire. Much as he wished to speak, as his grandfather Stoddard had spoken, to the audience of New England, he was also part of that long-term cultural "Anglicization" (described by Jack P. Greene in Pursuits of Happiness in 1988) which looked to England as the metropolitan center of culture, and for which New England could only be the end of a very long spoke.[3] There is very little in the Catalogue which displays any connection between Edwards and the rest of British North America.

It should be said that the parochial and the metropolitan impulses were not altogether disconnected. After all, Edwards' competence in 18th-century philosophy was precisely what gave Freedom of the Will its Calvinistic cutting edge. But volumes of The Spectator and "some Philosophical Treatise on the nature of electricity" could hardly have given much grist for Edwards to mill on behalf of Calvinism.

St. Paul's injunction to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" can be read inclusively or exclusively—excluding every thought that will not be "productive" as a waste of sacred time, or embracing every aspect of human thought, at the risk of having the tables turned and being brought captive to secularism instead. There has been a great deal of bad thinking which has preferred the quiet of exclusion; but there is also a very great deal of bad thinking which has used the mission of bringing "captive every thought" as the Christian equivalent of "the personal is political," or a clever rhetorical device for adapting oneself to the spirit of the age. It has been the rare soul—and Edwards was one of them—who could steer past the first without spiritual shipwreck on the second.

Or it may be that, more simply, Edwards turned to Addison and Steele or Trenchard and Gordon for no better reason than that, as a bona fide member of the Anglophone transatlantic, this was what he enjoyed and was expected to enjoy. It comes almost as a disappointment to realize that in the midst of our unsmiling determination to bring "captive every thought," God sometimes simply tells us to go off for half an hour and amuse ourselves. In the end, the Catalogue may have more of those uncomplicated half hours than we suspect.

1. "The Mind No. 17," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Six: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace Anderson (Yale Univ. Press, 1980), p. 345.

2. "Religious Excess at New London: Boston Weekly Post-Boy, 1743," in Richard Bushman, ed., The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740-1745 (Atheneum, 1970), p. 52.

3. Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 175.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he directs the Civil War Era Studies Program. His book Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate, first published in 1989, was recently reissued by Wipf & Stock in a series of classic studies of Jonathan Edwards.

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