- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) would be pleased with this most recent and authoritative study of his life and work. There is no colonist before the Founding Fathers about whom we have so much information. Edwards was not only a prolific writer. Aspects of his material life desks, portraits, books and more have been carefully preserved through the ages.
There is a vast amount of research being done by scholars in and around the Jonathan Edwards Papers project at Yale University. His importance as (probably) America's greatest theologian certainly merits this. Undertaking a life of Edwards was clearly an intimidating prospect. This mighty biography, "Jonathan Edwards: A Life," is a humble product of years of devoted labor and scholarship by a man committed to a Christian faith in a tradition that is a branch of the same Augustinian and Reformed tree. Edwards, who died leaving several monumental scholarly-theological works unfinished, would appreciate Mr. Marsden's dedication as well as Mr. Marsden's sense of priorities.
For all that we know about Edwards and his life he is still very difficult to understand as a person. As Mr. Marsden points out, Edwards' religion defined and dominated his life in a way few mortals could imitate. Most of Edwards' writings concern the business of religion. Most of those who write about him are interested in his writings more than his person. Mr. Marsden tries to understand him "as a real person in his own time". At the same time, he hopes his study will "help bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians." The result is an informative scholarly account and a very human portrait of a very religious man.
Given to intellectual pursuits at an early age, Edwards did not initially seem cut out for the godly life. Admittedly, he started a bit early (age 12). But the intelligent and sensitive son of such a devout and demanding father as Timothy Edwards could hardly do otherwise. Throughout his life, Jonathan's spiritual searching would be dominated by his father's rigorous Calvinism. Timothy died only about a month before Jonathan. Mr. Marsden admits the clear Freudian possibilities this relationship had on Jonathan's ministerial career, but insists that to understand him we must understand his religion.
Jonathan Edwards' close relationship with women (sisters, mother, wife, daughters) may account for the success he had in reaching the souls of New England women, and the difficulty he had in reaching those of its men, but it does not account for his obsession with particular theological issues, like Arminianism. These emerged logically out of his beliefs and the broader religious context in which he lived.
Edwards embraced his Calvinist God only after years of wrestling with his most difficult decree, that God had intentionally condemned uncounted numbers of souls to eternal torment in Hell even as he selected the few elect for Heaven. Only after he could convince himself that in truth God was love, for all the awful things He allowed, did Edwards' spirituality take on its famous evangelical turn.
This happened while he was at Yale, poised between adolescence and adulthood. Shortly thereafter he married Sarah (only 15 years old at the time). For the rest of his life, Edwards combined the roles of spiritual and actual father to a growing family and the expanding communities of 18th-century New England.
On the surface, Edwards' life was not terribly exciting. Born in East Windsor, Conn., along New England's Connecticut River, in the vale of which he spent the vast majority of his life, Edwards did not rove far from home until he went to college at Yale.
After graduating he served briefly as a pastor in New York City, then of an innocuous farming village in Connecticut before taking up his post at Northampton, Mass. There he took part in a religious revival that many historians see as the beginning of Americas First Great Awakening, when religious zeal and resulting conversions swept across the landscape.
His dedication to strict standards of judging who was and was not saved eventually got him into trouble with the locally dominant family, the Williamses, and cost him his Northampton pulpit. Concerned about the broader imperial struggle between Catholic France and Protestant Britain, Edwards became the resident missionary to the Mohicans at Stockbridge, hoping thereby to secure their political and religious allegiance to his cause. Apart from being a minister, Edwards was also an educator, teaching briefly at Yale when young and finally at Princeton, where he died within weeks of taking up his position as president.
Mr. Marsden's most powerful conclusion about Edwards is that he was a man who lived for love. This may sound surprising. After all, Edwards is the man most famous for his hellfire and brimstone sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Yet Mr. Marsden's ability to sympathize with Edwards' priorities, while at the same time appreciating his often difficult character, reminds us that Edwards preached damnation in order to scare people into salvation.
The point of Edwards' most famous sermon was that God was justly angry with sinners for their defiance of his sacred laws. He had every right to let them fall into hellfire.
Yet he held them in his hands, giving them a chance to save themselves, a chance they did not deserve. Edwards lived to help people take advantage of that chance to find their place in Heaven. This applied to all people, be they Yankees or Mohicans (French Catholics might have been an exception), and whether they wanted it or not.
Edwards was acutely conscious of the transience of life and the stubbornness of carnal consciousness. Yet he was not about to let the demands of worldliness impinge on his mission. He strove to live every moment as if it were his last, and passed this goal on to all those close to him.
Edwards' character may best be seen in his dying message to his wife of many years, Sarah Pierpont. Edwards had become fatally ill after inoculating himself with smallpox. Inoculation was a bolder and more dangerous version of vaccination, whereby a person was deliberately infected with a small amount of genuine, albeit low-potency. Only the most courageous and scientifically advanced minds advocated this controversial treatment. That Edwards agreed to it shows his comfort with much that modern science had to offer. That he gracefully accepted his impending death reveals the extent to which he was equally at ease with the difficult tenets of his Calvinist faith.
Knowing that he would die, he thought of both his beloved wife and salvation. He asked his daughter to "give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God." Life, like God, was tough. Salvation was for those knew this yet loved them both all the same.
Of course they had to love and appreciate God's will the right way that of Reformed Calvinism, the faith brought to New England by its original puritan settlers. Edwards spent most of his time in his study, composing his sermons and religious works, fighting the growing threat of Arminianism and the perennial Catholic foe with an ever-increasing knowledge of biblical and historical scholarship.
Edwards was very smart, and he knew it. He wrestled with the resulting pride all of his life, simultaneously struggling to maintain a Christian humility and a leading role in the religious life of New England.
Edwards was a man of the mind and heart, not of the flesh. He did not eat terribly well and had recurring bouts of illness that clearly combined physical, spiritual, and mental causes. Nonetheless, he fathered many children with Sarah, mostly females, and saw nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence in chocolate.
He loved going for walks and rides in nature, seeing it as a manifestation of God's love and beauty. The beauty of Mr. Marsden's Marsdens biography is that it conveys all of this even while devoting most of his text, as Edwards did most of his life, to the theological struggles that defined Edwards' life and works on earth.

Evan Haefeli is assistant professor of history at Tufts University.


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