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Philosopher, theologian, preacher, historian, and scientist, Jonathan Edwards was the most prolific writer of the American colonial period and one of the most prolific authors in American history. Edwards is most remembered as the harsh dogmatist who terrified his listeners with his fire-and-brimstone sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). He was eventually rejected by his own congregation and sent into exile in the wilderness. But in reality, Edwards was a subtle, original meta physician and ethicist whose ideas were right in line with the science and philosophy of his day.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Education in the Life of the Mind
Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703, Edwards was the fifth of eleven children and the only son of the Reverend Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards. His maternal grandfather was the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, a prominent preacher in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. The family was connected to some of the most prominent figures in early America. Stoddard was the grand-nephew of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, and took over as pastor for the brother of increase Mather, the Puritan minister who was notoriously involved in the Salem Witch Trials. It was this powerful and prestigious line of ministers from which Edwards emerged.
Edwards’s elementary education was provided by his father. Even as a child he brought a naturalist’s eye to the world. At thirteen he matriculated at what eventually became Yale University, where he was influenced by the works of the British philosopher John Locke and the mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. During this time, he wrote notes for treatises that were titled ”Of Being,” ”The Mind,” and ”Of Atoms”, which were not published until after his death. The treatises discussed very weighty ideas for such a young thinker, indicating the young theologian’s intelligence and sensitivity to some of the most challenging ideas of his time. In ”Of Being,” for example, Edwards argues that nonbeing or nothingness is inconceivable and hence cannot exist; being therefore exists necessarily, eternally, and everywhere.
The Call of Church and Family
After graduating in 1720, Edwards remained at Yale for two years to study theology. During this time he overcame his intellectual objections to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which says that people are either saved or damned from all eternity regardless of their actions during their time on Earth. Early in 1721, he underwent a conversion experience, which led him to see predestination as beautiful and just. He preached these convictions in a Presbyterian church in New York City from August 1722 through March 1723. He received his M.A. in 1723 and tutored at Yale from 1724 until he became seriously ill in September 1725.
In August 1726, Edwards was asked to preach at the Northampton church of his grandfather Stoddard. That November he was invited to ”settle” with the congregation and became his grandfather’s assistant. He was ordained in February 1727, and that summer he married seventeen-year-old Sarah Pierrepont, the daughter of one of the founders of Yale. Stoddard died the following February, and Edwards succeeded him as pastor at Northampton. Like his own parents, Edwards and his wife had ten daughters and a son. Though infant mortality was high at the time, all eleven children survived infancy. Edwards tutored his daughters at home, and sent his son, Jonathan Jr., to school.
Success at the Pulpit and Beyond
July 1731, Edwards gave a public lecture in Boston that became the basis of his first published book, also published that year. God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence upon Him in the Whole of It holds that only God’s grace, not human free will, can overcome the effects of original sin and result in salvation. With sermons delivered in 1734—published that same year as A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God—Edwards sparked a revival movement in New England that resulted in the conversion of at least three hundred people. He documented the movement in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls (1736). Edwards explains these conversions in detail, recording observations about the behavior of individuals before and after the conversion experience. The book went through three editions and twenty printings by 1740, and remained the standard guide for church revivals for the next hundred years.
Between 1740 and 1742, a wider revival movement, known as the Great Awakening, swept through the colonies. Edwards played a role in that movement with sermons such as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). Edwards, whose prior sermons had been rational, unemotional, and delivered without the arm-waving histrionics employed by many evangelists, began to change his style. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, for example, he warned his audience:
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save your-self, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
In his writings of this period, Edwards defends these spirited revivals against those who doubted their authenticity or whose theological perspective was contrary to the Calvinist view. He takes great pains to show that these revival experiences are consistent with his famous grandfather Stoddard’s sermons from 1679, as well as with New Testament descriptions of conversion experiences.
During this time, the churches of New England were increasingly discussing who should hold power in their organizations: the pastors, or their congregations. This debate soon began to hit home for Edwards, as tensions had been rising between Edwards and his congregation since 1734. The congregation thought that Edwards and his family did not live as frugally as a pastor should. Furthermore, Edwards was an intellectual, and many of his sermons were not under stood by his parishioners. Lastly, although he was always ready to comfort the sick and afflicted, Edwards did not observe the custom of paying regular visits to parishioners’ homes.
The breaking point came in 1749, when Edwards discontinued the time-honored practice of allowing church members to partake in the Eucharist, even if they had not undergone a conversion experience. Edwards thought that in order for churchgoers to take Communion, they had to publicly profess such a conversion—he wanted to see an ”experience of the heart.” Parishioners became disillusioned with Edwards, and one of them, a man whose father had committed suicide during the first of Edwards’s revivals, led a movement that resulted in Edwards’s dismissal in June, 1750.
After being dismissed from Northampton, Edwards received offers from several churches across America and in Scotland, but ultimately accepted one close to home, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Here he served as a missionary to Native Americans who barely understood his language, let alone his message. During this period the Edwardses became intimately involved in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The local Native Americans took the side of the French when the war broke out, while the Edwardses sided with the British. A fort was quickly built around the Edwards’ home, where area residents and even some soldiers took shelter.
Edwards’s last call was to serve as president of the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University) following the death of the former president, Edwards’s son-in-law Aaron Burr, in September 1757. Edwards was inaugurated on February 16, 1758, but died of fever in March, a month after receiving a smallpox vaccine that was supposed to save his life.
Works in Literary Context
The Psychology of Religion
Though Edwards was not the first American to pioneer the study of the psychology of religion—that honor belongs to American philosopher William James, who wrote, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902)—Edwards’s A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls (1736) is an important forerunner of the genre. Both Edwards and James deal with the essence of religious experiences. They seek to understand the changes they produce in the persons involved and make the experiences of individuals central. In fact, James cites Edwards extensively in The Varieties of Religious Experience when discussing the relationship of internal experience to outward behavior.
While Jonathan Edwards was a significant intellectual and the first comprehensive American philosopher, he saw his role primarily as that of a theologian. In his many published works, he devoted his intellectual energies to interpreting scripture and trying to make sense of what it means for regular people as they try to live their lives in accordance with it. As such, he was part of a tradition of reformed theologians that extends from John Calvin through John Witherspoon during the American Revolution, and Lyman Beecher during the early republic. As a composer of sermons, and the author of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) in particular, Edwards mastered the sermon form known as the jeremiad, so-called because its approach originated with the biblical prophet Jeremiah. This type of sermon arose out of the tensions between secular and sacred fulfillment that characterized much of New England life in the last decades of the seventeenth century. Edwards’s aim was to bring about a conversion, and he often did.
Works in Critical Context
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Though not a poet or writer of creative works, Jonathan Edwards nevertheless wrote with an imaginative and illuminating prose style. His sermons show a conscious commitment to imagery, an attempt to show that God may be communicated through the senses as well as through the language of scripture. It is not accidental, therefore, that Edwards is best remembered in the popular imagination for a single sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It was so successful that Edwards delivered it a second time. Today, it is the work by Edwards most often included in anthologies of American literature.
Most readers today find Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God as exciting as Edwards’s eighteenth century listeners did, if not as frightening. Thomas J. Steele writes that the sermon is ”a virtuoso performance upon the keyboard of the tactile sense, where his carefully contrived imagery evokes a remarkably profound response.” Other present-day scholars recognize yet another aspect of Edwards’s famous sermon: its ability to give comfort. As scholar Robert Lee Stuart writes, ”Edwards wanted to frighten those who were complacent about the state of their souls. But fright was only the means to an end far more compassionate and human than most critics have recognized.” In other words, critics now recognize the tough love behind Edwards’s fire and brimstone imagery.
- Brand, David C. Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love, and the Dawn of the Beatific. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
- Cherry, Conrad. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1966; revised edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
- Elwood, Douglas J. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.
- Fiering, Norman. Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
- Jenson, Robert W. America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Smith, John E. Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.
- Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758: A Biography. New York: Octagon, 1973.
- Faust, Clarence H. ”Jonathan Edwards as a Scientist,” American Literature 1 (1930): 393-404.
- Steele, Thomas J., S.J. and Eugene R. Delay. ”Vertigo in History: The Threatening Tactility of ‘Sinners in the Hands.’ ”Early American Literature. 1983-1984 Winter; 18 (3): 242-256.
- Stuart, Robert Lee. ”Jonathan Edwards at Enfield: ‘And Oh the Cheerfulness and Pleasantness . . . American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and References . 1976 Mar; 48 (1): 46-59.
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