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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jonathan Edwards: the last great Puritan or the first Romantic?

Today is the 307th birthday of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian and minister credited with leading the first Great Awakening in America from his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1733–35. Historian Perry Miller calls Edwards “infinitely more than a theologian:
He was one of America’s five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels. He was much more a psychologist and a poet than a logician, and though he devoted his genius to topics derived from the body of divinity—the will, virtue, sin—he treated them in the manner of the very finest speculators, in the manner of Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, as problems not of dogma but of life.
The middle child—and only boy—of eleven siblings, Edwards showed an early aptitude and interest in investigative science and philosophical argument. Entering Yale at 12, he was studying Newton and Locke within two years and writing papers on rainbows, light rays, atoms, and especially spiders. “Of all insects no one is more wonderful than the Spider.”

At 24, fresh out of Yale with a Master’s degree, Edwards became assistant to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard at Northampton. From the start Edwards drew on his own spiritual discoveries to emphasize the importance of a personal conversion experienced through the senses as well as through reason. As he phrases it in his Personal Narrative:
I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking upon the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express . . . the appearance of every thing was altered . . . and scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning.
Images of light recur as metaphors for the sublime and mystical, most poetically in the 1934 sermon,“A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Though he delivered his lyrical, vividly imagined sermons in a monotone, they resonated with his congregation. Northampton recorded more than 300 conversions in the first six months of 1734. The fervor subsided in 1736, however, after news spread that Edwards’s uncle, Joseph Hawley, committed suicide over his “deep melancholy” about the “condition of his soul.”

Five years later, another awakening occurred, the same year Edwards delivered his most famous “fire and brimstone” sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
During the 1740s Edwards began requiring a public profession of faith as a condition of admission to the church, and his following dropped. When he discovered that some young parishioners had been circulating a midwife manual, he admonished them by reading their names from the pulpit. The outraged parents banded with other churchgoers unhappy with his leadership to oust Edwards in 1750.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. (includes “A Divine and Supernatural Light” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)

1 comment:

  1. I've sometimes wondered if Edwards wasn't actually the first American Transcendentalist.

    Although I have to say I'm not sure that's much of a compliment.


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