Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening, just published by The Library of America. Among his many previous books are Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical and Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel.
The following essay originally appeared online in the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post (November 21, 2013).
Why should one be interested in the writings of the eighteenth-century American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards?
Edwards the merciless logician who published lengthy tomes in which he denied that we have free will and defended the notion that all humans struggle in bondage to original sin? Edwards, the fire and brimstone preacher who stared dispassionately at the bell rope across the space of the meetinghouse as he described God’s everlasting and just hatred of sinners and their proper condemnation to a vividly imagined hell? Edwards the apologist for emotional religious revivals that made his spiritual descendants Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Swaggart into household names?
The answer is simple. We should read him for his mastery of language, and that is why he is in the Library of America. All attempts to speak of ultimate things are metaphorical and as such depend finally on the resource of language. Words are all we have to express such thoughts and perhaps our only way of “knowing” the world. And in this case in particular, Edwards helps us, as far as language goes, to understand our humanity. His language bends backward and forward, and allows us better to know ourselves, no matter in what religion we believe.
Consider two central matters for such self-knowledge: the presence in the world of sin or evil, and of its opposite, grace. With respect to the former, Edwards did not believe that some evil quality is “infused, implanted, or wrought” into human nature. Rather, evil is privative, “the withholding of a special divine influence to impart and maintain those good principles, leaving the common natural principles of self-love, natural appetite” to themselves without the government of superior motives. Innate depravity is spiritual emptiness, a longing for something larger than us, a lack of something that only grace can restore.
Edwards’s elaboration of this concept is striking. When man sins, he argued, superior principles leave his heart, as “light ceases in a room when the candle is withdrawn.” He is thus left in a state of “darkness, woeful corruption, and ruin,” like “a fatal catastrophe, a turning of all things upside down, and the succession of a state of most odious and dreadful confusion.” To compensate for this loss of spiritual compass, man acts predictably, immediately setting himself and his natural inclinations in God’s place.
Now consider Edwards’s Personal Narrative, in which he describes what he believed a genuine conversion. Just previous to this moment he had continued to rebel against the seemingly irrational notion of God’s utter sovereignty, “in choosing who he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased.” This seemed a “horrible” doctrine. “But I remember the time very well,” Edwards wrote, “when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty . . . but never could give an account how, or by what means, I was thus convinced; not in the least imagining, in the time of it, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s spirit in it; but only now that I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it.”
There was nothing special in the event, yet the experience was utterly transformative. Moreover, it pertained to the matter of sight. Edwards “saw further”—we would say he had insight—and his life was irrevocably changed. “The appearance of everything,” he continued, “was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything . . . in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” It was a transcendent, with a small “t,” experience.
In his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, Edwards explains this further. When one receives grace, “There is a new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind, from anything that ever their minds were the subjects of” before. In the experience of a saint, something new “is felt, perceived, or thought” which could be “produced by no exalting, varying or compounding of that kind of perceptions or sensations which the mind had before; or there is what some metaphysicians call a new simple idea.”
Edwards borrowed the notion of “a new simple idea” from John Locke. After one experiences something new, he has a new idea of it that reorganizes all previous knowledge, makes everything congruent to it, much in the way that William James describes truth’s instrumentality. Something is true for us when it works for us, James explains, when it accords with other parts of our belief system.
But after Adam’s transgression, man was incomplete. He lacked something. His heart, or soul, or, as Edwards would say, his “affections,” were defined and dominated by self. When grace is added to that picture, though, all in the heart is realigned, so that goodness flows. One sees the world aright, sees what matters, and is a different being. Edwards thought this a supernatural event, God’s arbitrary and free gift. But the power of the experience—and how his words speak to us—resides in Edwards’s notion of a radical realignment of one’s sensibility as the result of purely natural phenomena, specifically, a right perception or seeing. New simple ideas can and do occur at frequent points in our lives; but the key is to recognize them as significant, as true, in such a way that they have a transformative effect on us.
Edwards speaks to us in this way, enlightening us as to what matters in our lives, and does so in language that, while it partakes of the clarity and symmetry of eighteenth-century rhetoric, continues to move our heart, our “affections,” as he would say. To borrow a sentence from Edwards in his discussion of grace, “Unless this is seen, nothing is seen that is worth the seeing.” That is why we should read him.