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The Great Awakener

Monday, August 1, 2005

Philip Gura.
Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $24.00

Of the early American titans whose reputations have come down to us in condensed form, Jonathan Edwards may occupy the smallest pigeonhole. Biographers are happy to retouch the lives of Ann Hutchinson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Benjamin Franklin, whose own autobiography is bafflingly prosaic, receives a fresh portrait every year. But Edwards is remembered for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon and little else. Even while recent scholarship has largely dismantled the stereotype of the Puritans as misanthropic drudges, Edwards remains a New Englander out of Arthur Miller’s imagination.

George Marsden’s 2004 biography did much to renew interest in Edwards and reclaim his lofty position on America’s intellectual map. Not only a thinker of staggering intellect and influence (John Wesley could not have been the same without him), Edwards also represents a neglected side of the American mind. Whereas the life of Franklin is the locus classicus of American pragmatism and common sense, in Edwards’s voluminous writings we find both a profound articulation of the American yearning for moral reckonings as well as a blueprint of eighteenth-century revivalism. For readers skeptical of the resurgence of Protestant evangelism in parts of this country, there is much to be learned from Philip Gura’s new biography, which argues that in order to understand the new Great Awakening, we must first study the old one.


The only son in a family of 11 children, Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703 to Timothy Edwards, a scholarly Congregationalist minister in Windsor, Connecticut. Edwards’s mother, Esther Stoddard, was the daughter of Solomon Stoddard, the so-called Pope of the Connecticut River Valley, whose presence dominated the ecclesiastical leadership of the New England and must have impressed his grandson. The young Edwards was precocious, to put it mildly. By the age of 15 he was a student at the Collegiate School of Connecticut (soon to become Yale University), and had already composed his first extant work, “Of insects,” and had thoroughly digested Newton’s Opticks and Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Whereas the generation of New England clergymen before him was on an uneasy footing with the new sciences of the Enlightenment, Edwards was sanguine about the possible synthesis of science and theology. Like Newton himself, he believed that the natural laws of the universe were yet another proof of how God justified his ways to man.

In 1729, after a short stint in New York City, Edwards succeeded his grandfather as minister to the congregation of Northampton, Massachusetts. It was a time of great upheaval in the New England churches. Since the Massachusetts Synod of 1622, the Puritan congregations had been dogged with membership problems. The Synod had decreed that membership in the church required the congregant to manifest his faith in the form of a conversion experience, which was then to be verified by the minister and the congregation. According to Gura, the early Puritans, beset with innumerable hardships, were all more or less capable of satisfactorily relaying the spiritual presence of God in their lives. When they began to prosper in the late 1600s, however, this fervor began to subside. The Synod had made room for “half-way” members — congregants who had yet to experience conversion and attended services under the surveillance of the members. Solomon Stoddard was an outspoken critic of this awkward legacy, which he believed consolidated full church members into an oligarchy that ruled over their halfway brethren and thwarted his own authority.

Edwards followed his grandfather in allowing open communion to all congregants and started giving sermons that dramatically re-envisioned the mechanics of conversion. From his reading of Locke, he understood human consciousness to be a blank screen upon which experience was imprinted by way of sensory impressions. God’s grace thus did not enter the consciousness as an interposition, but rather was apprehended in the same way a man might form an idea. This idea or revelation would manifest itself outwardly in the congregant, thus saving the minister and members from having to systematically interrogate his inward experience. By the mid-1720s, Edwards had unleashed an outpouring of demonstrative conversions in Northampton. “This town,” he wrote, “never was so full of Love, nor so full of Joy, nor so full of distress as it has Lately been.”

For five months the conversions at Northampton became the revival heard round the world. As one skeptical witness wrote to a friend in London, “The Calvinistical scheme is in perfection about 100 miles from this place. . . . Conversions are talked of, ad nauseum usque, [and] sixty in a place undergo the work at once.” Scottish and English puritans were fascinated by the revivals at Northampton brought about by the young minister, and wondered how they might replicate them in their own congregations. Gura proposes rather cynically that part of the reason behind Edwards’s success was that many of the young townsfolk gravitated to him because their conversions immediately made them full members of the church and quickened their claims to landowning. But much of the success was due to Edwards’s brilliant articulation of his own conversion experience and to the publication of his scientifically entitled tract, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighboring Towns and Villages. By 1740, the book had already gone through three editions (one printed by Benjamin Franklin), and it soon became the gold standard of revivals by which English and American congregations measured their progress. “The Narrative,” wrote Perry Miller, Edwards’s greatest twentieth-century biographer, “did for bewildered English Nonconformists of 1736 what Goethe’s Werther did for young German romantics: it perfected a formula for escape from an intellectual dilemma by opening an avenue into emotion and sensibility.”

The intellectual dilemma had been how to authenticate spiritual conversion, but, as Gura explains, the solution gave rise to a new set of problems. The revival at Northampton ended even more abruptly than it began. In June 1726, Edward’s uncle, Joseph Hawley, despairing that the revival had passed him by, slit his throat. His suicide drove Northampton into despair, and many interpreted his death as Satan’s handiwork. Some clergymen, notably Anglicans, sharply criticized Edwards for mistaking the mere “enthusiasm” and “distempers” of his congregants for the workings of God. Edwards was well aware of these cavils, but his critics did not comprehend the true revolutionary aspect of what he had accomplished. By locating the spiritual experience subjectively in the “heart” of each individual congregant, Edwards had inadvertently sowed the seeds for some extreme outgrowths of Protestantism — catabaptism and Methodism, to name just two. Earlier revivals had emphasized the conversion of the entire community, but now the pressure was squarely on the individual, as Hawley’s case had proved. Edwards’s theology insisted that man is a self-contained, sensuous ego who, through his own perception, can apprehend the grace of God in himself. Edwards was careful, however, to distinguish this special apprehension from mere enthusiasm. The dangerous pitfall of enthusiasm, Edwards foresaw, was that it led the enthusiast into thinking he had a privileged relationship with God, one that made him incapable of sin. In many of his sermons, especially “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards would try to stave off the enthusiastic impulses of his congregants. But his new theology was already vulnerable to this vulgarization.


The english ministers John Wesley and George Whitefield were avid students of Edwards from afar. Both had experienced their own conversions and performed missionary work in the   Georgia wilderness. Wesley was closer to Edwards in intellectual temperament: He devoted most of his energy to the organization of his sect, Methodism, which made up the backbone of the so-called Second Reformation. The Anglican Whitefield meanwhile became the first major incarnation of what one now might call the itinerant born-again preacher. In 1740, he returned to the colonies and traveled up and down the New England seaboard, giving a series of outdoor sermons to the vast crowds that characterized the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Gura quotes accounts of farmers literally leaving their tools in the fields to hear Whitefield deliver his heart-wrenching orations.

“Within the fold of revivalism, there are no personalities more uncongenial than Whitefield and Edwards,” Perry Miller tells us. “Whitefield did not use the rigorous mold of the Puritan sermon; instead he improvised dramatically. He did not stare unmoved at the bell-rope; he gesticulated, shouted, sang, wept. Above all he wept.” By Miller’s account, one would expect Edwards to treat Whitefield as a protégé gone astray. Gura helpfully reminds us that one of those who wept in Whitefield’s audience was Edwards himself. Edwards had invited Whitefield to preach at Northampton in 1740 and was impressed by his success in revivifying the spirits of the congregation. Whitefield in his journal praised Edwards as “a solid, excellent Christian” and his children as “examples of Christian simplicity.” Apparently, however, Edwards did have a few misgivings about Whitefield’s methodology. Edwards thought it tended to induce hysteria and suspected that Whitefield’s emphasis on a clergyman’s conversion rather than his learning could give way to a breed of amateur preachers with theological pretensions. In many ways, Edwards’s “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon was to serve as a corrective to Whitefield’s enrapturing style — a charge that had once been leveled at Edwards himself.

Delivered several times in his career, most memorably in Enfield, Connecticut in 1742, Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon ranks among his literary masterpieces. In the most famous passage, he draws on his youthful passion for entomology with the image of a spider:

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 and venomous serpent is in ours.

George Marsden detects an anachronistic residue of medievalism in Edwards’s reasoning here, but for Perry Miller, the sermon is America’s “sudden leap into modernity.” The early Puritans had been quick to forge a new covenant with God — the Mayflower compact had established New England as the new promised land. It was precisely this privileged sense of security that Edwards sought to destabilize. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that his apocalyptic vision bears a resemblance to the existential condition of man in modernity, but it still makes Edwards a forerunner of the modern tradition nonetheless. As Miller puts it, “Edwards brought mankind, as Protestantism must always bring them, without mitigation, protection, or indulgence, face to face with a cosmos fundamentally inhuman.” For a time, Edwards also cured the complacency of his congregation by renewing the anxiety he believed was the best fuel for faith.


Gura hovers above the fray of the argument between Marsden and Miller about Edwards’s philosophical orientation — his book aims to be a serviceable survey of Edwards rather than an intellectual feast. By hewing too cautiously to the line that divides a scholarly work from a popular biography, Gura’s book risks being a meager helping. The final chapter of America’s Evangelical traces Edwards’s legacy: The theological mansion he had built included enough spare rooms for many personalized spin-offs of the original Northampton revivals. The later eighteenth century almost forgot Edwards; the nineteenth century returned to him for his theology of the heart and the personal conversion; twentieth-century academics, as we have seen, have tried to rescue him as the presage of modernity’s unfettered anxieties. We can still find vestiges and snippets of Edwards’s rhetoric in contemporary discourse. During his first presidential campaign, when candidate George W. Bush was asked to name the political thinker or philosopher who had been most influential on him, he responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” He could have been answering the first question of a typical Edwardsean or Whitefieldian inquisition.

In 1750, Edwards was fired from his post in Northampton by a committee that objected to his attempts to emphasize the necessity of the conversion experience for church membership. After his dismissal, the congregation lapsed back to the complacency it had experienced under Stoddard. Edwards went on to spend seven years preaching and converting the Houstanoc Indians, and though he continued to write prodigiously, he only regained his stature in New England toward the end of his life when he briefly served as the president of Princeton University shortly before his death (any biography of Edwards has the added virtue of being a history of the early American university). Jefferson preferred to be remembered as the founder of the University of Virginia rather than as the president of the United States. It is not clear for which of his contributions Edwards would have wanted to be remembered. Perhaps he would have been content with Whitefield’s description of him as “a solid, excellent Christian.” He was not consistently successful in any of his earthly offices — much of the legacy he bequeathed to us he would abhor in its present form — but nevertheless,  Edwards remains, mysteriously, America’s first and last great theologian.