Jonathan Edwards: A Life

Article excerpt

Jonathan Edwards: A Life. By George Marsden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, xx + 640 pp., $35.00.

Two thousand three marked not only the tercentennial of the birth of Jonathan Edwards, but also a landmark year for Edwards studies. A number of local, regional, and national conferences convened; scores of essays were published-including Journal of Religious Ethics and Reformation and Revival Journal devoting entire issues to Edwards; and a number of important books on Edwards rolled off the presses-not the least of which was George Marsden's much-anticipated biography of one of America's most celebrated Christians. The first full-length scholarly biography of Edwards in roughly half a century, Marsden's Jonathan Edwards joins the work of Ola Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758 (1940); Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (1949); Patricia Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton (1980); lain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (1987); and Kenneth Pieter Minkema, "The Edwardses: A Ministerial Family in Eighteenth-Century New England" (1988). While each of the previous biographical studies captured important facets of Edwards's life and times, Marsden had the fortune not only to draw from a deep and rich Edwardsian historiography, but he also enjoyed ready access to Edwards's vast corpus, made increasingly available by Yale University Press's The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Thus Marsden rightly dedicates his book to the "generation of scholars" (p. xviii) who preceded him. The result is a comprehensive portrait of Edwards, rich in detail and lucid in prose.

To observers of American religious history, the story of Jonathan Edwards is a familiar one. The progeny of sturdy New England ministerial stock, Edwards's father (Timothy Edwards) and grandfather (Solomon Stoddard) possessed reputations as able and accomplished preachers. After graduation from Yale, Edwards served as a tutor and then pastured congregations in New York City and in Connecticut before taking the ministerial reigns of Stoddard's Northampton church upon his grandfather's death in 1729. Here Edwards labored under the long and daunting shadow of his grandfather until 1750. It was also in Northampton that Edwards oversaw several periods of revival and eventually became an authoritative voice, not only among colonial revivalists, but also among transatlantic (and "international") Protestants. Edwards was known both from his large network of correspondents and through his voluminous writing ministry. In addition to A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards's attempt to explore the tension between reason and emotion, he also published works on the extent of sin, on the importance of ethics and virtue, on the dynamics of the human will, and on the nature of exemplary mission work. Edwards also kept various notebooks, recording his theological observations and attempting to draw summaries between the Old and New Testaments, among other subjects.

On top of a rigorous writing schedule, Edwards was a busy parish minister, tending to the needs of a provincial congregation and laboring to compose sermons on a weekly basis. Unfortunately for Edwards, his exhaustive ministerial labor ended in dismissal. Following the expulsion, Edwards spent the closing years of his life as a missionary in western Massachusetts and served for six months as the president of Princeton (at the time the College of New Jersey) before succumbing to a smallpox inoculation. Edwards led an active, busy, and overall productive life, and Marsden perceptively navigates and negotiates the complexities of Edwards's pastoral and provincial milieu. While Marsden deftly examines the theology of Edwards, he also opens up to readers the unique and conflicted personal dimensions of this towering intellect.

Marsden vividly portrays the world in which Edwards was raised. Edwards grew up in a "world of women" (p. 18) and the company of his immediate family (ten sisters) seemingly set the intellectual bar quite high as all but one sister received a formal education. …