Nathanael Emmons and the Decline
of Edwardsian Theology
Gerald R. McDermott
NATHANAEL EMMONS (1745–1840) was one of the most peculiar but influential theologians of the New England Theology. He declared that God would be judged on the Day of Judgment, that Christ himself was in a state of trial during his incarnation, that God loves Lucifer as much today as before the Fall, and that it is easier to obey the commandments than reject them.1 Although his influence on abolitionism and democratic liberalism was important to American social and political history,2 this chapter focuses on his eccentric theology. It will show how this tobacco-chewing thinker, “the most extraordinary specimen of the Calvinist personality ever developed in the historic seedbed,”3 used a radically individualist hermeneutic that eventually undermined the Calvinism of his own tradition.
In the early Republic, Nathanael Emmons was the best-known theologian of the New Divinity, the school of Edwardsian disciples that was both America’s first indigenous theology and, according to Bruce Kuklick, “the most sustained, systematic,and creative intellectual tradition produced in this country.”4 By his teaching, preaching, and writing, Emmons shaped several generations of American religious leaders. While pastoring a Franklin, Massachusetts, congregation for fifty-four years, Emmons trained more men in his home (about ninety) than any other teacher in the history of the Congregational church. These pastors went on to spread his theological ideas across New England. Both Bangor and Andover seminaries were founded by his students. One hundred of his sermons