Colonial Calvinist; Seeking Life of Nation's Greatest Theologian

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 20, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Colonial Calvinist; Seeking Life of Nation's Greatest Theologian


Byline: Evan Haefeli, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) would be pleased with this most recent and authoritative study of his life and work. There is no colonist before the Founding Fathers about whom we have so much information. Edwards was not only a prolific writer. Aspects of his material life - desks, portraits, books and more - have been carefully preserved through the ages.

There is a vast amount of research being done by scholars in and around the Jonathan Edwards Papers project at Yale University. His importance as (probably) America's greatest theologian certainly merits this. Undertaking a life of Edwards was clearly an intimidating prospect. This mighty biography, "Jonathan Edwards: A Life," is a humble product of years of devoted labor and scholarship by a man committed to a Christian faith in a tradition that is a branch of the same Augustinian and Reformed tree. Edwards, who died leaving several monumental scholarly-theological works unfinished, would appreciate Mr. Marsden's dedication as well as Mr. Marsden's sense of priorities.

For all that we know about Edwards and his life he is still very difficult to understand as a person. As Mr. Marsden points out, Edwards' religion defined and dominated his life in a way few mortals could imitate. Most of Edwards' writings concern the business of religion. Most of those who write about him are interested in his writings more than his person. Mr. Marsden tries to understand him "as a real person in his own time". At the same time, he hopes his study will "help bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians." The result is an informative scholarly account and a very human portrait of a very religious man.

Given to intellectual pursuits at an early age, Edwards did not initially seem cut out for the godly life. Admittedly, he started a bit early (age 12). But the intelligent and sensitive son of such a devout and demanding father as Timothy Edwards could hardly do otherwise. Throughout his life, Jonathan's spiritual searching would be dominated by his father's rigorous Calvinism. Timothy died only about a month before Jonathan. Mr. Marsden admits the clear Freudian possibilities this relationship had on Jonathan's ministerial career, but insists that to understand him we must understand his religion.

Jonathan Edwards' close relationship with women (sisters, mother, wife, daughters) may account for the success he had in reaching the souls of New England women, and the difficulty he had in reaching those of its men, but it does not account for his obsession with particular theological issues, like Arminianism. These emerged logically out of his beliefs and the broader religious context in which he lived.

Edwards embraced his Calvinist God only after years of wrestling with his most difficult decree, that God had intentionally condemned uncounted numbers of souls to eternal torment in Hell even as he selected the few elect for Heaven. Only after he could convince himself that in truth God was love, for all the awful things He allowed, did Edwards' spirituality take on its famous evangelical turn.

This happened while he was at Yale, poised between adolescence and adulthood. Shortly thereafter he married Sarah (only 15 years old at the time). For the rest of his life, Edwards combined the roles of spiritual and actual father to a growing family and the expanding communities of 18th-century New England.

On the surface, Edwards' life was not terribly exciting. Born in East Windsor, Conn., along New England's Connecticut River, in the vale of which he spent the vast majority of his life, Edwards did not rove far from home until he went to college at Yale.

After graduating he served briefly as a pastor in New York City, then of an innocuous farming village in Connecticut before taking up his post at Northampton, Mass.

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