The Great Awakener

By Oakes, Edward T. | Commonweal, June 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Great Awakener


Oakes, Edward T., Commonweal


Jonathan Edwards

A Life

George M. Marsden

Yale University Press, $35, 640 pp.

With the possible exception of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) must count as the only American theologian who can claim equal (well, almost equal) rank with such greats as John Calvin and Augustine. Son and grandson of Congregational ministers, at thirteen he entered Yale, where he quickly surpassed other students in his mastery of logic, close reading of John Locke and Isaac Newton, and pioneering scientific observations (his study of the behavior and life cycle of spiders is still cited). His reading certainly made clear to him how provincial his religion would look to British sophisticates. Yet, unlike so many bright young men in England, he found in his youthful intellectual and spiritual crisis at Yale a crucible from which he emerged more committed than ever to his faith. Upon graduation, he was convinced that Calvin's view of God's sovereignty was not only viable but the answer to all questions posed by skeptical Enlightenment thinkers.

After a few years of tutoring, Edwards took a position as minister of a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and became perhaps the most intense pastor American Christianity has ever known. Rising around four or five in the morning, he usually devoted thirteen hours a day in his study, generally refusing to make clerical house calls or to engage in empty rectory socializing. Far from resembling an ineffectual bookworm, Edwards unleashed a firestorm of revivalist Christianity up and down the Atlantic seaboard, the so-called Great Awakening, an event that many historians see both as a harbinger of the American Revolution and as the most determinative episode in the entire history of American Christianity.

Edwards left behind a large body of both published works and an even greater cache of unpublished manuscripts (in next-to-illegible handwriting), which have only recently seen the light of published day. For that reason, both historians and the reading public have long needed a new critical biography of this quintessential American figure, and George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life fulfills this need magnificently. Clearly sympathetic to his subject without ever becoming an outright apologist for either his character or his theology, Marsden has read through all of Edwards's works, and, as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame, directed several dissertations on the man. Moreover, he writes with such verve that he has given us not only the definitive biography but also a narrative that reads like a novel--that most appropriate art form for examining the interior drama of the soul.

Novelistic flair for explaining interior drama is certainly useful here, for all Calvinist ministers had to be experts in the science of conversion. "Nothing was more challenging than to be able to tell what was truly a work of God and what was self-deception," Marsden observes. "Nothing had more resting on it." Yet any reliable indicator that a certain religious affection might be the work of God could easily lead to smugness in the believer's soul, which by an easy logic would then lead to the Protestant horror of works-righteousness: "Seldom has there been a spiritual discipline where so much effort was put into recognizing the worthlessness of one's own efforts."

It must be frankly admitted that Edwards never really resolved that conundrum, a failure that soon emerged when he insisted that no one could be admitted to the Lord's Table in his Sunday services who did not show evidence of inner conversion. He had always admitted that it was impossible to judge the human heart, that one could only judge divine election by probabilities. He ran aground, though, when he insisted that a congregant must show some believable evidence of being truly godly. What of those who, out of genuine humility or even simple shyness, had scruples about trumpeting their own godliness? …

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