Jonathan Edwards' Sublime Book of Nature

By Miller, Gordon | History Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Jonathan Edwards' Sublime Book of Nature


Miller, Gordon, History Today


In the face of growing ecological concerns in recent decades, many environmentalists are emphasising the need to cultivate a renewed sense of the sacredness of nature. A variety of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions are drawn upon to inspire these efforts. New England Puritanism, however, which represents the strand of Western Christianity that historians have long associated with the rise of capitalism and the development of modern science, and that Lynn White Jr. has depicted as perhaps the world's least `earth-friendly' religion, is not often seen as a likely source of ecological insights. Nevertheless, certain elements of it can shed light on possible routes to a re-enchantment of nature. These elements can be discovered with particular profit in the works of Jonathan Edwards, whose spiritual reading of the `book of nature' arose from his early immersion in the natural world and from his belief in the power of the word.

Edwards, who would become one of the most original and articulate theologian-philosophers in American history, was born on the family farm in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 1703. He imbibed the spirit of Puritanism with his mother's milk, his material grandfather being Solomon Stoddard, the influential Northampton, Massachusetts, pastor, and his father being the local Congregational clergyman. After training for the ministry at Yale, he succeeded his ageing grandfather at Northampton in 1729.

Edwards remained in Northampton for nearly twenty years, forcefully and lucidly expounding Calvinist themes with both pen and pulpit oratory, and he played a leading role in the evangelical revivalist movement of the 1740s known as the Great Awakening. His fervent sternness and inflexibility, however, eventually caused divisions within the congregation and in 1750 he was dismissed from the Northampton parish. In 1757 the trustees of the College of New Jersey at Princeton invited Edwards, who had become the foremost American theologian through the influence of works such as Religious Affections and The Freedom of the Will, to be its president. He arrived in Princeton in February 1758, in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, and with his body weakened from years of mortification and intense intellectual pursuits, he died of an inoculation the following month.

From his youthful days in the Connecticut Valley, the phenomena of nature greatly attracted Edwards' attention. In the fields behind his house he became enthralled with the activities of spiders, and he wrote an insightful essay on them while still a teenager. The luminous phenomena of rainbows also engaged his interest and aside from observing these skyborne natural symbols of God's covenant with Noah, he experimented with various ways of making them himself, including spraying water into the sunlight from his mouth and splashing up droplets from a puddle with a stick. His essay `Of the Rainbow', dating from about 1721, follows Isaac Newton's Opticks and presents an account of the causes of rainbows. Light itself held a great fascination for Edwards and, a few years after writing on rainbows, he wrote of the more general `Beauty of the World'.

That mixture of all sorts of rays, which we call white, is a proportionate mixture that is harmonious (as Sir Isaac Newton has shewn) to each particular simple color and contains in it some harmony or other that is delightful. And each sort of ray plays a distinct tune to the soul ...

He proposed that the more sublime the beauty the more hidden the source, being caused by some `secret regularity or harmony'.

Consideration of natural phenomena in themselves thus often occupied Edwards' mind, but they could never fully satisfy his spirit: the light of the world was only truly interesting to him as an occasion for increasing the light of the soul. From his earliest walks in his father's pasture, however, nature and spirit occasionally coalesced: he remarked in one instance that `as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express'.

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