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'.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Jonathan Edwards' Sublime Book of Nature


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.