Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture

Synopsis

As the charismatic leader of the wave of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is one of the most important figures in American religious history. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, his writings were generally dismissed as remnants of a moribund Puritan tradition. Focusing on the publishing history and appropriation of Edwards's works by succeeding generations, Joseph Conforti explores the construction and manipulation of the Edwards legacy and demonstrates its central place in American cultural and religious history. Most of Edwards's writings were not regularly republished or widely read until the early nineteenth century, when he emerged as a prominent thinker both in academic circles and in the new popular religious culture of the Second Great Awakening. Even after the Civil War, Edwards remained a popular figure from the Puritan past for colonial revivalists. But by the early twentieth century, scholars had again reinvented Edwards, this time deemphasizing his influence. These contrasting constructions of the one man, Conforti says, reveal the dynamic process of cultural change.

Excerpt

This study examines Jonathan Edwards's place in American cultural history. It is an extension of my earlier work on the New Divinity clerical followers of Edwards. After completing that study in 1981, I watched revisionist scholarship emerge that restored the New Divinity men to their rightful place as legitimate Calvinist theological heirs of Edwards. At the same time, it seemed to me that this new scholarship and my earlier work had approached Edwardsian tradition too narrowly, both in terms of the longevity of Edwards's influence and of the "thickness" of a religious culture that bore his imprint and that a vibrant New Divinity movement only partially represented. My initial efforts to come to terms with this religious culture focused on Edwards most popular work, the Life of David Brainerd, and its importance to nineteenth-century evangelical America. I soon realized that many of Edwards's other works were enormously popular; an emergent evangelical print culture extensively republished his writings and appropriated and widely disseminated his interpretations of theology, conversion, revivalism, and personal piety. Most surprising of all, I found that even after the post--Civil War retreat of the evangelical "empire" that had so markedly affected antebellum America, Edwards endured or was "reinvented" as a cherished icon -- a cultural artifact who met the needs of a new generation that, among other things, "discovered" colonial antiques.

How had scholarly interpreters of Edwards, who have produced such a capacious body of literature on this prolific and brilliant thinker, overlooked impressive evidence of his abiding importance in nineteenth- century American culture? I have concluded my analysis with a brief examination of how Progressive and then neo-orthodox intellectuals appropriated Edwards for their own cultural needs and thereby deflected scholarly attention away from the vital nineteenth-century Edwardsian traditions that this study examines.

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