Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

By John Gatta | Go to book overview

3

Intimations of an
Environmental Ethic in the
Writings of Jonathan Edwards

From Edwards to Aldo Leopold

Whether viewed as more essentially Neoplatonist or Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards was surely no naturalist by most familiar definitions of that term. The environmental determinism of late nineteenthcentury literary naturalism, the picturesque naturalism of William Bartram's landscape commentary, the “Romantic naturalism” of Thoreau—none of these finds any exact counterpart in the work of a divine whose most ambitious writing is devoted to grandly bookish notions like the Freedom of the Will and Original Sin. The Edwards best known for invoking hellish terror in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” seems even more remote from our image of the earthcentered conservationist. Yet the younger Edwards was evidently curious about insects, light, and other facts of nature. Reared amid placid rural scenes in East Windsor, Connecticut, he was shaped both there and later in Northampton, Massachusetts by the distinctive topography of the Connecticut River Valley (see fig. 3.1). Despite his later preoccupation with mentalized abstractions, he did not “lose his grip upon the sheer facticity of nature.”1 Edwards shared the inquisitive mindset of Enlightenment naturalism in his well-known scrutiny of rainbows and spiders; he affirmed the epiphanic wonder of physical Creation in his “Personal Narrative”; and he anticipated Emerson in the insight that nature is a palpable symbol of Spirit.

This last point, broached decades ago in Perry Miller's classic essay “From Edwards to Emerson,” has since received more considered analysis by students of Edwards's typology and religious imagination.2 Innovative in his extensions of typology beyond the scrip-

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