The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James

By James Duban | Go to book overview

1
Jonathan Edwards and Henry James, Sr.: The
"End" of Creation and True Virtue

THE ELDER HENRY ACCOMPLISHED A PROCESS OF SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION BY CHANneling Jonathan Edwards's ideas about benevolence (perhaps as those were modified toward neighborly ends by Samuel Hopkins) into the reservoir of nineteenth-century socialist experimentation. Whether through firsthand reading or second- and third-generation transmission, the intellectual encounter of the elder James with Edwards's theology was crucial, though covert. The senior Henry benefited from Edwards's philosophy while avoiding public scrutiny of so controversial and—to the minds of many—so regressive a debt. The extent of that indebtedness has yet to be gauged by scholars who illustrate the devotion of the elder James to the Calvinism of John Glas, Robert Sandeman, and John Walker.1 Considerably more investment is suggested in the elder James's excitement about "'Jonathan Edwards redivivus'" (NSB, 347) than a possible mere reference to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.2 The senior James's allusion to Edwards also encompassed two related works, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) and The Nature of True Virtue (1765). That entire set of "redivivus" doctrines—along with Edwards's thoughts about free will and imputed sin—came to figure significantly in the socialistic philosophy of Henry James Sr. The metamorphosis of Edwards's thought in the writings of the elder Henry also highlights the compatibility of Edwards's Freedom of the Will, The Nature of True Virtue, and The Great Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin Defended. This appreciation of Edwards came about despite the senior James's rejection of Calvinistic ideas about perdition and his response to Edward Beecher's The Conflict of Ages (1853).

It should be remembered that Henry Senior had a high regard for the more kindly aspects of Protestantism. While deeming "justification by faith without works" to be a "hideous dogma" (LS, 6), he celebrated the "fundamental truths" of "the creation, the fall, the redemption and the reconciliation of man." For James, the problem lay not with those truths, but with the way Protestantism had "maintained these verities in a most absurd and

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