“A German Professor Dropped into
the American Forests”
BRITISH, FRENCH, AND GERMAN VIEWS OF
JONATHAN EDWARDS, 1758–1957
Michael J. McClymond
JONATHAN EDWARDS’S WRITINGS were known on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean from the 1730s onward. English clergymen sponsored the original London publication of the Faithful Narrative (1737). John Wesley and the British Methodists were early readers of Edwards’s works. Treatises such as Religious Affections (1746), Life of Brainerd (1749), Freedom of the Will (1754), and Original Sin (1758)—followed by posthumous works such as the History of Redemption (1774) and the Two Dissertations (1765)—were all widely read in Britain and in continental Europe. To be sure, the reception accorded to the works was lopsided. The response to Freedom of the Will, for instance, was disproportionate compared to Edwards’s other writings. Yet the same might be said regarding his American reception. The British and European receptions, though, were neither random nor inexplicable. Interpreters used his texts and ideas to address questions current in trans-Atlantic contexts. This essay seeks to sketch a few of the ways in which British and European authors interpreted Edwards, and, having done so, interpreted themselves as well.
Underlying much of the trans-Atlantic discussions of Edwards—at least prior to the early twentieth century—was a presumption that the British and European cultures were originative and normative while American culture was derivative and imitative. If Britain and Europe were like a Himalayan range of intellectual excellence, then Edwards was Mount Kilimanjaro, rising high above the surrounding plains and conspicuous in his solitary eminence.