Jonathan Edwards: Puritan First and Last
This year’s Moderator, David Grimsted, continues his exploration of the Puritans: their history and their ideas about God.
The colonial world that became the United States had no more impressive figure than Jonathan Edwards. His dark vision of a justly wrathful God loving His chosen few and rightly damning most humans was the traditional church view, unsoftened by the idea’s early covenanted and communal boundaries. Edwards emphasized the religious ecstasy of those who found salvation, and the rightness of destruction of those who didn’t. Yet in a political structure requiring religious toleration, as his did and ours do, churches which believe they have the keys to God’s truth generally welcome all to join their favored faith. For Edwards, simple church membership was generally a hiding from rather than a finding of God’s love.
Yet three powerful realities walked with Edwards’ bleak theology. No one ever expressed more intensely the radiance of God’s love or of the beauty of the world God created. Throughout his life everyone sensed the rapture he found in God, in His Nature, in his wife and children, in all people deeply moved by God’s love, and within his congregation, even as relations there deteriorated with the ebbing of his revival. Puritans always respected education, thought and science, but none absorbed so fully the ideas of his world, or practiced science and philosophy with his originality. No one so intellectually set up a humanistic justification of predestination in the free choices that human’s make. No Puritan has remained so widely respected by the thinking world.
Edwards’ Theory of Predestination. Edwards died before writing his planned History of Redemption, but he found time, as pastor and Indian agent in Stockbridge, 1751-1757, to write much philosophy, most of it theological. Yet he also wrote On the Freedom of the Will, the secular pillar of his belief in predestination. Here he argued that humans are right in their sense of having free choice of personal direction in life, work, learning, religion, and much else. This freedom is why folks are justly responsible for what they do—and don’t do. Yet people choose with their minds and especially with their hearts, so that all freedom is the product of the total of previous experience: their childhood, their education, their subsequent paths. Freedom is the product of what they feel—and fail to feel; what they learn—and what they forget and fail to learn; of the limited “facts” brought to their attention; of what they experience—and what they don’t. People are free to choose much as they wish, but what they wish will always grow from the previous and present realities by which they are shaped. Human freedom is always the prisoner of the personal past which God created around them.
Obviously deep and convincing truth exists in Edwards’ theory of predestined choice. Still, no one can prove there is no openness in choice, despite its clear relation to what went before. Yet powerful, and largely convincing, is Edwards’ intelligent attempt to tie human freedom to previously predetermined conditions. It suggests limitations that most people know they have.
Revivals and Awakenings. Historians have sometimes seen Edwards as predecessor of the thought of Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, or even William James. All, like most men of his own day, spoke of Edwards with respect, but I think none agreed with or built on his deepest convictions. For me, he is the most ecstatic, broadly educated, and philosophically acute of the Puritans, writing in a world much changed from what the church’s founders tried to create in Boston a century earlier. His continuing influence is seen most clearly in the revivals that emotionally punctuate churchly religion in the “modern” world. Early Puritan churches had “awakenings,” times of renewed religious emotion and memberships; John Cotten led one of these in Boston’s Old South Church shortly after his arrival in 1634. The frequent bursts of pious enthusiasm that followed fostered church expansion. Edwards’ convictions led to his expulsion from his church. The many subsequent revivals sometimes invigorated established religious groups, but more generally irritated them.
Edwards was no social reformer, since for him what was, was God’s will. Unlike John Winthrop, he never stressed the need deeply to care for and about the poor. In contrast to the reform ideas being opened in his own day, he never spoke against slavery or for political democracy. He owned two or three decently treated slaves; God must have approved of the institution since it existed. He expressed mild reservations about the Atlantic slave trade as it was developing. Political democracy was not of interest to this man with no particular love of Congregationalism. At points he suggested Presbyterianism might be better, as the Mathers had done, so that the clergy might have stronger check on the comfortable or reforming moderns. He loved and adored his wife, personally and as the most saintly of people, but he offered no opinion vaguely tied to “women’s rights.” At Stockbridge, he did his Indian work conscientiously and resisted some economic exploitation of the tribe, but never learned their language. Here especially he developed his ideas. On his tombstone, these Native Americans are called “Barbarians,” although that term was not chosen by Edwards.
Personal Theology. His theology was passionately personal rather than denominational. The ties of his first church when very young in New York City are unclear. His post-revival church actions in Northampton were to remove Rev. Stoddard’s half-way covenant and open communion, because he believed persons’ emotional awakening mattered much more than church stability. In the aftermath, the congregation made clear that they thought Edwards’ position mistaken. So did the other Puritan churches. He happily studied under Anglicans at Yale, and was quick to accept the job at Presbyterian Princeton.
At times Edwards shows some of the most problematic threads in Puritan thought. In his Personal Narrative he talks of seeing himself as the most sinful of beings and of yearning to be the most humble. Competition to win the humility race seems odd, as does one for super sinfulness. And his deepest Puritan belief in God’s wrathful justice creates discomfort, even in his moving passages using nature as symbol of the divine. For example, he writes of wild vegetation’s gross over-production of seeds as symbol of God’s creation of a few chosen ones to love amid the human myriad destined to fall on dead ground. Yet the Puritans’ intense emotion, respect for education and thought, and loving expectation of a truer and better relation with other people and God shines in the words of this greatly intelligent and passionate minister and man.
Edwards loved the Bible, perhaps especially the Song of Solomon. Its erotic intensity burns through Edwards’ complex display of symbolic significances.