America's first superstar preacher

Jonathan Edwards made saints rejoice and sinners quake

Widely considered to be foremost among American religious thinkers, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) lived a life of passionate devotion. Indeed, his preaching fueled the Great Awakening, a period of spectacular revivals that ran through the Colonies during the mid 1700s, permanently changing American religious experience.

His father, Timothy, was "a formal and fastidious man who would never be seen in public without his full clerical garb." Jonathan combined his father's authoritarianism with "overwhelming clear visions of divine beauty," according to George Marsden's new biography.

Like his father, Jonathan both attracted and repelled followers. His most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which pictures an unconverted sinner as a spider hanging over the pit of hell, has the power of poetry. Edwards's demanding nature would lead him from triumph in Northampton, when nearly the whole town seemed swept up in religious enthusiasm generated by his preaching, to the loneliness of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where he became a missionary to the Indians and endured hardship and occasional terrors during the French and Indian wars.

Finally, in what turned out to be the last year of his life, he accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), but he was reluctant to leave Stockbridge, where solitude had nourished his writing.

As it unfolds in Marsden's biography, the life of Jonathan Edwards is equal to his famous works of theology. Marsden's densely documented narrative is vivid and absorbing. At the end, the reader feels a quiet joy as Edwards, so long exiled in the West, assumes the role of professor and even learns to enjoy it a little.

Marsden, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, manages to make Edwards both familiar and strange, a man who always acted within the "traditions of martyrdom and submission." As might be expected, he was a somewhat distant though intensely concerned father. For example, on the occasion of the birth of their first child (he and his formidable wife Sarah were to have 11), Marsden notes that Edwards considered "childbirth, a biblical image ... especially typical of the afflictive way God dealt with fallen humanity, even in bringing them the best things personally, spiritually, or through history." With observations like these, Marsden consistently places the events of Edwards's life in the context of his thought.

Indeed, Marsden's Jonathan Edwards lives with an almost tragic intensity. He seems held together by the tension between his capacity for mystical rapture and his iron discipline as a systematic thinker in the tradition of Calvin. On the one hand, his work exemplifies the "principle of a universe of relationships in which everything had its place." On the other, Edwards was constantly watching for signs of "the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind." In his "Religious Affections," he writes about a new perception of the world given to the "regenerated" through a "spiritual sense," an immediate perception of divinity, "entirely different from anything that is perceived by natural men."

But he also knew that the counterfeits of this rapture could cause havoc. He suffered terribly when the rampant enthusiasm that led to conversions also led to suicides. In Edwards, melancholy wrestled with the angel of bliss.

At times, Marsden appears to be writing a saint's life, but his aim may be less exotic. "We need to use history for the guidance it offers," he warns, "learning from great figures in the past - both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings." He hopes to "bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians," by placing his life and thought within "the larger Christian tradition."

For Marsden, Edwards foresaw two contemporary problems: modern individualism and mechanistic determinism. He struggled mightily to reconcile man's will with God's control over everything in the universe. But in the end, he seems only to locate a rather cramped area in which the sinner is free to follow his inclination to sin.

In this conscientious and eloquent biography, pious Jonathan Edwards comes to unruly life with all his unresolved complexity intact.

Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant living in Providence, R.I.

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