A Puritan Mind Circling the Globe

Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkema

For three decades now, the editorial offices of The Works of Jonathan Edwards have had a home at Yale Divinity School, commemorating the life and work of Yale’s most distinguished religious alum.** That relationship has resulted not only in the publication of a 26-volume series of his writings, but an online archive totaling close to 100,000 pages, not to mention classes on Edwards, theses, and dissertations by students from Yale and from educational institutions across the globe, as well as visiting researchers, publications, and other activities.

We should soon see in print the first-ever Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, edited by staff of the Jonathan Edwards Center and including some 400 articles by contributors the world over. In the 21st century, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is still news.

Child of the Reformation

Though he lived in the early 18th century, and we usually associate him with the Enlightenment, Edwards was very much a child of the Reformation, an inheritor of its concerns – and its prejudices. It is fitting that we look to Edwards, whose cultural and textual presence is a direct link to the Reformation heritage of YDS, which was established in 1822, and even more so to the School’s origins in Yale College’s founding as a training school for ministers in 1701. Edwards was an early graduate of the College, class of ’20 – 1720, that is. His valedictory address from that year is the oldest that has survived from Yale’s history.

This foundational presence of Edwards at Yale has been enhanced lately by the addition of manuscripts that have come via the Divinity School’s new partnership with Andover Newton Theological School. This collection includes most of Edwards’ youthful essays on natural philosophy (the early modern term for science), as well as a large cache of family letters. For the first time since the mid-19th century, the complete Edwards corpus is officially reunited.

The Reformation occurred only a century and half before Edwards’ birth, and he was part of the Calvinist Puritan religious culture that sought, by its own lights, to carry out the aims of the Reformation in the New World. He was also an inheritor of many of their cultural assumptions – patriarchal, a slave owner, condescending to Native Americans, and most assuredly no democrat. These are aspects of Edwards that historians of various stripes have taken up in recent years, showing him to be very much a person of his time, yet one who also effected changing attitudes towards gender, race, and egalitarianism.

A Famous Sermon

But it is as a theologian and revivalist that Edwards is best known, a preacher and proponent of the Great Awakening of the 1740s – the author of the wonderful yet wonderfully misunderstood Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – and a fountain of modern evangelicalism. As such, he is a vital link between the Reformation and our age. Scholarship that takes a measure of the breadth of his interests, significance, and influence is thriving. Let us walk through a few areas where we see the most activity.

Of course, there is history of doctrine. There is no lack of work on Edwards’ take on the classic Reformation tenet of justification by faith alone, for instance, making him a conversation partner in the continuing ecumenical dialogue on that topic.

One important line of this inquiry traces changes in his outlook on certain doctrines during his lifetime. This compels scholars and popularizers alike to grapple with unfamiliar, uncanonized texts, complicating any pat positions. Another direction this research takes is to examine how far Edwards departed from, or stayed true to, John Calvin and the Reformed tradition in general. For some, this is a matter of dire concern, and the slightest deviation from Reformed tenets by Brother Jonathan causes much hand-wringing. For others, Edwards was an  original thinker not beholden to Calvin or anybody else, and that’s that. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

A Place for Beauty

Another area of strong interest is Edwards’ aesthetics, particularly his development of beauty as a theological category. He has been hailed as the first Western theologian to drive beauty to the center of his thought. Beauty for him defined God as trinity. It identified the human being as a reflection of divine beauty through received grace and manifested holiness. And beauty sacralized creation as an emanation of Eternal Mind. In this vein, Edwards has something to say to current considerations of human flourishing and joy – a subject pursued at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

Edwards’ spirituality – his views on worship and prayer, his personal spiritual disciplines – is likewise a topic of scrutiny. More theoretically, some very suggestive work is being done on Edwards’s idea of the soul’s “participation” in God, which takes in topics such as union and communion, incarnational spirituality, divinization, and beatification. Here we approach Edwards as mystic.

Appraisals of Edwards’ prodigious work as a biblical exegete are underway. Only recently has the full extent of his commentary become widely available – particularly his “Blank Bible,” a fascinating study tool consisting of pages of the King James Bible interleaved with columned sheets of paper on which he could make his comments, all bound into a custom-made volume. The Reformation was so much about accessibility to the sacred texts, and New England Congregationalists were renowned as people of the Word, both printed and spoken. So it is high time that the hermeneutics, methods, and sources of Edwards’ biblicism, and his significance as a biblical theologian, receive attention. We shouldn’t assume that this patriarch of Puritan stock was bound to the “literal” sense of Scripture. What is emerging is a picture of him as eclectic, with a fertile typological imagination, one of whose favorite books was the love poetry of the Song of Songs.

Late in life, Edwards took up a post of missionary to native peoples in Stockbridge, MA. He entered the work with conventional colonial attitudes towards natives, but there is intriguing evidence that living with them for several years changed him, as he became a strong advocate for their rights, and came to view some native converts as better Christians than most of the English he had known. These issues, and Edwards’ part within the larger, tragic scene of Euro-Indian contact and domestic missions, are getting attention, but much work remains.

300-year Legacy

Then there are the legacies. This is a productive field, for Edwards’ influence is profound globally, nationally, and locally. Globally, his formative presence in the missions movement meant that Edwardsean texts and piety were transported to every habitable corner of the planet. Today, we see an ever-increasing readership of Edwards, as reflected in our affiliate Edwards Centers in eight countries on virtually every continent.

Nationally, Edwards’ disciples adapted his thought and became involved in major religious movements such as the Second Great Awakening and in vital reform movements such as the abolition of slavery.

Locally, Edwards’ influence was felt at Yale and at peer institutions through the “New Divinity,” the theological movement in the late 18th and early 19th century that he inspired. Europeans called it simply “the American theology,” recognizing it as the first such worthy homegrown movement. In the 20th century, H. Richard Niebuhr dubbed Edwards the “American Augustine.” YDS students need only look at the figures after whom many of the pavilions in the Quad are named, to see that most of them – David Brainerd, Samuel Hopkins, Moses Stuart, Nathaniel Taylor, Leonard Bacon, Lyman Beecher – were Edwardseans of one stripe or another, and that the others – Horace Bushnell, Samuel Seabury – engaged Edwards and his legacy in formative ways. It can be argued that we are still doing that today, and in ways we may not even realize or acknowledge.

Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at YDS and general editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. His books include Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) and The New England Soul (Oxford, 1988; 25th anniversary edition, 2011). Forthcoming is American Aristocrats: A Family, A Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books). Kenneth P. Minkema is executive editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and of the Jonathan Edwards Center & Online Archive at Yale University, with an appointment as research faculty at Yale Divinity School.