| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Nearly a century after the landing of the Mayflower at
Plymouth, the writer who, according to novelist William Dean Howells, “first
gave our poor American provinciality world standing” was born in East Windsor,
a new settlement in the Connecticut River valley. Edwards’s father Timothy was
a well-read Harvard graduate who held the sole pastorship of the small town’s
Congregational church. Edwards’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, pastor
of a much larger and more influential congregation upriver in Northampton,
Massachusetts, was, like Edwards, a significant theologian. Opposing his more
conservative peers, Stoddard devised a policy of relaxing the requirements for
full membership in the established church.
Edwards was prepared for college by his father and matriculated in 1716 to the recently opened
Collegiate School (later Yale University), which Cotton Mather had helped to
found in hopes of counteracting the “liberal” drift of the younger generation
of faculty at Harvard. During Edwards’s junior year, the College received a
major gift of recent books in science and philosophy, a gift that introduced
Edwards and his classmates to such famous authors as Sir Isaac Newton and John
Locke. Valedictorian of his class, Edwards received his B.A. in 1720. He
remained in New Haven for postgraduate study until 1722, when he accepted a job
as pastor of a Presbyterian church (identical in theology but more formal and
hierarchical in governance than the Congregational churches of his father and
grandfather) in New York City.
After nine months, Edwards left the New York pastorate to complete a master’s thesis in theology
in New Haven. From the year 1720, he had made sporadic entries in a
conventional personal diary, but returning home after taking his graduate
degree, he began making voluminous notes on his original inquiries in physical
science, theology, and philosophy. At the urging of his father, Edwards
prepared a scientific paper on the so-called flying spider, and his father sent
it to a member of the British Royal Society. In 1724 Edwards accepted an
appointment as a tutor at Yale.
Edwards left the College in 1726 to return to the ministry, settling down as assistant to his
grandfather Stoddard at Northampton and then, after Stoddard’s death in 1729,
as sole pastor of the Northampton congregation. He married Sarah Pierrepont,
the daughter of a New Haven minister whom he had known since college. In
response to influential colleagues who proclaimed the soul’s power to affect
its own conversion, Edwards preached in 1734 a series of corrective sermons
emphasizing the Calvinist (but in fact traditionally Augustinian and Pauline)
tenet of the passivity of the convert before God’s all-powerful offer of grace.
In 1735, Edwards’s more “evangelical” emphasis brought about a number of conversions in the
Northampton congregation. Hearing of the revival in Northampton, the Reverend
Benjamin Colman, pastor of Boston’s “liberal” Brattle Street Church (founded in
Edwards’s childhood to open a pulpit to theological opponents of the Mathers),
asked Edwards to prepare an authoritative account of the awakening. Published
by Colman in pamphlet form, Edwards’s letter had a wide circulation, spreading
his fame among Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic. While the pamphlet
remained in circulation, Edwards expanded and re-wrote it for book publication
as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (published in
America in 1737 and in England later the same year).
revival seemed temperate compared to the sensation attending the 1739–1740
colonial tour of a young English preacher, George Whitefield, who had an
established reputation in Britain in the “methodist” or evangelical Anglican
movement. Whitefield traveled throughout the provinces of British North America
from Georgia to Massachusetts. Barred from speaking by local ministers and
universities, he evoked thousands of conversions among audiences. Meanwhile,
within the native anti-Anglican establishment, Presbyterian and Congregational
alike, homebred American awakeners like Gilbert Tennent and Joseph Davenport
achieved effects similar to Whitefield’s.
scholarly New England, the Great Awakening drove American ministers to their
pens. Some defended, some denounced as heresy the conversions and the itinerant
evangelical preaching that had produced them. Edwards, who was at one with his
contemporary Benjamin Franklin in finding Whitefield personally likeable,
nevertheless perceived the statements of both parties as confused. With the
premise that ministers could not meaningfully celebrate or condemn the
particular emotional experiences of converts without having a clear theory of
the place of emotion in religion, and trusting that clarification of the terms
and points at issue would be welcome in the debate, Edwards devoted himself to
producing a systematic study. Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious
Affections attempted to transcend the politicized issues by lifting the
discussion to a philosophical plane. While too subtle to have a direct
practical effect on the passions of the time, the book became indispensable to
such major modern philosophers and psychologists of religion as William James.
For Edwards as author,
the results of the Awakening were happy; for Edwards as pastor, they ultimately
were not. Emboldened by the increase in parishioners testifying to grace-begetting experiences, in 1748
Edwards attempted to abolish Stoddard’s practice of admitting to the Lord’s
supper anyone who had been baptized, returning instead to the original “New
England Way” of first requiring formal profession of a saving experience.
Although a considerable number of the seriously devout in Northampton were prepared
to accept Edwards’s reform, many—reflecting the decreased respect for local
ministerial authority that was becoming the legacy of the Awakening’s itinerant
revivalists—were not. In 1750, in a climate of accumulated family rivalries,
Edwards’s attempted return to pre-Stoddard membership requirements became the
formal issue over which his congregation ultimately voted in sufficient numbers
to dismiss him.
With his family of
eleven surviving children, Edwards remained in Northampton, working on various writing
projects. In spite of financial hardship, Edwards refused to return to
ministry, rejecting pastorships in the American South and as far away as
Scotland and opting instead for an administrative position at a Congregational
mission for the Housatonic Indians at Stockbridge, on the western border of
Massachusetts. Compared to his pastoral responsibilities, administrative duties
posed no intellectual competition for Edwards’s primary work as an author.
The fourth year after
he moved to Stockbridge, Edwards produced a book that was instantly accepted as
a major contribution to an international debate on human self-determination.
Edwards’s Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of
that Freedom of Will Which is supposed to be essential to...Praise and Blame
(familiarly called The Freedom of the Will) would be used as a standard
textbook at Yale and other colleges for decades. Here, Edwards averred that
people enter the world in a state of total depravity and carry no disposition
to good or bad action. The sole liberty people possess, in Edwards’s view, is
the liberty that “I can do, if I will.” Yet the will, Edwards
concluded in this treatise, is not free; it is determined by motives toward
“apparent good” or “that which is agreeable.” So long as people can do
what they will to do, Edwards argued, they are free. Freedom of the Will
was a complicated treatise for complicated philosophical times.
In 1757 Edwards was
called to another post, again in administration, this time as president of the
College of New Jersey at Nassau Hall (now Princeton). He was at first disposed
to resist the offer but finally agreed to take the post. Ahead of his family,
Edwards traveled alone to Princeton. He had barely arrived when, in the
aftermath of a failed inoculation for smallpox, he died at age fifty-five.
Before his death, publishers in Northampton, Boston, New York, and London had
published twenty-four original titles by Edwards, making him indisputably one
of the few major figures in colonial American literary history.
Edwards seems to have
early dedicated himself to speculative thought, laid speculation aside for the
practical purposes of marriage and child rearing, then turned again to
speculative writing shortly before he died. He clearly pursued his writing with
the expectation of eventual publication, yet, as he got further and further
behind on his projects, he evidently accepted that the audience he was
addressing was one of the future.
Carol M. Bensick
California at Riverside
Carol M. Bensick|
University of California at Riverside
Claremont Graudate University
In the Heath Anthology
On Sarah Pierrepont
from A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
[n.b., Published in 1829-1830]
from Images of Divine Things
[n.b., First published 1948]
A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections
A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to . . . Praise and Blame
The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidence of Its Truth Produced and Arguments to the Contrary Answered
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A long biographical essay on Edwards's life and work.
Jonathan Edwards on the Web
An extensive collection of student web projects on Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards On-line
Index providing an extensive collection of Edwards's writings.
The Works of Jonathan Edwards
A comprehensive site about a collaborative project (through Yale University) to "publish a modern critical edition of the entire corpus of Edwards's published and unpublished works" offering biographical information and valuable links.