Saturday, October 5, 2013

Remembering Jonathan Edwards

Martin E. Marty, the eminent church historian, wrote earlier this week about the Sept. 26-28 conference feting Billy Graham. In his article, Marty averred that Graham is “on the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers such as Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King.”
Everyone knows who Graham and King are. But what about Edwards, who was born 310 years ago today, on October 5, 1703? (That was about four months after the birth of John Wesley, whose influence in England was perhaps even greater than Edwards’s in New England.)
The Connecticut-born Edwards is certainly worth remembering and honoring, even by those of us who don’t agree with some of his emphases.
About six weeks ago, I finished reading James Wm. McClendon’s book “Systematic Theology: Ethics” (1986). I was surprised when I found that “Sarah and Jonathan Edwards” is a chapter in that book. Jonathan and Sarah (Pierpont) married in 1727, when she was only 17. McClendon states that they “were lovers,” and that their love “drew them heavenward in a union at once spiritual and uncommon” (p. 131).
Edwards, a Puritan, became the pastor of a Congregationalist church, First Church of Northampton, Mass. He succeeded his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard who had served as pastor there for 60 (!) years, from 1669 to 1729.
Edwards was also a leader of the “Great Awakening,” a revival movement that started in 1734 and lasted for around 25 years. His emphasis on personal religious experience called infant baptism into question.
Thus, according to church historian Justo González, “many Congregationalists and Presbyterians, led by the Awakening’s emphasis on personal experience, eventually rejected infant baptism and became Baptists. Entire congregations did so” (“The Story of Christianity,” II:289).
Edwards is best remembered for delivering the most widely known sermon in the United States: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached in July 1741. That sermon has often been included in anthologies of American literature.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.” This is a quote from Edwards’s famous sermon, but I’m afraid it would not have the same effect now as it did 270 years ago.
Edwards’s most widely read book is the biography of a young missionary to the Native Americans who died at the age of 29 in 1747. It is titled “The Life of David Brainerd” (1749), and has never gone out of print, having positively influenced a great many missionaries through the years.
In the winter of 1758, Edwards traveled down to New Jersey to become the president of the college which later became Princeton University. When a smallpox epidemic struck the region, in order to serve as a model and example to his students Edwards received a smallpox vaccination—but he tragically contracted the disease and died that March.
During his short time in New Jersey, Edwards had stayed with his daughter, Esther. She was the widow of the first president of the college, Aaron Burr, who had died in Sept. 1757. So Jonathan was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, Jr., the third Vice-President of the U.S.
Marty asked his readers to decide who they would select for the fourth face on the “Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers.” Who would be your pick?


  1. Thanks, Leroy. Reading your post about Edwards reminds me of two things. Having just finished with one of my classes the Dhammapada, a collection of the Shakyamuni Bhudda's teachings, I am reminded of his emphasis upon the impermanence of things, including the memory of one even so notable as Edwards. Were it not for your blog and perhaps others like it, I would not call him to mind at all. It does not mean others would not, of course. The second thing is your use of "Native American" in describing the work of David Brainerd, the subject of Edwards's book. Either the term is anachronistic, or Edwards was way ahead of his time. But it called to mind a conversation I had two weeks ago with a member of Cherokee peoples on the question of "Indian" vs. "Native American." He spoke of the latter as a term white people thought of to make themselves feel better about the fact that they had colonized him and his peoples. I did not miss the irony of desiring to be called Indian (from my point of view, a reference to the the story of Chris. Columbus, etc.), so I asked him whether the word Indian meant he was any less colonized. To my surprise, he derived the word Indian from a non-western etymology, perhaps from Cherokee, but I do not know. Not sure he knew. But the meaning of the term was something like "sons of god." More importantly, from his point of view, it was not a term that anyone else had given him.

    1. Milton, thanks for soon reading and commenting on my blog posting this morning.

      I was especially interested in your second point. Certainly "Native American" was my term, not Edwards's. I didn't know that there was a claim that "Indian" was derived from something else other than "India."

      I was surprised to find that there were several websites that talked about the possible origin of "Indian," but most were debunked and none seemed very plausible.

      Thus, I think I will stick with the Online Etymology Dictionary: Indian: "inhabit [sic] of India or South Asia," c.1300 (noun and adjective); applied to the native inhabitants of the Americas from at least 1553, on the mistaken notion that America was the eastern end of Asia."

    2. Milton wrote back with this response: "Quite certain your conclusions about Indian are right. More interested in your use of Native American in association with a book on missionaries to indigenous peoples."

    3. And this was is my reply:

      Milton, I have to admit that I was unaware that there are now objections to the term "Native American." I was still thinking like this:

      "Particularly in academic circles, the term Native American became the preferred term of respect, and a remedy for avoiding dehumanizing stereotypes, whether of the bloodthirsty savage or the Tonto-like Noble Savage. For a time, using Native American signaled a progressive and enlightened consciousness, in much the same way that using Asian instead of Oriental does. Use of Indian struck some as out of touch, or worse—a mark of ignorance or bigotry."

      The same article goes on to say,

      "But objections to the term Native American also arose." And then there was this:

      Russell Means, the Lakota activist and founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has strongly rejected Native American in favor of Indian:

      "I abhor the term Native American. It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. These are the American Samoans, the Micronesians, the Aleuts, the original Hawaiians, and the erroneously termed Eskimos, who are actually Upiks and Inupiats. And, of course, the American Indian.

      "I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins . . . As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity . . . We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose."

      "I am an American Indian, Not a Native American!"
      statement by Russell Means

      Read more: American Indian versus Native American |

  2. Thanks, Leroy, for this interesting piece. I'm thinking about your question. Harry Emerson Fosdick is one I'd want on the Mt. Rushmore of American preachers. :)

    1. Thanks for writing, Anton. I was hoping you would so to give me a chance to tell other readers that your 1985 doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame was titled "Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Critical Study of the Doctrine of Atonement in the History of American Religion" and that the first part of it was about Jonathan Edwards.

      Also, I like your nomination of Fosdick for the "Mt. Rushmore" of Protestant shapers of America. But at this point, I think I would probably go with Walter Rauschenbusch.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Susan wrote, "You know me, I want a female representative . . . So I will put Lottie Moon out there as my vote.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Susan. But I'm afraid that while Lottie is a worthy candidate for Baptists, her influence in non-Baptist circles was not great enough to make her a serious candidate.

      June and I were talking about this on the way to church yesterday, and we wondered, if a woman were to be chosen, if maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe or Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be feasible candidates.

  4. I was caring for young children during the service where our current pastor was first introduced to the church, so I did not hear the news until after the service, when I was told the suggested new pastor was Jonathan Edwards! Being of a somewhat skeptical mind, I started a hopefully gentle inquisition. It turned out the correct name was Jason Edwards, and so far he has stayed far from the topic of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!"

    The topic above about American Indians reminds me of the long struggle to find the right term for blacks in America. Every new term became caught in the politics and prejudices of its time, and was eventually swept away by a new term. The underlying problem was the status of the people named, not the name itself. That the term American Indian is seeing a resurgence in popularity echoes the pride with which other pejorative terms have later been embraced by those so described, as can be seen in such former insults as Christian, Mormon, and Obamacare. OK, I stretched putting in the last one, but when President Obama accepted the Republican characterization of the Affordable Care Act, embracing it as his own, he was using exactly the same strategy.

    Now as for the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant America, I wish I could vote for Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian, and a great influence on my personal thinking. However, since the question asks for "shapers" of American Protestantism, I think a much better nomination would be the abolitionist John Brown. The day he surrendered at Harpers Ferry, to none other than Robert E. Lee, is one of those symbolic pivot points on which history is transformed. This man saw himself as a prophet of God, called to unleash a sea of blood to wash away the stain of American slavery. He was hardly executed before the Civil War began. The Civil War did not end until after slavery was abolished. Both good and evil have flowed from his being, much like the Old Testament God he studied. Not the most pleasant face to put on a mountain, but he was a real shaper. Let us not forget, the great Civil War hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was a more dignified reworking of John Brown's Body, sung to the same tune. We may not like modern people who blow up abortion clinics or manipulate Congress to shut down the government, but they got more inspiration from John Brown than from Robert E. Lee.

    1. Well, John Brown is certainly an interesting suggestion. But I am afraid his consideration would not "fly" with the majority of Americans. (I even received an e-mail with a diatribe against MLK being on the Protestant "Mt. Rushmore.")

  5. Local Thinking Friend Don sent this suggestion:

    "Acknowledging my Baptist connections, Graham would be considered but also Adoniram Judson and Roger Williams."

    1. Thanks for your "nominations," Don. Similar to what I said to Susan, I am not sure Judson was widely enough known outside of Baptist circles, but I like your suggestion about Roger Williams. He could well be my final choice.

  6. From local Thinking Friend Temp:

    "When I saw the name Jonathan Edwards, I scurried to my dissertation which included a section on this Great One. He was fired at the Northampton church over argument about who should be permitted to take the Lord's Supper. 150 years late, a stone paced at the church: 'The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.'

    Next on Mt. Rushmore: Horace Bushnell.

    1. Thanks, Temp, for your comments.

      While I have some problem with Bushnell, just as I do with Edwards, I agree that his influence on American Protestantism, and thereby on American culture, was significant.

  7. I would suggest Rick Warren. He has challenged the nation in the way we do church. He has remained doctrinally sound while at the same time being innovative and compassionate. Moreover he has not been culturally or politically divisive. He has helped the church to focus on its purpose and has influenced many pastors across a wide evangelical spectrum to think outside their box.

  8. Brent, thanks for your "nomination." But I'm afraid I would have to say that it is at least 40-50 years too soon to evaluate what lasting significance Rick Warren will have.

    Of course, Graham is still living, but his greatest influence was probably in the 1950s and 1960s.

  9. Thinking Friend Dan in Louisiana wrote last night suggesting Charles Finney for the "Mt. Rushmore" of Protestant Christian thinkers.

    That is an excellent suggestion, I think. As Edwards was a key figure in the First Great Awakening, Finney's influence on the Second Great Awakening was equally strong. So if Edwards and Graham are going to be there, perhaps Finney should be there as well.