Edwards, A Life
Review Article on George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards, A Life,
New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003, 637 pages,
Dr. Herbert Samworth
2003 marked the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jonathan
Edwards, Pastor of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts,
missionary to the Indians in Stockbridge, and President of the College
of New Jersey. We would be amiss if we failed to recognize this
significant event in the religious history of the United States.
In this article we will give an introduction to the life and ministry
of Edwards through a review of George Marsden's book Jonathan
Edwards, A Life. While several biographies of Edwards have
appeared in recent years, Marsden's volume is the first critical
biography of Edwards since Ola Elizabeth Winslow's Pulitzer Prize
winning book of 1940.
It is not
often that the blurbs on dust jackets of books live up to their
claims. For example, we read on the cover of Marsden's biography
the following quotes. "This is the finest biography of Edwards
that I have read. It will be the standard benchmark for Edwards
scholarship for generations to come." "There is no question
that Marsden's biography is the best book ever written about America's
greatest theologian." "In this biography Marsden has produced
a masterpiece." This is indeed high praise and the book does
not disappoint the reader.
some twenty-nine years after Edwards' death in 1758, a critic predicted
that the writings of Edwards would "pass into as transient
notice perhaps scarce above oblivion, and when posterity occasionally
comes across them in the rubbish of libraries, the rare characters
who may read and be pleased with them will be looked upon as singular
to the above opinion, this book comes at a time when the interest
in Jonathan Edwards is at an all-time high. While many would naturally
hesitate to identify themselves as "rare characters" and
to be stigmatized as "singular and whimsical," more and
more people apparently are willing to take the risk. Yale University
Press is proceeding ahead with critical editions of the entire Edwards
corpus of writings with twenty-two of the projected twenty-seven
volumes presently in print. Over five hundred publications on Edwards
were published in the 1980's alone. This flood of writings about
Edwards has not yet crested as each year brings forth more books,
dissertations, and analyses of his life and writings.
numerous reasons for this interest. Present day philosophers, psychologists
and social historians are discovering insight into the problems
of the 21st century through the study of Edwards' life and times.
They are discovering that the Jonathan Edwards of the 18th century
is amazingly modern in dealing with the issues confronting us today.
the unique qualities of Marsden's book is that it deals with all
the above topics and more, providing us with the facts and clear
analysis. He weaves the multifaceted strands of Edwards' life into
the larger perspective of the times. However, this alone does not
provide us with a complete picture of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards,
while he had his shortcomings and failures, made serving God the
supreme objective of his life. His life revolved around an inner
religious core that motivated and sustained all his actions. This
point is often neglected by those who write about Edwards.
It is this
failure to note the religious dimension of Edwards' life that results
in disappointment with many books about him. People have little
problem in reading of his interest in spiders, his moral philosophy,
the "uncommon and yet spiritual relationship" that he
had with his wife, Sarah, his dismissal from the church at Northampton
after twenty-three years of faithful service, his time as a missionary
to the Indians, and his tragic death by smallpox. Also, many can
skim with dispassionate interest the multitude of his writings.
But tragically, they fail to note the essence of what Edwards truly
was. Iain Murray stated in his biography of Edwards, written in
1987 and dismissed as "hagiography" by critics who lack
spiritual insight, that it is not possible to understand Edwards
unless one views him as a religious man.
does not make this mistake. Although he is candid in pointing out
some of Edwards' perceived character flaws and errors of judgment,
he admits that he has written the book from the perspective of Edwards'
spiritual concerns and worldview. Not only does he write from this
perspective of Edwards, he is in agreement with this view.
history, written from the perspective of providentialism, is abhorrent
to the academy, this could sound the death knell for the acceptance
of Madsen's book. However, there is one difficulty with this judgment.
The facts of Edwards' life and writings are the best answer to the
dismissal of God's providence. We read of Edwards' submission to
the sovereign will of God. This did not come without its struggles,
whether in matters of personal holiness or God's work in the world.
This submission or, better stated, resignation, to the will of God
was not the capitulation of one who had exhausted his strength nor
had the will to continue the struggle, but the submission of one
who had been enlightened to see God as He truly is: a God of benevolence
was not of the pragmatic school of philosophy where an end or goal
had to be understood and accepted before the individual would make
a commitment. He determined his course of action by first learning
what God had commanded in His Word and then doing it with a joyful
heart. This was right because God in Himself was worthy of being
loved and obeyed, even if one did not possess the ability to understand
His will completely.
Let us look
at some reasons why a study of the life of Jonathan Edwards can
be helpful to us who live in the twenty-first century. There are
numerous practical lessons that can be applied to our lives.
can teach us the nature of true religion. A theologian from a former
generation stated that if he could have his greatest wish fulfilled,
it would be to sit at the feet of Jonathan Edwards to learn the
nature of true religion. What is true religion? Why is it important
to have it? How is it manifested? Let the reader go to Edwards and
what are the marks of a true Christian? It is one thing to know
what true religion is. It is another question to be assured that
one possesses it. In his masterful work, The Religious Affections,
called by some the greatest religious book ever written, Edwards
lists twelve signs, while of a religious character, are not saving
in nature. He then gives twelve other signs that mark the life of
the individual who is a true believer in Christ.
religion is certainly personal, what can we learn from the larger
picture of all that God is doing in the world? Here also Edwards
can be our instructor. There has not been a writer who has given
us a more accurate picture of what true revival is than Jonathan
Edwards. Do we need to worry about the future of the church? Let
us learn what God has done in the past when the storm clouds of
disbelief hovered above His people. Let us understand the work of
the Holy Spirit in His sovereign visitations to change the face
of society by His omnipotence.
what are the marks of a true Church? Edwards addressed this issue
at great cost to himself. Because of his differences with the previous
teaching of Solomon Stoddard, his grandfather and predecessor as
minister of the Northampton Church, concerning the Biblical requirements
of church membership, Edwards was dismissed from his pastorate.
However, the moral necessity to discern ministerially between the
chaff and the wheat and the true and false professors of Christianity
was a responsibility that he had as a shepherd of souls. Although
the personal cost was high, Edwards did not flinch when he followed
God's leading in his life. How practical this could be when modern
pollsters report there is no discernible difference between the
lifestyles of church members and those who make no profession of
Christianity. How salutary this would be for churches of today to
manifest the marks of a true Christian church!
can learn how mysterious God's sovereignty can be even when we are
walking in obedience to Him. Edwards had to learn that the Christian
life was one of walking by faith when circumstances appeared to
be inexplicable. Why did the Great Awakening degenerate into factions
when it appeared that God's kingdom was about to be inaugurated
on earth? Why did David Brainerd, one of the godliest of missionaries,
die of tuberculosis when he had not yet reached thirty years of
age? Why did the colonists of Stockbridge, although professing Christians,
seek to take advantage of the native inhabitants of the village
and block every attempt of Edwards to alleviate their condition?
Why did Edwards die when he had just been installed as the President
of the College of New Jersey and a period of great fruitfulness
apparently was before him?
question would be foreign to the thinking of Jonathan Edwards. As
Marsden so aptly states, Edwards had spent his entire lifetime in
preparing for death. While there was every reason for Edwards to
live: the welfare of his family, his unfinished writings, the success
of the college, etc., submission to God's will was required, even
in the most inexplicable of circumstances.
said that it is impossible to know how to live unless one has learned
how to die. Jonathan Edwards had learned that lesson well in the
fifty-four years that he lived on the earth. Because he had learned
to die, he had also learned to live. Perhaps that is the greatest
reason for this generation to read Jonathan Edwards, a Life.