Jonathan Edwards. Wikimedia Commons

The Thinker of Puritan New England

Called a “fire and brimstone preacher”- Edwards was a strong defender of the intellectual tradition of Puritan theology and the “Great Awakening,” during a period that saw the spread of an Enlightenment, deistic type of rationalistic mentality.
Elisa Buzzi

Jonathan Edwards, the leading spokesman for New England’s Puritan intellectual and religious tradition and certainly one of the most brilliant and significant thinkers to come out of America, was born three hundred years ago in East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703. His father Timothy, a Harvard graduate, was pastor of the East Windsor Congregational Church; his mother Esther was the daughter of one of the most influential figures of Puritan New England: Solomon Stoddard, pastor of Northampton, the “pope of the Connecticut River Valley.”

In the fall of 1716, Edwards enrolled at Yale, where he earned a baccalaureate degree and received his master’s in theology on September 20, 1723. During his time at Yale, around the age of 20, he began his earliest writings on science and philosophy, leading to his fame as an enfant prodige of American philosophy. In the outlines of the metaphysical conception that provided the background for the great treatises of his maturity and enabled Edwards not only to defend the intellectual tradition of Puritan theology, but also to renew it, giving it the original imprint of a speculative mind of the first rank. This conception takes the overall shape of a form of idealism, which he developed starting from a critique of seventeenth-century materialism and mechanism and Cartesian dualism. In this context, he worked out the notion of Excellence as the keystone of a view that sees the whole universe as structured in accordance with a dynamic of communication and participation or “consent to Being,” which has its fulcrum and origin in the Trinitarian communication, from which all of reality flows continually, “as at the first instant of the Creation.” From this perspective, “nothing can exist apart from consciousness, created or uncreated.” Intelligent beings are the purpose of creation, “created to be the consciousness of the universe,” to perceive beauty, and to participate in the excellence of Being, in the communication that the Bible calls Glory and that constitutes the “reason” and ultimate structure of being.

Pastor of Northamton
Starting in 1726, Edwards accepted the post of minister of the First Church of Northampton, the largest and most important congregation outside of Boston, working first by Stoddard’s side and later as pastor. During this period, he worked intensively at writing sermons (scholars calculate that in his whole life, Edwards produced about 1,500 of them). In them, he continued to investigate in greater depth the themes that had been the main object of his religious and theological interest: the nature of conversion, spiritual knowledge, and the justification and rationality of Christianity. These topics, coming together in the overall framework of a definition of Christian life in terms of experience–a question he felt deeply also at the existential level–are solidly anchored to the philosophical perspective and flow into a confutation of positions defined by the general term of Arminianism. The sense of the absolute excellence and sovereignty of the divine Being and man’s radical dependence dominate Edwards’ spiritual horizon in a time when these traditional doctrines were beginning to waver under the blows of what he called the “new fashion in theology,” i.e., the gradual spread of a rationalistic mentality with an Enlightenment and deistic stamp. In it, Edwards detected a form of neo-Pelagian moralism, reductive of the fundamental truths of Revelation and radically opposed to a religious conception of human experience in its gnoseological and ethical unity and, even more, to its theological foundation.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
In this perspective, a fundamental turning point came with the crucial events of the period between 1735 and 1742, tied to the Great Awakening, a religious and social phenomenon of great proportions and significance for American history. Edwards was one of its leading figures and its convinced, albeit critical, defender. During this period of revival, he produced his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", one of the classics of Colonial American literature and a determining factor in his fame as a “fire and brimstone” preacher, as well as the typical exemplification of the dark “Puritan” religiosity obsessed with the terror of hell. In reality, this cliché does not pay full justice to Edwards’ conception, dominated more by the idea of beauty than of terror; and while it is true that his implacable elaboration of the Biblical notion of the wrath of God is so effective as to leave little room for the imagination, we must also keep in mind that the depth of the vision of the horror of nothingness and man’s alienation is in direct proportion to the intensity of his perception of the absolute excellence of God and of the drama of the condition of human beings who find themselves, for the most part unawares, in every instant of their lives “on the brink of eternity” and “like sleepwalkers move blindly towards their ruin.” This dramatic vision fits into a broader anthropological and ethical perspective, making Edwards one of the very few thinkers of his time to intuit clearly and to contest systematically the utopian implications of the Enlightenment ethical and political program that was beginning to dominate Western civilization: the idea of being able to base on the negation of original sin and the affirmation of the natural goodness of man a universal moral system that would put an end to the most destructive conflicts and guarantee the inevitable progress of mankind. As a scholar has observed recently, “Since Edwards was more or less the only moral philosopher of the eighteenth century to deny natural human goodness, he was also one of the few to perceive that this dream was not only empty, but potentially dangerous.”

Authentic Religious Experience
In the wake of the bitter controversy unleashed by the Great Awakening and the profound theological reorientation connected with it, Edwards was led to concentrate his attention more and more on the problem of the nature of authentic religious experience in the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), his first great treatise and perhaps his most important work. The fundamental core of the view of religious experience theorized in the Treatise depends essentially on the definition of spiritual knowledge as the heart’s sense, or affective knowledge, an aesthetic perception of divine excellence in which the individual’s cognitive and affective faculties are united in the profound transformation of his basic inclination, produced by Grace, which St Augustine would call love, and ultimately involves participation in the life of the Trinity itself. In the Treatise, however, which was destined to become one of the classics of evangelical Protestantism, Edwards takes a clear stand against certain extreme forms of subjectivism in religious experience that do not rely on some form of objective, i.e., scriptural–but also “practical” and existential–verification, in accord with the typical Reformation view. This position is synthesized emblematically in a statement that in some way reflects the deepest core of Edwards’ own religious experience: “To live by experience and not by Christ is more abominable in God’s sight than the vulgar immorality of those who do not make any pretense of religion.”

At the Indian mission in Stockbridge
In the years after the Great Awakening, Edwards became involved in a violent controversy with his congregation, that resulted in his dismissal from Northampton in 1750. Along with his numerous family–he and his wife Sarah Pierpont had eleven children–he was forced to move to the Indian mission in Stockbridge, where he stayed until 1758. Here, albeit in precarious “frontier” conditions, he managed to complete a group of great treatises, foremost among them his most famous and philosophically demanding work, Freedom of the Will (1754), a rigorous confutation of the notion of freedom as self-determination, aimed at reaffirming absolute divine sovereignty. Subsequently, Edwards took up again a long-meditated project, A Rational Account of the Main Doctrines of Christian Religion, an unfinished summation, of which he managed to complete only parts, which were published in the form of three treatises, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758), A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue. These last two works, published posthumously in 1765, put forth again, in a less polemical and more tightly argued form, his view of reality as the manifestation of divine Glory, of the fullness of being which is the only “end” for which the world was created, and of moral life as beauty that springs forth from adherence to Being.

Toward the end of 1757, Edwards received from the recently established College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) the invitation to be president. He hesitated at length, also because he feared that such a responsible position would have distracted him from a project on which he was concentrating all the energy that his failing health allowed him: a great work in which systematic theology would be approached by a totally new method, i.e., in the form of the history of salvation. This project, too, was only partially completed, with the posthumous publication in 1774 of a work based on a group of sermons preached in 1739, entitled The History of the Work of Redemption. In early 1758, he finally decided to accept the call to Princeton, where he moved in February. At his doctor’s advice, he decided to be vaccinated against smallpox, endemic at the time and particularly insidious in the large university communities. His already precarious health could not withstand the effects of the vaccination, and a month later, on March 22nd, he died.