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Puritan Preacher Jonathan Edwards Remembered on Birthday

  • 2003 10 Oct
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Puritan Preacher Jonathan Edwards Remembered on Birthday

America's most notorious Puritan is back in the public eye. This time, however, it's not just hellfire-and-brimstone preachers who are walking in his footprints.

October marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards, the bigger-than-life theologian, philosopher and pastor who quarterbacked the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Events at sites from the Library of Congress to the Minneapolis Civic Center will celebrate his life and vast legacy, the extent of which is still being discovered and debated.

Scholars say most Americans know just one thing about Edwards: he once preached the terrifyingly famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Yet at this tercentennial, many are discovering the instrumental role he played in shaping the institutions and culture they take for granted.

"Edwards is a person who is largely forgotten about or caricatured," said George Marsden, professor of history at Notre Dame University and author of "Jonathan Edwards: A Life" (Yale University Press). "But Americans need to pay attention to their spiritual founding fathers because the culture is very secular and spiritual at the same time. A lot of people will find things in him that are really fascinating."

Marsden points out, for instance, that Edwards figured prominently in America's endurance over the centuries as a nation of believers while Europe became increasingly secular. By launching a tradition of revivalism to stir up a love for God, Marsden argues, Edwards passed on a passion for saving souls that has re-emerged somewhere in every succeeding generation.

But it's not just evangelists, or even evangelicals, who can today trace the roots of their beliefs and practices to a man often pilloried for being dated, even in his own time. Protestants mobilizing today to improve society, or striving to connect with God in nature, are recognizing that their 19th century heroes were themselves deeply influenced by Edwards' writings on the purpose of life, according to Kenneth Minkema, editor of "The Works of Jonathan Edwards," a 26-volume collection from Yale University Press.

"He's always there in the background somewhere," Minkema said. "For better or worse, Edwards is part of our makeup. He's part of the American character."

Born on Oct. 3, 1703, Edwards came of age in New England as a Puritan theocracy was giving way to a revolutionary democracy. Through this titanic shift, Edwards' writing and preaching bridged two worlds of thought: one of Calvinist trust in a sovereign God, the other of burgeoning Enlightenment trust in the powers of science and sheer reason.

With help from itinerant preacher George Whitefield and others, Edwards revived a waning Calvinism with a vengeance by rigorously defending orthodox doctrines and leading his sometimes resistant flock to tearful conversions in the 1730s. But it was Edwards' ability to understand and incorporate the cutting-edge of science and philosophy that made him a formidable intellect on the international stage and ensured him a spot among the standouts of Christian history.

"In his letters to Europe, he was always asking, `What do you see as the latest scientific book just published? Will you send it to me,'" said Elise Bernier-Feeley, archivist for the Edwards Collection at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass., where Edwards served as pastor for more than two decades.

"He was always thriving on new knowledge. ... He felt compelled to tell his congregation the truth. I love him for that."

Today, Edwards fascinates scholars and evangelical Christians alike. In universities, the number of graduate dissertations written on him doubles every 10 years, Minkema said, with recent interest primarily in his writings on ethics and moral virtue. Meanwhile, movements such as the Charismatic Toronto Blessing in the late 1990s have used Edwards' writings on "Religious Affections" to legitimize and advance their own history-making projects.

Even the great spiritual question caused by Sept. 11 -- why would God allow this to happen? -- makes Edwards especially relevant to today's culture, according to Alan Johnson, organizer of "Awakening Hearts and Minds to God," a two-day Edwards conference Oct. 25 & 26 at First Church of Christ, Congregational at Wethersfield, Conn.

"He faced turbulent times. There was terrorism all around him with hostile Indians in the Connecticut River Valley," Johnson said, noting that Edwards often feared for the safety of his wife and 11 children. "But he had such confidence in God's overall plan for the destiny of man that he brings a certain perspective of solidarity, of calm, of faith to everything."

Such reassurance might seem surprising from the preacher of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which Edwards tells a quivering crowd, "'tis nothing but God's mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction." But Marsden and others interviewed contend that "Sinners" is not typical Edwards.

"His primary emphasis in preaching was the love of God," said the Rev. Bob Davis, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Millers Falls, Mass., and lecturer on Edwards. "The goal of his preaching was to move the soul of the individual hearer to change. It's (logical) thought that then moves the heart to change you. I follow Edwards, and that's what I try to do in my preaching."

Followers of Edwards, both pastors and laypersons, are flocking this month to his old stomping grounds at Yale, northern Connecticut and Northampton. A 55-seat bus tour of significant sites for Edwards sold out before dozens of additional inquiries came in. Church conferences likewise are bracing for capacity crowds. When Bernier-Feeley considers why Edwards draws so many admirers 300 years after his birth, she says his unique blend of heart and mind for God is only part of the answer. Many wish to see his original handwriting, she said, because it came from a man who stood by his beliefs and suffered greatly for them, enduring scorn, dismissal from his post and a dangerous
life as a missionary to Indians in his final years.

"People are coming to walk in the spots where he walked. They want to emulate him," Bernier-Feeley said. "He was authentic and unwavering. That's what they are looking for these days. If you're looking for someone worthy of being emulated, he is."

© 2003 Religion News Service. Used with permission.