Jonathan Edwards: Founding Father of American Evangelicalism
The theme of this year’s Teaching American History Saturday webinars is American Minds. Prominent scholars will discuss individuals who made significant social, cultural, or political contributions to the American identity beginning with theologian/philosopher Jonathan Edwards. A Founding Father of American evangelicalism, Edwards is best known for his fiery sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Like many Americans, my knowledge of Edwards was simplistic, even mythical, because Sinners was my only exposure to his theology. Edwards wrote numerous sermons, books, and pamphlets that helped start the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and according to one historian, “provided pre-revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology” that influenced the American Revolutionary effort. To understand how this New England pastor can be credited with such influence required some deeper digging into his writings.
Like many students of United States history, I first learned about Jonathan Edwards in a high school English class. We were assigned excerpts of Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and taught it was a textbook example of Puritan sermons. I don’t recall whether his vivid descriptions of hell and mankind’s persistent vulnerability to damnation frightened or shocked any of my classmates. To me, it had the familiar ring of the many of the fire and brimstone sermons I heard on Sunday mornings at the Southern Baptist church of my youth. Not until I enrolled in a graduate class on Colonial America in Ashland University’s Masters of American History and Government did I learn that Sinners’ scared straight theology painted an incomplete picture of Edwards’s evangelism.
By that time, I had become interested in Edwards for reasons other than his theological doctrine. I have always been fascinated by the rogues in American history. Men like Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon, Al Capone, Jesse James, and even Benedict Arnold held my attention like an interstate pile up. When I learned that strait-laced, hellfire-and-damnation Jonathan Edwards was Aaron Burr’s grandfather, I had to learn more. Burr was a mere two years old when Grandfather Edwards died, so it is unlikely, he had any direct influence on Burr’s upbringing, but the family connection was sure a juicy piece of historical trivia.
Edwards, like his future grandson, was a precocious lad. He entered Yale at age 12. Fascinated by the natural sciences, he kept a notebook labeled Natural History containing entries on atomic theory, the behavior of spiders and other topics. As a product of the Age of Enlightenment, Edwards was familiar with scientific advances. But unlike the numerous contemporaries who embraced deism, Edwards saw each new scientific discovery as a vindication of God’s majesty. Scientific knowledge validated his faith. As he matured as a theologian, Edwards balanced reason and emotion in his preaching, rejecting the extremism of both the radical evangelicals and anti-revivalists of the “Awakening” era.
Jonathan Edwards began his career as a Congregationalist pastor in 1727 in Northampton, MA. It was here that Edwards witnessed and chronicled a religious revival in 1733-35 that historians considered the beginnings of the Great Awakening, a period of religiosity so intense that historian Thomas Kidd describes it as “the greatest upheaval in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.” Edwards wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton in which he described the religious conversion of nearly 300 young members of the Northampton community. The young converts were moved to seek salvation following the untimely deaths of some of their friends. A Faithful Narrative launched Edwards’ career as a religious philosopher, though he continued to preach. Never a powerful orator, certainly not on the scale of that other Great Awakening figure George Whitfield, Edwards exerted influence through his published sermons and treatises on religion. They were circulated widely in the colonies and “inaugurated the evangelical movement in American Christianity.” Defined by historian Kidd as “the kind of Protestant Christianity that strongly emphasizes the need for personal conversion,” evangelicalism has gone on to influence social reform movements throughout US history, from abolitionism to the Moral Majority.
Because Edwards and other evangelicals emphasized personal conversion and not traditional Calvinist pre-destination as the basis of salvation, they fostered a more democratic view of Christianity. To help my students understand how this more democratic theology influenced the political ideology of the American Revolution, I would ask them, “Once you challenge the authority of the church to tell you what to think about God, how big of a leap is it to challenge the authority of a king?”
Edwards was not a minister who focused exclusively on hell. His spiritual path to conversion did not seem complete to him until he saw salvation as a mystical thing of beauty and not simply a means of escaping hell. This was demonstrated so vividly in my Colonial America class when we read A Divine and Spiritual Light. Edwards taught that “there was a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness” because “of the … taste of honey.” Religious seekers must taste the honey to experience the joy of salvation. The moment we discussed that document in class was one of the most memorable moments for me in the MAHG program. From that moment on, I always assigned my students both Sinners and A Divine and Spiritual Light to proffer a more complete picture of early American religion.
Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss Edwards with a scholar of religion in Colonial America, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach. Dr. Dreisbach reminded me of how Edwards, a man of science and faith, had died. At the time of his death, Edwards was the President of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. A smallpox epidemic had recently plagued the town, so Edwards decided to be inoculated. Inoculation, an imperfect science at that time, was based on the theory that if one were exposed to the virus, one might survive a minor case of the disease and develop lifetime immunity. Edwards developed a severe case of smallpox and died. Who knows? If the inoculation had worked, maybe he would have bounced his little grandson Aaron Burr on his knee and put a little fear of God into that notorious character.