The Death of the Devil on the Battlefield of New England
Like many people, I have always thought of Jonathan Edwards as belonging to an earlier generation than the one he did in fact belong to--as a contemporary of the Salem witch trials, maybe, instead of the American revolution. Unlike most people, I'd read more of Edwards's work than his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and that means I had less of an excuse for my confusion. Most people don't even read the entire text of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." They get what they get of it from anthologies meant to introduce them to the "tradition" of American literature, and the anthologies almost always ditch the first half and go directly to the part where Edwards takes aim at his parishioners' jugulars. Let's face it, looking up at a gaunt, fiery-eyed, six foot tall man dressed in flowing black robes while he tells you that "[t]he 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," has to be one hell of a way to wake up on a Sunday morning.
The truth is, however, that Jonathan Edwards hadn't even been born in 1692, when witch fever raged through Salem in an incident that would be an embarrassment to every Calvinist minister in America almost before it was over. By the time he was born--in 1703--the rigorously intellectual Protestant Christianity that had provided the foundation for the English settlement of Massachusetts was already on shaky ground. New ideas were everywhere. John Locke had published his Letter on Toleration in 1689 and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. His Two Treatises of Government, which would become the theoretical basis for the Constitution of the United States, were published in the same years. In these books, Locke argued for an idea that would eventually come to be called "separation of church and state," and on the assumption that all ideas, including religious ideas, needed to be judged by the light of human reason. Even fifty years previously, he would have been jailed for heresy no matter which side of the Great Conflict (Protestant or Catholic) held the throne. Instead, Locke was the philosophical lion of his age, and the progenitor of an entire generation of men who would change the world forever. Everything you think and everything you do, right down to your belief that you have a "right" to invent yourself without being held back by the accident of who you were born to, starts with Locke.
Edwards, then, was the child of a revolutionary era. He came of age at the same time as many of the men who would one day stage the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin was a friend of his. Among his grandchildren were Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Dwight, representative from Connecticut to the Ninth United States Congress, and Timothy Dwight, president of Yale just after the adoption of the Constitution. When he wrote in response to ideas, they were the ideas of the Enlightenment, in both its English and French versions. He was only nineteen years older than George Washington.
So why is it that everybody--and I do mean everybody--thinks that Jonathan Edwards is a figure from the dark past of newly settled New England, one of those Puritan fathers in the funny hats who sent scolds to the stocks and gossips to the dunking stool?
It has to do with what we mean when we use the word "Puritan."
Puritans in England and New England
First, let's make something absolutely clear: if you'd asked Jonathan Edwards himself, he would have called himself a Puritan and been proud of it. The mission of the Puritans was to "purify" the Christian Church. Martin Luther had started the process by breaking from the Whore of Babylon that was Roman Catholicism, but in the many decades since that event corruption had visited the new Protestant church establishments. This was especially true of the Church of England, which couldn't seem to make up its mind whether it wanted to be Protestant or Catholic. There were all the smells and bells, you see. Instead of good plain Christian worship, the Church of England had incense, organized choirs in robes, and priests instead of ministers. The Church of England might call itself Protestant, but it was in fact--well, something else.
Remember that this was a time when religion determined much of the life you were able to lead in whatever country you'd been born in. The Church of England was an arm of the British government. Everybody paid taxes to support it, and anyone who did not belong to it was denied the right to sit in Parliament or attend the universities, among other things. Over the years, waves of persecutions had washed across England, depending on which sect or faction had control of the Crown. Henry VIII established the Church of England and baptized it in the blood of men who refused to accede to his break from the Bishop of Rome. Mary Tudor, his daughter, returned the country to Roman Catholicism and earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" because of her zeal for burning heretics, meaning anybody who refused to declare themselves allied with the Pope and the Vatican. Elizabeth I was saner than either her father or her half-sister, but once she took the English church once more into Protestantism, she wasn't about to allow Catholics and other dissenters to take the reigns of government. Allegiance to the state Church was allegiance to the State, and that made dissent at least an approach to treason.
In the middle of all this mess, there were English Protestants who chafed at what looked to them like an unacceptable compromise. The Church of England was "Protestant," but only in the sense that it did not recognize the authority of the Pope. In most other ways, it was a very Catholic church indeed. There were those priests instead of ministers, formally and ritually ordained, and the priests wore elaborate, embroidered robes, just like priests in the Church of Rome. There was Communion, but instead of a humble memorial to the Last Supper, it was an elaborate ritual in which the magical mumbo-jumbo of the priest was assumed to turn the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. There was even confession and absolution, as if anybody other than God himself could forgive sins.
But it wasn't just in obvious matters of "religion" that these Protestants disapproved of the Church of England. Followers of John Calvin more than of Martin Luther, they believed that true conversion to Christ would manifest itself in all aspects of a person's life. Not only his morality and piety, but his clothing and habits of expression would mark him out as someone who had been born again and become a new man. Neither the clergy of the Church of England nor the monarchy that supported them showed any signs of becoming "new men." They were just as addicted to displays of wealth and power as they had always been, and in being so they put the souls of ordinary men and women in grave jeopardy. By their example, countless Englishmen were being led to Hell by example.
Almost from the beginning of the Church of England's formal separation from Roman Catholicism, these "pure" Protestants found themselves alienated from the church establishment. They became "dissenters," in the Church but not of it. As the years passed, and the Church of England showed no signs of reforming itself, it became increasingly difficult for these Dissenters to maintain the charade that they supported the Church at all. In fact, they didn't support it, and they weren't exactly shy about saying so, or showing so in their dress and manner of speech. They stuck out the way that woman in the Star Trek uniform stuck out in the line of prospective jurors at the O.J. trial. The sumptuary laws may have fallen into disuse from one end of England to the other, but the Puritans, even the wealthy ones, looked like dirt farmers at a funeral.
Eventually, some of them just packed up and left. Contrary to legend, it wasn't so much that they were being persecuted--England was a Protestant nation, after all, and their only real fault during a time of relatively relaxed religious legislation was in being too strict--as that they could no longer stomach the idea of being part of a polity where public virtue was so little maintained and true worship so flagrantly corrupted. They wanted to found a City on a Hill, a place that would be run by the laws of God and a beacon to all the world in the matter of true religion.
What they founded instead was Massachusetts, and it is these Puritans we think of when we use the word. Their men wore high hats with buckles on them. Their women wore little white cotton head coverings that tied under the chin. They had stocks, and fire and brimstone sermons, and more trouble with the Indians than most history books bother to go into. Most of all, they lived in a web of formal laws, informal customs and church disciplines that regulated every part of their lives, and they enforced these laws and customs and disciplines with very public punishments for anyone who strayed from them.
This was a world in which everything depended on God, and God was working tirelessly to bring about the end of time, when Jesus Christ would return to earth to reign in glory. Seventeenth century Puritans were just as convinced as Pat Robertson is now that they were living in the last days, and that their job was to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven was not a metaphor, but a reality, a promise made in the New Testament that they were sure was being fulfilled right in front of their eyes.
Puritans did not stick out on the newly-minted streets of Massachusetts. Their dark clothes and plain manners were the norm, not the exception. But that was the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, a man wearing traditional Puritan dress anywhere in the spreading British settlements of New England would have been laughed back onto the boat he sailed in on. Women got news from London and Paris and altered their dress accordingly. Men wore the wigs that were increasingly fashionable for men of substance and education. Puritanism as we have come to understand it--as a total and totalizing way of life--was dead.
So if Jonathan Edwards wasn't a Puritan as we define that word today, what was he? If he held the pulpit of a megachurch, a big religious complex with television broadcasting capability and an active missions office, what would we call him? Do we even have a word for it?
Yes, as a matter of fact, we do: evangelical. What Jonathan Edwards was was one of America's first evangelicals, a founding member of a tradition in American religion that runs right down the centuries from colonial New England to twenty-first century Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where D. James Kennedy is working tirelessly to spark a revival and reclaim America for Christ.
Revival is the operative word. Jonathan Edwards is the man who lit the match that started the fire that became the First Great Awakening, an explosion of religious fervor that burned intensely for almost a decade and altered the political and intellectual landscape of America in the process.
Even if you know nothing about history, you should know something about Great Awakenings. We're in the middle of the Third Great Awakening now.
Evangelicals and Difference
If it is difficult to think of Jonathan Edwards as an Evangelical, it may be because there is one way in which Evangelicalism has changed between his time and ours. Go look at almost any of the web sites maintained by present-day Evangelicals, and you'll almost surely find a page or two excoriating the "theory" of evolution. Read through the material on that page, and if you have so much as an undergraduate degree in Biology from a standard university, you'll cringe. It's not just that so many modern-day Evangelicals reject evolution, it's that they get it so very wrong. From mind-boggling misconceptions about the second law of thermodynamics to the recycling of hundred-year-old already-exploded objections (what use is half an eye?) about change over time, to confident statements that evidence that does exist doesn't (yes, Virginia, there are transitional fossils), the modern Evangelical movement's approach to science exhibits a nearly breathtaking celebration of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.
Jonathan Edwards also lived at a time when scientific discoveries were challenging Protestant claims for the inerrancy of the Bible. And, just like now, many intellectuals, writers, and academics of that era used those scientific discoveries to cast doubt on both the Bible and Christianity. It's still impossible to imagine Edwards crying out that Newtonian mechanics is "just a theory" or basing an entire fulminating rant on an elementary-school-level misunderstanding of the Principia Mathematica.
Jonathan Edwards was an intellectual, educated at the elite institutions of his day (he was in one of the earliest graduating classes at Yale) and conversant not only in Christian doctrine but in Classics. He read Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as English, and knew Aristotle and Cicero as well as the Bible. He read the Principia Mathematica and understood it. His concern was not to beat it off with a stick, but to find the way it fit into revealed truth. He had no doubt it would fit. If it didn't seem to, it was because men with their limited understanding had misinterpreted the Bible, not because scientists had misinterpreted nature.
If you happen to be one of those people actively involved with trying to keep science education free of the depredations of the Creationists, this may seem like a very large difference. And there's no doubt that Edwards and the men like him who reconciled the Bible with the scientific discoveries of their time did a great service to Christianity, by making it possible for even the most highly and rigorously educated to be believers. The fact is, however, that compared to the many ways in which Edwards resembles the Evangelicals of our time, this one difference is barely a drop in the bucket.
Evangelicals and Similarity
If you'd asked Evangelicals of Edwards's time, or those living now, to define themselves, they would say that their most important characteristic was their commitment to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people in the hope that it would be received by conversion. In fact, that is, technically, what "evangelical" means. An evangelist is someone who takes seriously the Great Commission, given at the end of the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
And Jesus spake unto them saying, All power is given unto me in Heaven and in Earth.
Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
The thing is, however, there are other people who take the Great Commission seriously, and who dedicate their lives to fulfilling it, who are not called and would not call themselves "Evangelicals." At the very time Edwards was writing and preaching, French Jesuits were spreading through Canada, preaching the Gospel to the Indians and converting hundreds of them to Roman Catholic Christianity. They would have called themselves "evangelists," but never "Evangelicals." Evangelicals are always Protestants.
Not all Protestants, however, are Evangelicals, even though some of them are evangelists. To be Evangelical means to accept not just Protestant Christianity, but Protestant Christianity of a specific type, characterized by three main ideas beyond the one in the Great Commission. Those ideas are:
b) a belief that one is living in the end times, or close to them, and that the Second Coming of Christ is close in time
c) a conviction that church and state should cooperate at least to the extent of establishing and enforcing moral norms as law.
Of the three above, the first is everywhere characteristic of Evangelicals in much the same way and intensity, and the other two vary in the emphases various Evangelical groups have placed upon them. The issue of the "end times" is especially contentious, and the hope of church-state cooperation sometimes runs afoul of reality. Still, all Evangelicals accept these three ideas to one extent or the other.
Modern Americans who are not part of the Evangelical tradition tend to think of a "revival" as an event: like Neil Diamond's Brother Love, an itinerant preacher in a bad suit and a $10 haircut sets up a tent on the outskirts of town and starts preaching the Word. Townspeople crowd in and begin speaking in tongues, throwing away their wheelchairs, and falling over in dead faints, having been "slain in the spirit."
To Evangelicals, however, "revival" is a much more long lasting manifestation of the grace of God. It means a repair of the Church leading to an expansion in the number of true and committed believers who remain steadfast in faith and moral behavior and bring their faith to bear on the society that surrounds them. Revivals do sometimes involve itinerant preachers, and they most definitely involve public emotional displays that strike nonbelievers and nonEvangelicals as decidedly odd, but the emphasis is on the renewal of the Church's strength and reach.
By definition, revivals occur only in times of great apostasy. If there was no falling away from faith and true religion, there would be no need to revive either. What's more, revival means that God has sent the Holy Spirit directly into the hearts and lives of men, in order to effect a "new Pentecost." The first Pentecost occurred only weeks after the death of Christ, and is described in the Acts of the Apostles like this:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from Heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them.
To be filled with the Holy Spirit, then, is to be "on fire"--it is an essentially emotional experience. What is more, it is something close to a direct experience of God, which means it is emotionally overwhelming. Intellect and argument are important. Understanding doctrine is to be encouraged. In the end, however, grace is given as a great tidal wave of feeling that sweeps all before it.
This is what is called affective religion, meaning a religion of the emotions. It is by no means meant to imply that Evangelicals believe in a religion of the emotions only. Evangelicals then and now put great store in Biblical exegesis and other scholarly and analytical approaches to understanding Christ's message and doing God's will. It's not enough to read the Bible. You have to know what it means. And Evangelicals have often been on the cutting edge of archeological investigation into life in the Holy Land.
In the end, however, the Church will not be built up by cerebral exercises, but by the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit enters into a person's heart, the experience is so immensely affecting that the person cannot help but manifest it in extreme behavior. Like Paul on the Damascus road, a person receiving the Holy Spirit hears the voice of God plain, and is overcome by it.
The First Great Awakening
When Jonathan Edwards took the pulpit in the First Christian Church of Northampton in February, 1729, he would have been happy if his parishioners had been able to hear the voice of God at all through their fog of self-absorption--a faint intimation of the eternal would be better than none at all. That there was none at all, or very little, Edwards believed was evidenced by the worldly nature of his parishioners' private lives. The trouble was especially great among the young, who were given to staying out late at night to dance and joke.
Their elders weren't much better, and often seemed to be in collusion with their children's bad behavior. There was also the practice of "bundling," where young, unmarried men and women were wrapped up tightly in blankets and left to spend the night in bed together, on the assumption that the tight wrap would keep them from engaging in any sexual behavior, and that the experience would be a good way for them to get to know each other. The result was exactly what one would expect. A truly remarkable number of the children born to parents who had been bundled turned out to be, uh, premature.
To add to this sort of thing--which was a perennial problem in Christian churches, given the fallen state of human nature--Edwards was faced as well with a flood of new ideas crossing the Atlantic from England and France, the swelling tide of the Enlightenment. These ideas posed a number of dangers to traditional Christian belief as Edwards understood it, although two in particular stood out.
First was the insistence, by Locke and other philosophers, that human beings were not and should not be confined in a hierarchy of power by birth, or defined by that hierarchy. Instead, every man should be able to win his own way and define himself--to rise and fall in the world by his own merits, to choose his own religious commitments, to rely on his own authority in things that pertained to himself.
None of that seems very strange now, since it's become the foundational assumption of a third of the world, but Edwards saw it as an attack on the authority of the Church, and especially of the Church's pastors. A man who was his own authority in things that pertained to himself was likely to assume that that authority extended to interpretations of the Bible. If he was his own authority on interpretations of the Bible, then he would feel free to reject the interpretations presented by his pastor or even to challenge that pastor on how the book should be interpreted. This could lead to a chaos of schisms, to uncertainty among the laity as to what true religion really was, and to indifferentism among the unchurched. After all, nonbelievers, seeing believers at odds with each other and unable to agree even on what the Bible said, were not likely to feel called to submit to the discipline of Christian churches.
The second new idea was even more threatening and explosive. It was Locke's contention that all things on this earth, including the Bible, should be subject to rational analysis and judgment. If the Bible differed from what reason would allow, it was reason, not the Bible, that should prevail.
In the years since Locke had first floated this idea, readers had taken it a long way down the path of logical conclusions. Some thinkers in the Americas would take it even further. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, took a razor blade to his copy of the Bible and cut out every mention of miracles. Thomas Paine wrote a long book, called The Age of Reason, ripping the Bible to shreds on historical, rational, and even sheer logical grounds. Even men who considered themselves to be committed Christians, like John Adams, tended to embrace a "rational Christianity" which dispensed with miracles and the divinity of Christ.
Edwards could see just these things happening already in England, and he knew that the acceptance of such ideas would mean the loss of hundreds of souls. He also shared with modern Evangelicals the conviction that America had been especially blessed by God because of her founding as a Christian society, and that she would lose that blessing, and be destroyed, if she turned to apostasy.
Edwards was desperate, then, to turn the tide of intellectual and cultural change. He envisioned it as a tidal wave advancing from Europe to America. He needed a tidal wave of his own to counter it. He set out to make one in the only way he knew.
Here is the first thing teachers do wrong when they read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." They assume that this was one of Edwards's regular Sunday sermons. It was not. It was part of a series deliberately designed first to teach true doctrine and then to appeal to the emotions that would bring parishioners to a visceral confrontation with the majesty of God.
Edwards had hopes that revival might be at hand. Even in England, the source of all things both spiritually corrupt and Protestant, there were signs of revival, with John Wesley drawing crowds from one end of the United Kingdom to another and many of his followers doing almost as well.
One of those followers, George Whitefield, had already come to America and set up headquarters in the South. Edwards wanted him to come to Massachusetts, and in preparation for that visit he began to preach the series of sermons he hoped would bring a change of heart among his parishioners.
They worked. In no time at all, the First Church of Northampton was a hotbed of spiritual awakening, including masses of new conversions and almost daily reports of special favors from God. Parishioners fainted from the overwhelming "sweetness" of God's presence and broke down from their overwhelming conviction that their souls were damned to Hell. The church was packed week after week, and dozens of private prayer meetings and Bible readings sprang up in houses around the town. There were even two suicides.
But it's important to note that Edwards did not leave the work of redemption to emotions alone. The second thing teachers do wrong in teaching "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God" is to teach only the second, emotive half of it.
The first half of this sermon is a meticulously reasoned exposition of the doctrine of redemption "by grace alone," presented as an interpretation of Deuteronomy 32:35:
To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.
Edwards presents this verse as applying especially to those people who are not only recipients of God's grace, but known to be so to the world at large. He starts:
In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God's visible people...
It is important that the Israelites were God's visible people, because as such they served as God's ambassadors to the rest of the fallen world. Edwards and his parishioners saw themselves in this very same position. Hadn't this colony been founded as a "city on a hill," a "shining beacon" of God's grace?
But the same thing had happened to the City on a Hill as had happened to the ancient Israelites. Both had fallen away from God and into disbelief, disorder and sin. Both had forgotten the simple truth of God's power:
"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God." By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty...
In other words, the very existence of any human being depended on sola gratia, on "grace alone." Every human being deserved to be in Hell. The only reason he wasn't already there was because God had not allowed him to fall into the pit. God had not allowed him to fall into the pit because God chose not to so allow it. Nothing any human being could do--no good works, no moral life, no heroism, no martyrdom--could earn him a place in Heaven. The best that humans could do was just as deserving of Hell as the worst. Men who took comfort in the belief that they were living good lives were fooling themselves. Man was so fundamentally corrupt after the sin of Eden that he could not live a good and decent life at all, unless God decided to will it.
Every one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men who have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done. He does not intend to come to that place of torment; he says within himself , that he intends to take effectual care, and to order matters for himself as not to fail.
But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own
schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow.
It is only after Edwards has laid out this doctrine in an intellectual way, with full attention to logic and to both the verse he is explicating and other passages from the Bible, that he moves on to the "Application" of these ideas to everyday life. This is where most anthologies begin their excerpt of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." This is where the writing begins to get interesting to 21st century undergraduates, used to television an film and not a lot of boring cerebral reasoning.
And interesting it does get, and not just in the "pit of hell" line that has thrilled so many generations of students. For instance:
Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf...
The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Think of it as a colonial American version of one of those encounter group sessions that were so popular in the 1980s and that sometimes re-emerge even now as "sensitivity training" at college orientations. The point is to push every member of the congregation to the limit of his emotional capacity and then over it, triggering a catharsis that will lead to lasting change. That is what is known as a conversion experience.
Whether this method works or not is open to question. In the short run, it certainly does, and it did for Edwards during this period. The long run is a different story. The First Great Awakening collapsed in less two decades. Encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions seem to result in more lawsuits than New Humans.
The important point to remember here is that Edwards did not serve up this sort of emotional overdrive to his parishioners every week. Neither Puritans nor Evangelicals expected their time in church to be taken up with threats of Hell.
What both Puritans and Evangelicals did expect was that coming to God would be hard. Men and women would not give up their self-interest and pride unless they were convinced that they would suffer horribly by not doing so.
The trick was to convince them, and in the first flush of that conviction to bring them to commit themselves to Christ. To do that, you needed an appeal to the emotions. No dry intellectual exercise would ever really do.
Living at the End of Time
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and the other sermons in Edwards's revival series were written to make his parishioners confront their own mortality, to remind them that everybody, eventually, dies. The message would have worked if it had been directed to reminding them that the world itself was scheduled to die. Edwards, like all Christians, believed that God had promised to send Christ to earth again, at the end of time, when all men would be judged and sent to their eternal reward, be it paradise or punishment. Before the very end, however, Christ would reign for a thousand years on earth, and earth would once again be the paradise it had begun to be in Eden.
This focus on the imminent arrival of the end times is evident in Evangelical theology even today. Most modern American Evangelicals, however, are what are called posttribulation dispensationalists. That is, they believe that before the coming of the "millennium" (the reign of Christ on earth), believers will be "raptured" into Heaven and Satan will be allowed to reign himself on earth for a thousand years. Only after that time will Christ return to cleanse the earth and rule over believers.
Edwards, however, believed in something closer to what modern Evangelicals call "covenant theology." The Bible was the inspired word of God, and true in all its promises. Christ himself had promised to return to earth in glory, and The Revelation of St. John the Divine presented a road map for what that return would be like. The reign of Satan would indeed last for a thousand years, but that thousand years was already in progress--the Antichrist was the Pope, and Christ would therefore return to rule the earth one thousand years after the establishment of the Papacy.
The theology of the Second Coming has always been sticky in Christianity. Christ's promise at the end of his life was that "some" of the people who heard him would not have passed away when he came again in glory. That seems like a straightforward declaration that the Second Coming would occur within the same generation that had heard the Gospel in the first place. Since that obviously did not happen--all the men and women who were alive to hear Christ when he himself preached in Jerusalem are now dead--the problem became interpreting the scripture in a way that made Christ's words true regardless.
The first such attempt relied, as all subsequent ones have, on the prophecies in Revelation, which seemed to say that Christ would come only at the end of a thousand years of tribulation, when Satan himself would rule the earth and the peoples of the earth would pay homage to him. To Christians living in what we now call the "Dark Ages"--the period of time between the fall of Rome and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire--the idea that Satan was ruling the earth looked plausible enough. This was an era when wave after wave of nomadic tribes swept down from the steppes of Northern Asia to overwhelm the smaller, weaker cities and towns of Western Europe, destroying everything in their path, over and over again. Governments were weak and ineffectual. Safety was a pipe dream. Planning for the future was impossible.
Then the year 1000 came, and Christ did not. A spasm of "millennium fever" went through Western Europe, complete with everything from frantic renovations of church buildings to a dramatic rise in vocations to religious orders. The clergy and laity both waited. They waited and waited. Nothing happened. Then somebody remembered that Christ himself had said:
"But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.
Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is."
Obviously, nobody really knew when Christ would return, and speculating on the date was not only foolish but probably sinful.
For the next four hundred and fifty years, Christian theology largely ignored the Second Coming, except to note that it would occur, sometime. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the principle of sola scriptura, and its insistence that every Christian had the right to read and interpret that scripture for himself, brought the end times front and center again. In the wars and persecutions that ended by establishing Protestantism as an independent branch of Christianity, plenty of people believed they were about to witness the Second Coming immediately.
For Calvinists, the issue was interpreting scripture in a way that would both affirm its truthfulness and make sense in commonsense terms. They found it in an interpretation of Revelation that read references to the "whore of Babylon" as meaning the Catholic Church and references to the "Antichrist" as meaning the Pope. If the Antichrist was to reign for a thousand years before Christ came again in glory, then the Second Coming would occur one thousand years after the establishment of the Papacy.
Dating the reign of Satan from the establishment of the Papacy had a few advantages over most attempts to interpret Revelation. First, it confirmed the central theological contention of Protestant Christianity: that the Catholic Church and the Pope were corrupt, anti-Biblical forms imposed on the true religion of Christ. Second, it placed the Second Coming comfortably in the future, so that the fact that it hadn't happened yet was no cause to doubt the truth of scripture. Third, it left the actual time of that Second Coming vague, since nobody was sure when the Papacy had first been established.
The fact that nobody was sure didn't mean that nobody would guess, and Edwards was among the guessers. He eventually put the date of the Second Coming as sometime in 1866. That meant that the "great apostasy" was most like the very works of Enlightenment he was already committed to combating.
Because most of us never read any more of Edwards than his most famous sermon, we tend to think of him as principally a preacher. But Edwards was the first and greatest of American theologians, and his most significant works came not in the sermons he preached but in the books he wrote.
The book with the most lasting influence is called Freedom of the Will, although Edwards, with that talent all 18th Century writers had for putting too much information in titles, actually called it A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.
Edwards wanted to insist that it was not necessary for the will to be completely free, in order for men to be morally responsible for their actions. This does not mean that Edwards was a determinist, as we understand the word. There is a strain of Calvinism that seems to say that men are helpless to determine any of their actions, that the will of man has no effect on what he does and does not do. I say "seems to say," because I doubt if many Calvinists actually meant it. Even so, Calvinism does insist that God knows from all eternity who will be saved and who will spend eternity in torment. Election, meaning membership in the saints, has been predetermined.
It was against this theology of predetermination that many of the 18th Century "liberal" writers, like Locke, were writing. In their reaction to this theology, they tended to go right on through to an absolutism of their own. Not only is election not predetermined, Locke said, but man's will is radically free. Man makes decisions by the free exercise of his will alone, hampered by no predispositions or predilections.
The problem with this idea, for Edwards, was that it denied the effects of Original Sin. These were not just physical. Yes, man was condemned by the sin of his first parents to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and woman was condemned to bring forth her children in pain. But there was a psychological and intellectual effect as well. Men and women tainted by Original Sin had a marked tendency to choose the evil over the good, to be selfish and shortsighted. What's more, Protestant Christianity insisted that no man could choose the good under his own power. Only with the grace of God was man able to be virtuous at all.
To Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, such a reading of man's capacity for choosing between good and evil made it impossible to assign praise or blame to any of his actions. After all, if man was predisposed by Original Sin to choose to do evil, and unable to choose to do good except by the grace of God, then in what sense could we say that he was responsible for his actions in any way at all? If he did evil, it was the fault of Adam and Eve. If he did good, it was an act of God. What sense did it make, then, to exhort men to virtue or warn them against vice? In a world where moral choice was determined by Original Sin, there was no morality at all.
Edwards's problem was to define the actions of the will in a way that would confirm the sovereignty of God over His creatures and yet not result in the conclusion that this left those creatures helpless puppets. Whether or not he managed it is difficult to determine.
In some ways, Edwards's understanding of the will is closer to modern scientific findings on the way the human mind works than are those of the Enlightenment thinkers he opposed. No modern writer would assert that human choices were made in a determinative vacuum, uncompelled by prior experience, outside coercion, or innate disposition. We understand that there is something called the "sex drive," and the addictive impulse. We expect people's choices to be shaped by their histories, their innate dispositions, and their contemporary circumstances.
But Edwards's purpose in Freedom of the Will was largely negative. He was concerned to counter, with secular and rationalist arguments that would be taken seriously even by nonbelievers and skeptics, the Enlightenment's new vision of the human person as a fundamentally good, freely acting autonomous agent. It wasn't that hard to do, since the radical freedom posited by many Enlightenment thinkers failed to convince even themselves. It was Locke, after all, who said that the best form of government would learn to use men's selfishness to serve the public good.
To understand what Edwards was arguing for, it's necessary to look at a different work, written only four years later. The book is The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, and in it, Edwards laid out the Christian and Biblical case against the innate goodness and ultimate moral perfectibility of man. Here, Edwards went far beyond his effort in Freedom of the Will to show that man's will was not radically free. Not only was man's will constrained by its nature, but that nature was essentially depraved. Man was born corrupt, not made so by the circumstances that shaped him after birth. No matter how diligently rational, well-intentioned men might work to reform society, they would never be able to produce an environment that would render human beings perfectly good.
It is interesting here that Edwards, living in an age far more pervasively Christian than our own, should feel that original sin needed defending. To Edwards, the tide of Enlightenment thinking was so strong and so widespread, traditional Christianity looked in danger of being wiped out. This would have two deleterious effects: it would mean a misordering of society in such a way as to produce anarchy and chaos, rather than peace and justice; and it would seduce ever more men and women into an apostasy that would condemn them to an eternity in Hell.
At the same time that Edwards felt that Christianity was being overwhelmed, however, he also felt that reason and history as well as the Bible spoke in favor of original sin and in opposition to the idea that men are born innately good.
The question to be considered, in order to determine whether man's nature is not depraved and ruined, is not whether he is inclined to perform as many good deeds as bad ones, but, which of these two he preponderates to, in the frame of his heart, and state of his nature, a state of innocence and righteousness, and favor with God; or a state of sin, guiltiness and abhorrence in the sight of God...Let never so many thousands, or millions of acts of honesty, good nature, etc., be supposed; yet, by the supposition, there is an unfailing propensity to such moral evil, as in its dreadful consequences infinitely outweighs all effects or consequences of supposed good.
G.K. Chesterton once said that original sin was the only doctrine in Christianity that was proved every morning by the headlines in the local newspapers. Edwards would have agreed. Against the new rationalist contention that man was born good but made evil by his societies, Edwards had a very powerful weapon: real life. Go out and look, he told his readers. See how men behave. In every civilization, in every society, in every place where two or more people come together, there is strife, violence, depravity, and sin.
Edwards's convictions were almost certainly made stronger by the fact that he had first-hand experience of the Enlightenment's Noble Savage, and an experience that made it quite clear that the Savage was not so Noble. Where thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau spun fantasies about indigenous peoples they had never encountered in the flesh, Edwards lived in a Massachusetts that was still largely on the frontier of European expansion. His own family had suffered in Indian raids, at least one of which--in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704--wiped out several entire families and forced members of others into captivity to Indian tribes.
Edwards was not, however, one of those people who exaggerated the "savageness" of "savages" any more than he was one who exaggerated their innocence. As far as he could see, Indians were human beings like any others, neither more nor less depraved than Europeans. In other words: completely so. All men and women needed the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the grace of God and the strong arm of the law if they were to behave decently.
Sex and Sin in Colonial Massachusetts
Ideas have consequences, as people said, incessantly, in the 1980s. Jonathan Edwards's ideas had not only consequences but agendas. The new thinking on human nature, human morality and human reason wasn't just an academic exercise. It was the foundation of rising demands for democracy, freedom of conscience and free markets across Europe. To Locke and the thinkers who came after him, there was nothing sacred about the social hierarchy they had been born into. Kings were not worthy of their authority just because they had been born kings. Nor were Churches worthy of their authority just because they happened to have the support of a Crown willing to establish them. It was not enough to say that all men were equal in the eyes of God. It was necessary to make them equal in other ways.
Jonathan Edwards died in 1758, nearly twenty years before the start of the American Revolution. It's difficult to know how he would have stood on the question of separation from Great Britain. Many of his fellow Evangelicals, especially George Whitefield and the Methodists, were vigorously opposed to it. Other Evangelicals, and other Churches, found ways to fit the new "liberalism" into their theology.
We do know, however, how Edwards felt about the involvement of the Church in public and political affairs. He was for it, as he would have to be. If man was fundamentally depraved, if he was unable to act rightly without the grace of God, he couldn't be trusted to behave himself without being guided by a strong and stern authority. Nor could society run well, as Locke thought it could, by harnessing the baser aspects of man's nature for the public good. The public good was itself a gift of grace, and came only to those societies firmly founded on the observance of right religion.
George M. Marsden points out, in his monumental biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life, that Edwards hated capitalism: the very idea that men should be left at liberty to chase their whims and fancies and that, by doing so, they would inadvertently do good for society as a whole sounded completely irrational to him. It was not possible for any good to come out of man's sinfulness. Economic life, like all life, needed to be based on Christian principles. Men should not be free to grasp for money, and success should not be measured by a man's fidelity to the promptings of his greed. Government should stay in control of commerce just as it should stay in control of all other aspects of the people's lives.
Edwards expected that control to be comprehensive, as it had been in the first Puritan colonies in America, and as he felt it was less and less so during his lifetime. He took morals legislation for granted, as did most of his contemporaries. He expected the State to enforce God's laws as well as man's. Where Enlightenment thinkers increasingly argued that laws should be restricted to those that would secure the peace of the state, Edwards and other Evangelicals argued that the law must enshrine and enforce good morals. There was no such thing as a "private" life, because private behavior affected the lives of all people living in the community. Promiscuous fornication, taking the Lord's name in vain, publishing the lewd and lascivious for entertainment--all of it changed the climate of the community and in so doing changed the chances for any person living in it to live a Godly life. God did not give his favor to communities of fornicators and apostates.
Edwards would certainly have had no problem, whatsoever, with modern-day Evangelical attempts to bring the popular media under control. He was not opposed to censorship, especially censorship of what we would now call pornography, and he supported laws that demanded modesty in dress and public behavior. In fact, he supported laws punishing a wide range of "vices," including everything from public drunkenness to disturbing the peace.
It's not so easy, however, to know what he would have thought of the idea of the separation of Church and State, either in the sense that people like Jefferson would use the phrase or in the sense that we do. Superficially, it would seem that he would oppose that, too. He would certainly have favored--indeed, expected--schoolchildren in the local tax-funded common school to start their day with prayers and to read the Bible as part of their studies. The modern-day movement to read "separation of Church and State" to mean the complete removal of religious references from public life would have appalled him, but maybe not surprised him. What could one expect of man's fallen nature, once it had been given its head? He wouldn't have opposed putting "in God we trust" on money, and he would have found it natural to refer to his country as "one nation, under God."
But on the subject of actual Church establishment, the issue is a lot murkier. On the one hand, Edwards was a Calvinist from the English Puritan tradition. Puritans came to America in the first place to establish their Cities on a Hill, places where true religion would be as thoroughly established as they felt false ones were in most of Europe. The Congregational Church was established in Massachusetts and Connecticut in Edwards's lifetime, and he supported those establishments against populist attacks thrown up by the very Great Awakening he otherwise so heartily supported. He was also a reflexive anti-Catholic, as were most Protestants of his era. Even in colonies where Church and State were far more separate than they were in New England, there were laws restricting the rights of Catholics to worship and to participate in politics and government. Edwards would no more have supported religious toleration for Roman Catholics than he would have supported a local farmer's "right" to poison the community's drinking water.
But Edwards was a Calvinist from the English Puritan tradition, and that meant that he had at least a passing acquaintance with religious persecution. The bloody history of religious establishment in England was recent history to him. The restoration of the English monarchy and subsequent disenfranchisement of English Puritan dissenters had occurred less than half a century before he was born.
In his own lifetime, the very religious establishment he counted himself part of had risen up in reaction to the Great Awakening and tried to suppress it. The colony of Massachusetts was forever fending off attempts by the mother country to impose a Church of English bishop on it, effecting disestablishing the Puritans there. He also had the example of colonies which had rejected establishment as it was ordinarily understood. Pennsylvania even allowed Quakers freedom of worship.
So much changed in the twenty years after Edwards died, it's impossible to know how he would have responded to the reality of revolution and the revolution in attitudes and ideas that went with it. If he had found it in himself to support separation from Great Britain, he almost surely would have come down on the side of patriots like Patrick Henry, who wanted to make the new United States a Godly country whose laws were based on true religion. He would just as surely have opposed the sort of Separation of Church and State favored by Jefferson and Madison, and eventually adopted in the federal Constitution.
As it happened, however, he died relatively young, struck down by an opportunistic infection resulting from a smallpox inoculation. It's a tribute to his belief that religion and science were in complete harmony with one another that he died confidently subjecting himself to a scientific innovation (inoculation) that many of his more politically and religiously radical contemporaries had rejected out of hand.
Books By Jonathan Edwards.
The good news is that Yale University is in the process of publishing the complete works of Jonathan Edwards in a multi-volume set. The bad news is that the books are priced for libraries, and routinely cost between $90 and $100 a volume. Even so, these are the definitive editions, and most of them can be bought through Amazon:
There are cheaper editions, but many of them are special order or out of print:
Books About Jonathan Edwards.
The reigning comprehensive biography of Edwards is:
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life
It replaces what was for decades the accepted version:
Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards
The older book is still worth reading, if only to explore the mythology of Edwards in American history and literature. For a scholarly overview of Edwards's work, try:
Edwards is undergoing something of a revival of his own among American Protestants, and a number of religious presses have published books examining his theology, including:
Web Resources on Jonathan Edwards.
By far the most valuable and comprehensive site on the Net is maintained by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:
It includes a biography, a time line, information about the major works and current Edwards scholarship, facsimiles of Edwards manuscripts now held at the Beinecke Rare Books Library, resources for teachers, even videos.
For complete copies of many of Edwards's shorter works, plus an incite into the way Edwards is read by people who take him seriously as a theologian for contemporary life, you might also try a religious site maintained by a committed Calvinist named Mark who promises that his is the largest Edwards site on the Web. He may be right. Go to:
Copyright © 2005 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.