A Review Article on George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards, A Life, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003, 637 pages, $35.00.
By Dr. Herbert Samworth
The year 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.
In 1787, 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 and whimsical.”
Contrary 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.
There are 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.
One of 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.
Marsden 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.
Today, when 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 and love.
Edwards 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.
First, Edwards 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 learn.
Second, 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.
Third, while 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.
Fourth, 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!
Fifth, we 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?
That last 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.
One has 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.