In his comprehensive biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life, historian and Notre Dame professor George Marsden draws on a full range of scholarship and original documents to put Jonathan Edwards in the context of the changing social, cultural, political, and philosophical milieu in which he lived. The result is a very thorough and balanced look at a prominent theologian and intellectual who has been often mischaracterized and the subject of incomplete scholarship in the past.
I love reading about historical periods that were the cusp of change. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the mid-1700s were a time like that, especially in America. Edwards, who was a public intellectual of weight with publications on both sides of the Atlantic, walked the line of tension between old ways of thinking and new ideas, interacting with other thinkers and writers while also being heavily involved in the ways his ideas were carried out practically. When you begin to understand the context in which he lived and worked, it is clear that many of Edwards’ ideas were revolutionary and new, while always couched in terms of his life orientation to Scriptural principles. Marsden points out that Edwards was “caught between two eras and determinedly and sometimes brilliantly trying to reconcile the two.” It was fascinating to read about how Edwards’ career developed.
I found some of Edwards’ ideas odd from my modern perspective, but I really admired his ability to write so deeply while also engaged in full-time work and having a huge family. His unusual (for the time) commitment to educating his daughters and interacting intellectually with his wife were commendable, as was his very unusual determination to view the Native Americans in New England as being no different from the English, a belief he based on Scripture, in defiance of the popular culture.
I also found the descriptions of the First Great Awakening fascinating. If you know anything about Presbyterians, it will probably surprise you to learn how charismatic the revival was. It was really interesting to read about how the commitment to deep study of Scripture and understanding of doctrine informed the emotional aspects of the revival, rather than (as is commonly supposed) suppressing those outpourings. Even though I had studied this part of history in the past, I learned a lot.
Jonathan Edwards: A Life is a long book, and a little dense at times although well-written and more accessible than many academic histories, but I found it well worth the time to read through and I’d recommend it.
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