So You Wanna Be an Edwards Scholar? An Authoritative Introduction for Newbies

So, you’ve heard John Piper preach on Jonathan Edwards’s majestic view of eternal joy.

You’ve even followed that up by reading Desiring God and a couple other Piper books, all featuring dozens of quotations and snippets from the dead Puritan Pastor from Northampton. And now you’ve officially joined a growing cadre of pastors, scholars, and interested layman in declaring:

I want to be a Jonathan Edwards scholar! 

But with literally thousands of pages of material in print by and about Jonathan Edwards, with Edwards’s own works and books numbering in the dozens; all while hundreds of doctoral dissertations float around in the academisphere, and seeming innumerable websites devoted to the famed Colonial wig-wearer proliferate – just where does one actually begin anyways?

In this article, I want to suggest a few of the most important tips and strategies you will need to know in order to become a wizened Jonathan Edwards aficionado. 

Edwards Scholar

1. Read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” But Don’t Read it Alone. 

Probably everyone who  knows anything about Jonathan Edwards knows about his great sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It’s true that Sinners is Edwards’s most reprinted piece, being contained in dozens of anthologies and collections. It’s also true that the preaching of Sinners at Enfield was one of Edwards’s defining moments in the First Great Awakening. Clearly it is a masterpiece of both rhetoric and a classic exemplar of period pulpit oratory, being filled with stunning and memorable imagery. But it is not true that this piece can be read alone. I was talking with an English teacher recently who taught American literature in the public schools for over 30 years, but had never read anything more from Edwards than Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Inwardly, I died for her, since Edwards has so many other well known sermons that balance the obvious horror in this great message.

I would recommend balancing Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God with a healthy dose of two other sermons. First, I recommend Heaven is a World of Love, the concluding sermon in Edwards’s series on 1 Corinthians 13, entitled Charity and Its Fruits. For one thing, Edwards’s view of Heaven will go far in showing his amazing ability to articulate the joys of Heaven too, beside the terrors of Hell. For another thing, Heaven is a World of Love will give the reader perhaps a better example of Edwards’s overall sermonic skills and tendencies, since the reader is not captivated exclusively by the striking imagery so dreadfully presented in Sinners.

A second sermon that perhaps even better illustrates the overall themes and emphases of Edwards’s preaching is A Divine and Supernatural Light. This particular sermon is probably closer to the very center of Edwards’s overall message to the people of his Northampton church and the Puritan listeners of his day. A Divine and Supernatural Light  contains many of the quotations and paragraphs that John Piper regularly uses in his sermons which may have even gotten you interested in studying Edwards in the first place. You will likely find this sermon both enjoyable and somewhat familiar.

Once you read these and a few more of Edwards’s most well known sermons (God Glorified in Man’s Dependence; The Excellency of Christ; God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Man etc.) you are probably ready to go on to a good biography or two.

2. Biographies. 

With a compelling historical figure like Jonathan Edwards, whose story is central both to the development of Reformed theology and to American history, there are no shortage of biographies available. Not only that, but many of the printed materials about Jonathan Edwards contain brief summaries of his life. Of course, you will want to be familiar with the shaping forces of what made Edwards who he really was – his period, his family life, and the pressures both ecclesiastical and familial which molded him.

So it’s probably time to settle down into a good biography.

I would recommend two (or three): The first is the masterful biography done by George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. This is probably the fullest treatment of Edwards that exists in print. In my own view, it excels all those that came before it. If you are daunted by the nearly 600 pages of detailed and documented information, thankfully Marsden has also given us a shorter treatment that I have reviewed here in his brief paperback, A Short Life. If both of those books whet your desire to delve into the biographical materials even further, I would also suggest you go on to read Iain Murray’s great book too for another perspective altogether.

3. The Online Edwards Center at Yale University. 

Now, having perused some of Edwards’s most famous sermons, and read a good biography or two on his life, you are ready to be truly inagurated into the fraternity that is Edwards scholarship by becoming aware of the greatest treasure trove available yet: the materials on the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. 

Thankfully, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has done the whole world a major solid. The JEC has in fact, put everything – and I mean everything – online. For free.

This website has everything you will ever really need, all in one place. Do you want to dig into the Miscellanies? No problem. They are searchable here. Do you want to read Original Sin with the technical introduction to this important book? It’s here. Would you like to get into Edwards’s typological writings and read his Images of Divine Things? That too is all here. Complete and page numbered; ready for your academic citations. As a matter of fact, all 26 volumes of the printed works of Jonathan Edwards are online- free – for the taking. In fact, there are also enough digital volumes (not otherwise available in print form) to take you up to a grand total of 73 volumes of complete Works!

This of course is more than any mortal man can ever read in one lifetime, so you will have to be selective and take it at bite-sized chunks. Maybe we should talk about something more manageable… How about just an ordinary paperback?

4. Consider Print Paperbacks. 

If you are like me, you don’t just want to stare at a screen all day. You want something to hold in your hand. You want something you can take to the beach or tuck in your leather satchel without having to worry about eye-strain. As we all know, reading on the Kindle, tablet, or smartphone screen has its drawbacks for sure.

That’s why the Lord created paperbacks!

Once again, we find ourselves enjoying an over-abundance of blessing when it comes to studying Jonathan Edwards. Almost all of his major works are available in paperback editions, by a variety of publishers. Some are printed and laid out better than others, though, and the quality of readability varies. But at this point, the budding Edwards scholar should be choosing a few of Edwards’s most important works, and beginning reading them more thoroughly.

Personally, I recommend the Religious Affections. This is the Puritan Preacher’s attempt to help take a middle-of-the-road position on charismatic and emotional expressions, while still supporting the Revivals’ emphatically, despite their unusual manifestations. In short, this is one of his most important books.

In my opinion, all serious Edwards readers should have a copy of the Religious Affections, and begin underlining and annotating it. Understanding what Edwards says in this book (and also perhaps The Distinguishing Marks) is key to understanding Jonathan Edwards overall.

5. Familiarize Yourself with Edwards’s “Collected Works”

But should you find yourself wanting to have ALL of Edwards’s most important books and treatises in print form, you might want to consider obtaining either the Two Volume Set or begin collecting the authoritative Yale Works.

Let me differentiate the two.

  • The Two Volume Set. I have talked about this set previously here, so I won’t repeat what I’ve already said. But I simply must mention this: The Two Volumes has MOST of the major works of Edwards and certainly all of his most discussed and analyzed writings. However, it does have one major disadvantage – the print size (miniscule!) and quality are seriously lacking. Personally, I find this frustrating enough to cause me to pass it up every time I even think about pulling it off the shelf.
  • The Yale Works. The Yale Works is strong where the Two Volumes are weak – a great print quality, a nice large font, scholarly introductions to everything contained between two hard covers, and excellent background information. But this too has one major hurdle – the price is often prohibitive, costing nearly $100 or more per volume, although Volumes 1, 2, and 4 do come in paperback. Yikes.

6. Get to Know a Few Contemporary Edwards Scholars.

As you advance in your studies in Edwards, chances are you will find yourself becoming more and more familiar with some of your colleagues who have been reading and writing about JE for years. I am sure you will discover your own favorite authors as I have. Personally, I recommend delving into some of the works of the scholars that have been interviewed on this website including: Ken Minkema, Oliver Crisp, Rhys Bezzant, and Kyle Strobel.

7. Follow on Social Media.

Finally, let’s stay connected on social media. We live in a connected age. I have met and collaborated with several of the readers of this blog already. You can follow Edwards Studies both on Facebook and Twitter. I also have a series of short videos on YouTube that will give you 120-second introductions to some great JE stuff.

Happy studies!

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