Back in May, Edwards Studies had the opportunity to interview Dr. Don Whitney about his 2014 work, published by Peter Lang, entitled Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. In that brief interview, Dr. Whitney was able to share with our readers how he came to know and love Jonathan Edwards (read the interview here). As many of you probably already know, Dr. Whitney has a great fascination with the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life (prayer, fasting etc.) and has written about these themes extensively in his more popular books such as Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and Praying the Bible among others.
In this brief book review, we will delve more fully into his published dissertation on Jonathan Edwards and explore some of its primary themes. As the title suggests, the book primarily centers around two questions: First, how did Jonathan Edwards practice the spiritual disciplines? And secondly, how did his practice of these acts of piety effect his pastoral leadership? This is an interesting question, because Whitney is attempting to examine the intersection (conflict even?) between the Northampton Sage’s personal spiritual quest and his public leadership in the local church.
The book opens in the introduction with the primary task of the study in view stated clearly “The goal of this study is to evaluate the personal piety of Jonathan Edwards and the extent to which it influenced his pastoral ministry” (1).
As all dissertations do (this one reads very smoothly, like a well written book, but its academic genesis is not entirely concealed from the reader) he begins with definitions. Here, Whitney focuses on a few important definitions of terms such as “piety,” and “godliness.” In doing so, he is busy about the work of setting the parameters for an historical understanding of who the Puritans were, so crucial to his study. Whitney avers “There was no more characteristic ingredient of the English Puritan tradition than its emphasis on fervency in general and devotional piety as an expression of truly Biblical Christianity, and there was no more faithful heir to that tradition than Jonathan Edwards” (16).
Rounding out his introductory section, Whitney illuminates his readers on several important characteristics of Puritan ministers, namely their emphasis on catechizing (25), preaching (27-30), and the pastoral care of church members, including the controversial implementation of the Half-Way covenant (33). Concluding the first part of the book, Whitney notes the ascendance and increasing popularity of Edwards studies in general, and acknowledges hoping to contribute positively to the same by examining more fully how Edwards’s own personal practices of devotional piety helped (or in some ways even hindered) his ecclesiastical leadership.
In the first full chapter, Whitney gives his readers a very able summary of Edwards’s life and ministry. This is essentially a very compressed biography of the Awakening Preacher. And while this section does not necessarily break any new ground on the life of Jonathan Edwards, it does give the reader the benefit of a refresher course, or perhaps even an inauguration, into the basics of Edwards’s primary life events. Not surprisingly, Whitney tells of Edwards’s early life, conversion, education, marriage to Sarah, early ministry endeavors, revival encounters, and discusses his primary written sources. He also tells of his dismissal from the Northampton Church, foreshadowing his forthcoming assessments of Edwards possible failures as a pastor. Finally, concluding the chapter, he tells of Edwards’s time in Stockbridge (his most productive years from a written standpoint), as well as his short term as president of Princeton, and finally his death.
In chapter two, Whitney begins to focus in more closely on Edwards’s practices of piety, or to use his own preferred parlance, his “spiritual disciplines.” Here, the reader finds much encouraging material which sounds very much like some of the positive illustrations given in his more popular books, especially Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In many ways, this chapter highlights Edwards very favorably. For instance, Whitney commenting on Edwards’s obvious love for the Lord, says “As Jesus was fully God, Edwards yearned for the closest possible relationship with Jesus. As Christ was the perfect man, Edwards wanted to harmonize every part of his life with the example of Christ” (77). Thus Edwards’s driving passion above all things was glorifying God in his life and emulating God’s Son in his sanctification.
Among the practices of Edwards’s piety discussed, it is clear that he favored and tended towards those which emphasized the structured consumption of the Bible. Thus, Bible reading, Bible memory, and copious notetaking on Scripture are predominant aspects of Edwards’s daily discipleship (78-81). Whitney says, “Care should be taken not to overlook the essential fact that prayerful study and prolonged meditation on the text of the Bible was the supreme means by which Edwards sought to know and experience God and to pursue conformity to the person and work of Jesus Christ” (81, emphasis added). Whitney believes that Edwards did not assign to all spiritual disciplines equal weight, at least in terms of his practice. Instead, he gave those practices which emphasize heavy doses of Bible consumption the most effort and time. For Edwards, his great joy was in reading and digesting the Bible. His copious Miscellanies and Notes on Scripture bear witness in this regard. It is hard to find much fault with a man so devoted to the Bible.
This is not to say, however that Edwards did not practice other spiritual disciplines. As Whitney catalogs, Edwards also practiced fasting (his rigorous monitoring of his diet is famous), journaling, and he led his family and children in regular gathered worship at the table and catechism in his study. More than that, there is no question that Edwards was also a man of prayer, as well as a man of the book. As for prayer, Edwards writes in one place that it “seemed natural for me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent” (85). Of course, the participation in the sacraments and public church attendance hardly need be mentioned since Edwards was a congregational minister for most of his professional life.
Yet at the same time, Whitney begins to notice a pattern in Edwards’s life that has been also observed by most others who examine the wigged Puritan’s life: Edwards by far preferred those spiritual disciplines that take place when one is completely alone in solitude as over against those practiced alongside other Christians. Hence, Whitney considers “solitude” as a separate but overlapping practice of its own (97-101). Along the way, Whitney drops hints that this preference for being alone will ultimately cause greater problems for Edwards in regards to his social and ecclesiastical relationships. This observation is not necessarily novel on Whitney’s part, but it does illustrate the practical truth that our personalities often bear impact on our public ministry (for better or for worse) in some ways.
In one interesting section (103-108), Whitney considers whether or not Edwards might have been a “mystic.” Though many definitions of this term have been offered, no particular category seems to fit Edwards neatly here. His great work The Religious Affections definitely show that Edwards preferred the revealed truth in Scripture as over against personal revelations of various kinds (dreams, visions, impressions on the mind, etc). Yet at the same time, there are instances in his Personal Narrative when he seems to describe ecstatic experiences, and at least one “vision” of Christ that defies tidy categorization. Eventually, Whitney admits that the definition of “mystic” is in the eye of the beholder, and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion.
In chapter three, Whitney then turns his attention to the minister’s public life. Quoting Samuel Hopkins, Whitney mentions that Edwards “commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study” (109). This is hardly a public aspect of ministry, of course. But this time alone would bear fruit from the pulpit. And while this might be considered extremely pious pious by some, other readers will begin to draw more and more attention to the fact that this habit of solitude was not necessarily helpful as regards his relationships with his parishioners or the people of Northampton in general.
For his part, Edwards believed that his best use of time – even for the sake of his people – was alone in writing. For this reason, Whitney uses this chapter to summarize some of Edwards’s attempts to use solitude for the sanctification of his church. Obviously he dutifully prepared sermons intended for public proclamation (119). The pulpit was the most obvious place where his personal piety and public duties met and overlapped. But Edwards also crafted scores of thoughtful, insightful letters for the edification of many people: family, friends, ministers, inquirers, and church members. In some ways, Edwards was probably a better counselor through these means than in person. Even in writing his longer treatises and books, Edwards usually had the good of the godly collective in mind: he wrote to address problems he perceived in his own local church and in the broader evangelical community.
At the concluding section of the book, Whitney makes clear what thoughtful readers have already begun to suspect all along: Edwards was an extraordinary gifted man, whose practices of piety and gifts for ministry saw their best use in personal (even private) hours in the study. At the same time, his withdrawn and unsocial temper probably cost him respect in the eyes of many people. There is no doubt Edwards was “pious” by the best definition, however. Whitney says, “The list of Edwards’s devotional practices is so evidently congruent with those set forth in the Bible that doubters of this assertion must accept the burden of proof to identify a recognized practice of piety that cannot also be found in Edwards’s life” (133). This is all very good.
Edwards’s ultimate goal, Whitney notes, is described best on pages 136-137. Here the author states clearly that Jonathan Edwards sought happiness above all, defined correctly as “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.” I concur with this assessment wholeheartedly. This may come as a surprise to some who view Edwards as a staunch, dry, cold, doctrinally bent Puritan. But it does not come as a surprise to anyone who has read much of Edwards’s own works. His pursuit of joy, Whitney believes, is part and parcel of his pursuit of the spiritual disciplines. “Edwards was willing to sacrifice, if necessary, any happiness in this world-since it was temporary-in order to experience unending happiness in Heaven” (136). But it also must be observed that he found the most joy alone in Christ rather than with other believers.
So, did Edwards’s predilection for solitude hurt him as a pastor? Many think yes. Whitney does too, and admits that as far as his own congregation was concerned, Edwards’s impersonal temper probably caused him harm in the long run in terms of his congregant’s opinion of their minister. In many ways, he clearly had trouble relating to common folk, and their ability to relate to and understand their pastor suffered for it. The “Bad Book Case” and the Communion Controversy are a case in point. All the while, Whitney contends, Edwards sought to use his God-given gifts to the betterment of his people, even if what Edwards yearned to use most (his gifts of writing) were not duly appreciated in his own time.
Towards the end of the book, Whitney makes a most interesting comparison between Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Richard Baxter (149). Baxter spent much time traveling from home to home in his parish personally catechizing his fellow churchmen. In this section, Whitney wonders on paper who had the greater impact. Edwards or Baxter? Whitney says that “In terms of example, nearly all pastors would probably find greater success in following something closer to Baxter’s methods than Edwards” (150). If pastors are looking for a role model, he thinks it better to emulate Baxter. And yet Whitney also seems to think that despite this, Edwards had the greater and longer impact in terms of church history due to the legacy of treasures Edwards left us in print. It would be hard to argue with that assessment.
Overall, I recommend this book wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.