Book Review – “Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts,” by Toby K. Easley

You have probably already heard something of Jonathan Edwards’s reputation as a preacher. It has been said that Edwards was a drab manuscript reader who held his notes just a few inches from his face. It has been said that when he did look up occasionally from his ink-quill notes, the famed Puritan held his gaze unflinchingly, fixed upon the bell rope, dangling helplessly near the back of the plain-style church.

You may have even gone on to actually read many of Edwards’s long-form sermon manuscripts, and wondered whether you wouldn’t have been bored nearly to death yourself listening in the Northampton Church for hours upon end! And yet somehow this man was used as a spark in one of the greatest revivals in the history of our young nation, in the Great Awakening (1740-1742).

So, how do we reconcile the fact that Edwards has a reputation as a mere dissertation reciter (apparently bringing no more panache and flare into the pulpit than a court-stenographer), with the fact that Edwards is also the famed fire-and-brimstone herald of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which shook its hearers to the ground in Enfield Connecticut?

This is the challenge that Dr. Toby K. Easley (D.Min, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) tackles in his new book Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts.  Simply stated, Dr. Easley  seeks to discover whether Jonathan Edwards ever progressed as a preacher. Did he get better as he aged? Could he ever put away the notes? Did he ever go “off script”? Could he ever set aside his well-prepared treatises and simply let fly from the sacred desk?

In other words, did Edwards ever go “beyond the manuscripts?”

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In this exceptionally well-written work, Easley argues that, yes, Edwards did progress as a preacher. He did learn new ways to articulate his well-formulated and richly ornate sermons. Throughout this work, Easley traces the personal development of Jonathan Edwards as a preacher and homiletician. To do so, Easley monitors closely three factors: (1) First Edwards’s personal biography. Dr. Easley guides us through the chronological events which shaped Edwards as a preachers. (2) Second, Easley interacts with some of the sermons themselves as pieces of oratory and rhetoric, examining and comparing their content. (3) Third – and this is what makes the book relentlessly fascinating – Easley personally combed through many of the sermon manuscript notebooks themselves, looking for clues as to how Edwards progressed (or stagnated?) as a preacher and orator. To do so, Easley ventured to Yale’s Beinecke Library to study them firsthand. In fact, as readers will see, Easley identifies five stages through which Edwards progressed as a pulpiteer.

The following are the handful of stages (in this reviewer’s own words) which Dr. Easley identifies in Jonathan Edwards as a developing preacher. Many readers will find that they too have tread some of the same ground ourselves over the years.

1. The Listener. Edwards began his preaching career far before he ever wrote a sermon or entered a pulpit. Most preachers do. He began as a sermon hearer. As the son of another Puritan divine of note, Timothy Edwards, and the grandson of the famed preacher Solomon Stoddard (who by the way, eschewed notes and advocated for impassioned and informed extemporaneous sermons), young Jonathan learned what a sermon ought to sound like far before he ever preached one. His own father’s methodology probably influenced his work from an early age, and Edwards’s penchant for accuracy, depth, and clarity likely bound him to well-structured written forms from early on.

2. The Manuscript Addict. In his earliest stages of sermon manuscripting, Edwards wrote his thoughts out in the fullest possible way. This would prove to become a difficult, but not impossible, habit for Edwards to break. He clearly preferred thinking his thoughts out in long form before entering the pulpit to address God’s people in the church. His other writings such as his Miscellanies bear this truth out. He thought pen in hand, and couldn’t help it. His early stages of preaching in New York, Bolton, and Northampton show sermons that most closely resemble written treatises: full, precise, and well-ordered. Early on, Edwards began with the standard Puritan sermon order of Text, Doctrine, and Application (Use), and would hardly deviate from this for the rest of his life. This stage of full manuscripting would continue, for the most part, throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s.

3. The Experimenter.  As Edwards further progressed in his career, he began using some modifications to the full-manuscript form. This may have been motivated by his desire to excel in the areas that his grandfather Stoddard had excelled, namely in delivery, and it may also have been encouraged by the shortage of paper, which Edwards consumed ravenously for all of his writing projects. He began using some abbreviations, and even symbols to convey words and even fuller thoughts. For instance, he uses a circle with a dot in the middle to represent “the world.” Or an X for Christ, or a concept related to Christology.

We should be very clear here: Edwards never did fully throw away the full-manuscript format, even as he sought to make his manuscripts more “user friendly” for delivery. Arched, horizontal lines across the duodecimal sized handmade notebooks, often served as visual cues, marking major sections. Some words were printed in all capitals to stand out and help summarize entire paragraphs while preaching. These flourishes were helpful for those moments when the preacher utilizes extempore expressions, and then returns to his notes to recover his bearing. Sermons for funerals or public occasions (preaching for the Boston clergy, for instance) continued to be written out in full hand however.

4. The Whitefield Admirer: A major leap seems to have happened in Edwards’s thinking about homiletics when George Whitefield came to town. In Whitefield, Edwards saw firsthand just how powerful oratory can be, when the preacher does not use prepared notes, but instead delivers the sermon from memory. Eye contact, easy of expression, natural speech – all seemed more powerful from Whitefield’s noteless exhortations. From this point on, Edwards appears to have been convicted to some degree about the deficiencies of his own preaching, perhaps hearing the now-gone voice of his Grandfather Stoddard echoing in his mind as well. Though he could not quite fully ditch the manuscripts, this period after 1740 begins to show evidence that Edwards tried harder and harder to make his notes briefer and more portable for pulpit delivery. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, for instance exists in two extant forms: one which is written in full, and another which exists in a bare minimal outline form.

5. The Mature Orator: The final stage of development took place, according to Dr. Easley, after Edwards left Northampton and began preaching to the Indians at Stockbridge. Here, he had to balance two different congregations; one English speaking and the other a Native American congregation through an interpreter. In this stage, Edwards re-preached prior sermons, and simplified many others as he worked on his major works such as Freedom of the Will. Commonly, he dropped technical terms and adopted illustrations from nature, hunting, and the broader human experience. The very nature of these congregations almost forced Edwards to learn new ways to communicate besides his well-tailored manuscript recitations.

If I might interject my own thoughts at this point – I wonder what would have happened if Edwards had gone to Stockbridge before Northampton? If he had learned to preach the simpler before the more complex? Would his time with the Mahicans have enabled him to speak more comfortably to his Colonial audience as he developed greater confidence in a more natural or free-speaking manner? We can only guess. God’s sovereignty ordered Edwards’s life as it has unfolded in our history books, and Stockbridge would be the conclusion to his career rather than the beginning.

Interestingly, Easley tells us the story of the time that Edwards – close to the time of his death – lectured for the students at Princeton holding them spellbound for nearly two hours. According to eyewitnesses, the time passed as if it was but a few moments. Edwards was riveting. As the eager young students consumed Edwards’s rich teaching, we can only wonder what it would have been like to see and hear Jonathan Edwards in his “prime,” confident, mature, and completely competent; having learned to preach in various settings with masterly control. Sadly, there are no recordings of Edwards, and we have only the eyewitness accounts and the manuscripts to help us. History tells us that Edwards died only a few weeks into his tenure as college president.

Overall, Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts is excellent.

Throughout, it contains applications for modern preachers learning our sacred art of exhortation. Dr. Easley gives many and varied suggestions for his pulpiteering readers, and one just may find some notable similarities between Edwards’s preaching journey and his own. To find one fault in this work, I could wonder why more pictures where not included of the manuscripts themselves. Easley describes them capably enough, but I often found myself asking, “I wonder what that manuscript looked like!” Only two pictures of the manuscripts themselves are included in the back, and I would have liked to see firsthand what some of Edwards’s sermons looked like, particularly in his outlining periods. But this is only a minor critique, and the book certainly excels this one flaw.

Perhaps many of us too, would do well to consider Jonathan Edwards’s journey as we press on to go “beyond the manuscripts.”

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