Today, EdwardsStudies.com is having a look at the excellent volume entitled Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. This is a wonderful compendium that introduces Edwardseans and other interested readers to the lives and the writings of the great Puritans of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
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?”
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.”
Rhetoric is, in essence, the power of spoken or written words.
Considered in this way, rhetoric is the force of both oral and printed language to guide or compel one’s audience to think, feel, or respond in a certain way to a given message. Rhetoric is used in political speeches. It is used in court testimony. Yes, it is used in sales pitches too. And it is most certainly employed in preaching.
As preachers, the proponents of the Great Awakening in America (1739-1745) used rhetoric as a tool to better convey the power of the Gospel to the hearts of their hearers in their own time and setting. We ought not to fault them for that. Of course, they were hoping to lead their churches and open-air audiences towards faith in Jesus Christ and to “awaken” their lives to eternal realities.
In his new book The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, young scholar Michal Choinski treats his readership to an outstanding and thorough evaluation of the rhetorical pulpit devices of such men as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennant among others. Although the whole history of rhetoric in preaching would certainly make for a very fine study (as would a study of rhetoric geared towards modern best practices in preaching), Choinski limits the parameters of this intensive work to those preachers centering around the time of the Great Awakening in the colonies in America.
The fact that intentional uses of rhetorical strategies were employed in the especially fervent times of the Awakening should not come as a surprise to anyone. While the term “rhetoric” can sometimes have the distasteful flavor of purposeful manipulation, the practice itself is rooted in nothing less than the desire and intention of the preacher or speaker to give a message that is compelling and persuasive to his audience. In this way, there is nothing “wrong” with using rhetorical strategies. After all, if a Bible preacher believes the Gospel is true, he should deliver his message of hope as effectively and as forcefully (read: persuasively) as he is able. Certainly Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as well as Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17 both bear marks of rhetorical strategy. Both witness to the biblical mandate to speak the truth of the Word of God with both winsomeness and power with the goal of persuasiveness in mind.
A few more words about this book will precede a general survey of its contents.
First of all, it is noteworthy that this book is the first in a new series of monographs published by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. This new series, in cooperation with by Verlagsgruppe Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht is entitled “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies” and Michal Choinski’s contribution constitutes Volume 1 of this exciting new line. Some readers of EdwardsStudies.com will recall that both Kenneth Minkema and Michal Choinski have already been interviewed on this page. If this first edition is an indication of what is to come, Edwards devotees are sure to greatly benefit from this series as it unfolds. What we have here in Choinski’s work is a first-rate work of scholarship and technical expertise, without sacrificing readability. Choinski, by the way, teaches American Literature at the Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland.
The book opens with a standard evaluation of rhetoric, its history, key definitions, and development. Choinski here pays special attention to its Greek roots, marking observations by Aristotle, Cicero and others. In fact, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a “faculty of considering all the possible means of persuasion on every subject” (p. 15). Traditionally, Choinski tells us, rhetoric is considered under five headings as follows: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery (p. 18). Among these headings rhetorical speech can be further evaluated under such marks as clarity, grandeur, beauty, character, and sincerity, among others (p. 25).
In a subsequent section, Choinski makes the leap from rhetorical speech in general to preaching in particular. After all, giving a sermon is one of the most important forms of human-to-human oral communication. Here, Choinski considers contributing ideas from such men as St. Augustine and Erasmus, the noted humanist. Arriving closer to his historical period of choice, Choinski gives the reader an important reminder when he notes that “The core of Puritan preaching that emerged from medieval schemes after the tide of the Reformation is encompassed in the fundamental effort to understand God’s Word and to explicate it to the hearers” (p. 36, emphasis added).
From the Puritans, then, to the Colonial preachers, Choinski begins to focus the lens closer and closer to the revivalist preachers which stood upon the shoulders of their forefathers. These men advanced the rhetorical strategies of preaching to include such novelties as camp meetings and open-air gatherings. As religious services sometimes moved from the pulpits to the fields, what constituted preaching methodology necessarily changed as well, especially when accommodating the poor and larger audiences, then previously possible in “meeting house” settings. This is not to say, however, that the Great Awakening was a purely out-of-doors social movement. But surely the power of awakening-style preaching intentionally modified to utilize the maximal power of persuasion possible.
At this point, Choinski enumerates several factors that seem to be quintessential of revivalist preaching. It incorporated to various degrees (1) intensified emotions on the part of the speaker and the audience, (2) encouraged implicitly or explicitly bodily manifestations among hearers, (3) was attended by extraordinary occurrences such as perceived signs and wonders, (4) raised issues of necessary spiritual discernment (5) prompted tensions between clerical and lay authority, (6) and resulted in new associations, organizations, and institutions (p. 46-47).
Pages 52-54, though short, are key for understanding the rest of the text. Here Choinski discusses several hallmarks that will be discussed often throughout the rest of the work, notably the drive or push towards hearers experiencing the “new birth” as the ultimate goal of revival preaching; the unapologetic stirring of such emotions as fear, joy, enthusiasm, and disgust from the audience; and even the utilization of delivery techniques heretofore considered as “theatrical” (Whitefield will be a case in point on this matter, later; see his section in pages 117-146).
In a section that may feel like an unnecessary digression from the main topic (p. 55-56), Choinski then takes the reader through a brief history of three successive generations of Puritan colonialists in America, briefly recounting some key of the players, events, and the overall cultural mood. Here of course, he mentions the famous “Half-Way Covenant” so controversial to those who felt the force of its compromise firsthand.
Finally then – and I do admit that Choinski has taken us the long route to get here – we get to the meat and the heart of the book. From this point forward, we are settling in to discuss the six revivalist preachers that the writer will analyze for the rest of the book. In other words, we adjust from a wide-angle to close-up lens. Edwards scholars will breathe a sigh of relief that the Northampton Sage comes first in order (yes!), and gets a full treatment of three of his sermons; namely The Future Punishment of the Wicked (p. 82-92), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (p. 93-105), and The Distinguishing Marks (p. 106-116).
Readers of this website will want to find the nearest hammock and a glass of cold ice-tea in order to settle in and enjoy this part. This is why we bought the book in the first place!
In my view, Choinski does his finest work combing through these three Edwardsian sermons. His section on Sinners is particularly riveting in my view. He analyzes Edwards’s choice of imagery, and metaphor, even his use of the tension-retaining present tense. All the while, he notes how Edwards carefully selected each verbal component of his sermon to strike the very heart of the reader with sheer terror. He discusses Edward’s structure and pace. He dissects Edwards’s use of “sensual tactility” (p. 94). Edwards’s goal here, he notes, is to induce a sense of “emotional despondency” (p. 99), and Edwards does that very well! Choinski notes, “for the moment of the delivery of this part of the discourse, the congregation gathered to listen to the preacher, in their minds actually becoming the sinners in the hands of an angry God” (p. 100, emphasis added).
Choinski calls these subtle twists and turns of language “inexplicit communicative stragegies hidden under the verbal layer and interwoven with it” (p. 93). Brilliant. Together, these rhetorical strategies build slowly, yet irrevocably upon the shoulders of the congregation. As history has well recorded, the sermon landed in Enfield like a bolt of electricity from the sky. Edwards hardly finished the sermon due to the outbreak of fervent emotion from troubled listeners. His “rhetoric of revival” hit the mark perfectly.
I have one quibble with Choinski, despite the thoroughness and remarkably informative content of this work. I sincerely wish he had chosen Heaven is a World of Love rather than giving us two sermons from Edwards (back to back) on Hell. This would have been a wonderful way to dispel Edwards’s undue reputation as a merely “fire and brimstone” preacher. Back to back, Sinners and Heaven would have been a powerful tandem to show how Edwards was just as capable of driving his audience towards the ecstasies of joy as well as the throes of terror.
Attentive readers will greatly enjoy Choinski’s work in Whitefield and Tennent as well as Edwards. Studies of Dickinson, Parsons, and Croswell add texture to the overall analysis. Lesser known preachers, they are remarkable in their own right and worthy of consideration.
Overall, I found this book to be excellent. Choinski’s writing is lucid and clear. His pace is sometimes slower than I would like, but this is a doctoral dissertation converted to a book after all! It is informative, well-written and complete. Truly, this is a magnificent study on a completely engaging topic. His sources are well chosen, and his use of Edwards and Whitefield contribute to our beloved field of study remarkably.
Had he chosen Heaven is a World of Love to analyze rather than double-dip on the brimstone, it would have been even one notch better in my view.
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.
In this video, we look at two new academic works that have recently been published. They are:
- Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Its Influence on His Pastoral Ministry by Donald S. Whitney.
- The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers by Michal Choinski.
A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2008) is, as the title suggests, a much briefer telling of the story of the life of Jonathan Edwards than the encyclopedic behemoth that George M. Marsden also published in 2004 for Yale University Press. The latter work, entitled Jonathan Edwards: A Life, stands at over 640 pages, and enjoys the privileged status of being the definitive scholarly treatment of Jonathan Edwards biographies.
So, if you have read the much longer work, complete with its voluminous and copious footnotes and references, you are probably asking yourself these questions: First, is this simply a 150-page synopsis of what Marsden already wrote? Secondly, what else could Marsden say about Jonathan Edwards that he hasn’t already written elsewhere?
I asked myself those same questions.
As to the first question, I can say definitively, “No,” this is not a mere abridgment of the larger book. It is a complete rewriting and retelling of the life of the Puritan divine. As to the second question, I have to admit that the answer lies not so much in the fact that the books are radically different in content, as much as in the fact that the approach the author takes in the tiny volume is so fresh.
Let me explain.
I recently dove into the shorter work having already owned and mined the treasure in the larger work for several years. I liked the bigger book exceedingly and thought, “This is probably going to sound familiar – a deja vu.” I was skeptical at first. But as I began the very first chapter, I found myself enchanted by Jonathan Edwards and the story of his life all over again. The pages turned quickly. They were less filled with footnotes and marginalia. In fact, those entrappings, so appreciated by scholars and historians, do have a way of interrupting the flow of the story.
Clearly, the shorter work does not read like an academic treatise. Actually, that is its greatest strength. Instead, it reads much more swiftly, and almost sounds to the ear like a story being told in a classroom setting, or perhaps even around a coffee table discussion, or a campfire. One could probably even read this book aloud and keep a group of friends largely attuned for blocks at a time.
When describing this work, I want to keep using words like “charming” and “fascinating” to describe the tale as Marsden presents it here, even as I must make it clear that A Short Life does not lack the refined historical research which has become the hallmark of Marsden’s writing. It’s just not weighed down by it.
This work, much more so than it’s bigger brother, makes a good beach read or vacation paperback. It would also make an incomparable first introduction to the life of Edwards for laypersons. My guess is that people who read A Short Life will feel just as well baptized into the historical period in which Edwards lived as those who read other helpful introductions. At the same time, they will feel more as if they have heard a story well told. They will see Edwards as more than just a two-dimensional research interest, but as a three-dimensional man who struggled to be faithful to God in his own day and time.
I particularly liked the way that Marsden compared Edwards to Benjamin Franklin throughout the book. This foil between two strikingly different men works through the storytelling as the thread which binds the whole narrative together.
So should an Edwardsian read A Short Life even if he or she has already read the larger work? My answer is, “Yes.” Read it for pleasure. Read it for a refresher or first-time introduction. Read it on the back porch with a cup of sweet tea and prepare to be enchanted by Edwards’s story of fidelity, piety, and mission all over again.
In this episode of the Jonathan Edwards Studies Youtube channel, we have a brief review of the Eleventh Volume of the Works of JE. Specifically, we are here reflecting upon Edwards’s understanding of “types” in Images of Divine Things.
Grab one up on Amazon here. Make sure to check the “used” sales for discounts.