The Miscellanies Companion by JESociety Press, Edited by Robert L. Boss and Sarah B. Boss

Finally, I have a copy in my own hand.

Hardcore Jonathan Edwards scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike have been excited about the release of this new project, The Miscellanies Companion, edited by Robert L. Boss and Sarah B. Boss. This hardback edition is exactly what it claims to be in the title, a “companion” to the newly released computer-electronic analyses of Edwards voluminous “Miscellanies.”

Like never before, this digital research performed by the super-program created by Boss will allow scholars to find deep and meaningful connections in Edwards’ massive corpus of thought. The book, then, complements the programming in a marvelous way by providing over twenty essays on doctrinal and philosophical issues in Edwards’ personal “Miscellanies” thought-project.

As to the book, contributors include Obbie Tyler Todd, Jonathan S. Marko, S. Mark Hamilton, Toby Easley, David Luke, and others. My own chapter on “Edwards and Happiness,” for example, seeks to pull together the various threads of conception throughout Miscellanies 501-832 on joy, heaven, light, blessedness and more.

As to the programming, JESociety was graciously commended by Douglas Sweeney in the foreward who said the book represents as new frontier, since “Big data is here to stay–even in Jonathan Edwards studies. Here’s hoping that those who use it can make the interpretation of Edwards more accurate, visually impressive, and compelling.”

Without any further ado, I present to you a brief video review of The Miscellanies Companion by JESociety Press…


Some (Early) Thoughts on Jonathan Edwards’s Favorite Book: Theoretical Practical Theology by Peter Van Mastricht

I have not yet finished reading the first volume of the newly translated masterpiece of Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, translated by Todd M. Rester, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) but I have read deeply enough into this volume to know that it is very good.

Indeed excellent.

Image result for van mastricht

In the age of the internet where seeming everything is apparently a click away, (especially with data mine treasures like the Edwards website from Yale), we sort of expect to have access to every academic source we could ever need. It would seem justifiable to believe that someone, somewhere out there on the interwebs had already done the work of translating this excellent work of classical Reformed theology into modern English. But sadly, except for a few items such as Mastricht on regeneration, and a short essay on preaching, this was not the case.

Until now.

Believe it or not, but this seminal work on Reformed theology from one of the esteemed Dutch masters is just this year finally accessibly for reading by many in the English-speaking world for the first time in history.

This volume is going to be followed by as many as six more volumes which will fill out the whole complete set. I have reason to believe that this series will shortly take its place in seminaries and pastoral libraries alongside such excellent Reformed multi-volume sets as Turretin and Bavinck; both of which also required previous massive labors of translation to bring to many of us on this side of the Atlantic.

This volume on “prologomena” (or foundational assumptions and beginning points) is prefaced with several contemporary statements of the work’s historical importance. Editor Joel Beeke and translator Todd Rester both make meaningful comments about the impact they hope the work will have. I am especially thankful for Todd Rester, whose skill is clearly evidenced in the smooth reading of this English edition. The layout, design, and even the typeface make this work wonderful to read. But it is Rester’s skill in bringing the original Latin (and Dutch editions) into modern English that makes this work so delightful to both the eye and mind.

Also, the volume comes with an introduction to Peter Van Mastricht’s life by Adriaan Neele, as well as a somewhat detailed funeral oration given by Henricus Pontanus at the author’s own time of death. Together, these essays help the uninitiated reader to gain a handhold on the biographical life of the esteemed writer who was doubtlessly better known on the continent than across the Atlantic.

Even though this first volume barely gets into Peter Van Mastricht’s actual theological system–we don’t get much further than defining theology and introducing Holy Scripture in this first volume–we can see the method and style of this historic Dutch theologian beginning to unfold. We can also clearly see his heart. As I read the first parts, what became plain to me was that Van Mastricht did not see theology as merely an academic or intellectual enterprise. No, theology plainly and profoundly affects mind, heart, and life. Over and over, PVM insists that theology, when done well, produces a mature believer who “lives to God through Christ.” Much of his work is biblical, almost in the same way that William Ames filled his Marrow of Theology with citation after citation of Scripture. It is fuller though and less punctiliar, as the author easily and naturally toggles back and forth between his own assertions and Scriptural citations. Nary a page will proceed without plenteous Biblical citations and proof texts.

In every section, we can expect to see four things from PVM: (1) an exegetical exposition of a Biblical passage, (2) a doctrinal definition given in somewhat classical form, (3) an elenctic question and answer conversation or debate, and (4) a practical application for the heart and life of the believer.

The exegetical sections tie each main theme directly to Scripture. Clearly, PVM wants to be biblical (even bleeding bibline, as Spurgeon once said!). After that, he attempts to both define the doctrine that he is working through and show its place and relevance among the other Christian doctrines. Or to say it another way, he attempts the process of systematizing the categories of theology within their proper relation and function. Next, he attempts to answer questions that his students, or even opponents, would ask. Here, he often challenges himself deeply to work through the opposing arguments of pagans, heretics, Arminians, Lutherans, Socinians, and atheists. Finally, and this is where his heart for the Lord really shines through, PVM makes special attempts to apply the doctrine at hand to the heart and life of his readers; often speaking to students and ministers, but never straying too far from the lives of common, everyday Christian believers. Each of these is necessary to doing Christian theology, and as I read, I often thought about how this fourfold method would preach and teach well in the church chancel or seminary classroom. It seems like such a wise way to articulate doctrine in this method, and I can imagine myself preaching sermons or teaching lessons with this fourfold method in the future.

As I said above, I have not yet finished the work–and will have several more volumes to go to do so–but it is already endearing itself to me as an especially heart-felt, Biblical, and practical work of Reformed theology. Jonathan Edwards certainly liked it. We know this was Edwards’s favorite book because he wrote in a letter to Joseph Bellamy, dated January 15, 1747, the following words:

As to the books you speak of: Mastricht is sometimes in one volume, a very thick, large quarto; sometimes in two quarto volumes. I believe it could not be had new under eight or ten pounds. Turretin is in three volumes in quarto, and would probably be about the same price.1 They are both excellent. Turretin is on polemical divinity; on the Five Points, and all other controversial points; and is much larger in these than Mastricht; and is better for one that desires only to be thoroughly versed in controversies. But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion. (WJEO 16:217).


Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought by Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel


A new and significant work on Jonathan Edwards has just come out, thanks to our good friends at Eerdman’s publishing. This new edition is the mutual brainchild of Edwards scholars Oliver C. Crisp (Fuller Seminary) and Kyle C. Strobel (Biola University), each of which has been interviewed here at in the past. This new work is an attempt to provide an overview of the thought of the great Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards.

Regular followers of this site will perhaps already be aware of some of the individual contributions of Strobel and Crisp (see book list below) and this new combined effort seeks to provide an overview of Edwards’ overall theological trajectory. Some key doctrines explored in this text include Edwards’ views on the Trinity, Creation, and the Atonement. Readers of Crisp in particular will not be surprised to see the concepts of idealism, occasionalism, and continuous creation treated in his contributory sections.

Book Links Mentioned in Video Review Above:
Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought

The Case for Christ

Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation

Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation

Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians

Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia

Formed for the Glory of God

After Jonathan Edwards

Book Review – A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology, by S. Mark Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton has written a very exceptional and handy new volume on the metaphysics of Jonathan Edwards, especially as regards his somewhat unusual ideas of continuous creation and idealism, and their respective relationship to Christology.

Entitled, “A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology,” this work is published by the emerging new leader in Edwards publication projects, JESociety Press. Before we get to a review of the book itself, we should take a moment to note what a good thing this is for Edwards scholarship in general.

Having a press that is devoted to Edwards alone is a marvelous thing. This means that it can be small, nimble, and tightly focused on projects that advance our specialized field. JESociety Press plans to remain concentrated on publishing new projects by both respected scholars and emerging new writers alike for the tailored audience that eagerly anticipates them. While bigger publishers like Crossway do gobble up manuscripts on Edwards from time to time, they are not always as willing to give more technical treatises like the one being considered in this review the availability they deserve.

Moreover, JESociety Press, with this volume as a first foray, is also introducing a new line of monographs entitled “A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards.” This new lineup promises to give readership “lively, assessable and in-depth treatments of Edwards-specific subject matter.” Each of these new volumes is also promised to be concise (Continuous Creation is only around 100 pages), which I believe will make these books all the more valuable. Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton’s own learned contribution to Edwards scholarship on continuous creation (pictured: right) comes with high recommendations from Gerald McDermott, Douglas Sweeney, Sam Storms, and Oliver Crisp (his doctoral adviser), so my hopes were high for this volume. Thankfully it did not disappoint me in any way. Actually, even the very Forward by Crisp had me intrigued; here the esteemed professor at Fuller Seminary admits that his student will be challenging some of his own ideas within. Drama!

Crisp also admits that the concepts contained herein by his student are heavy and rank among some of the great thoughts that can be entertained by the human mind. As I delved in to the introduction, I considered myself duly warned.

In the beginning of the work, Hamilton introduces the reader to the concept of Edwards’ idea of continuous creation; that is, that God is constantly re-creating the universe at every instant, which is akin to His sustaining the universe (Colossians 1:15-17). Rather than creating just once, and then letting the universe spin (so the enlightenment machinists), Edwards has an idea that God is always and constantly recreating everything that is. But this idea, if accepted, comes with some tangential “baggage” that likewise must be toted to keep the concept coherent. Thus, in order to make this view hold together (note: Hamilton is not arguing a defense of continuous creation; he is only trying to help readers understand Edwards more clearly) he will have to dig into related areas that this notion of continuous creation may affect.

On page 11, Hamilton gives the outline for the book. First, he will deal with the fact that Edwards held to some form of immaterialism. That is to say, the universe is actually a product of God’s uncreated mind, and all else that “is,” consists of either created minds with the power to perceive, or else the mental impressions that God places upon those minds. As I understand it, Edwards’ believes that the universe is somewhat like the movie the Matrix, with reality somehow impressed into the minds of God’s intelligent creatures, all the while they perceive that they are actually “there.” This chair that I am sitting on as I write is not really here. My created mind perceives it to be there; but there is no “stuff” below me. All that exists in Edwards’ metaphysical world is the Uncreated Mind of God impressing ideas into our created minds.

But this is all not so simple. What do we make of time itself? Does it progress? Is it eternally present to God? Does it lapse moment by moment? Does the past still “exist” once it is gone, or is it destroyed? All of these questions, Hamilton tries to explain in his second chapter on time, a view which he calls “stage theory.” In the third chapter, Hamilton deals with occasionalism which is the idea that God is the sole causal factor in all that transpires in the universe. Hamilton does not think that Edwards believes God needs to recreate the lesser created minds instant by instant, but he does argue that the percepts given by God to those minds are in a constant state of being “updated” through God’s direct agency. And while all of these things are interesting enough on their own, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is in the Christology of Jonathan Edwards.

Here we see the subtitle of the work coming into full effect, “Continuous Creation and Christology.” True enough, if the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests that the Son of God took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this opens up quite a few other questions about Edwards’ metaphysics: What of Jesus’ physical body? Does it possess physicality (material) outside of its “idea,” or does it too exist as an impression from the Uncreated Mind (God) to the created minds of men? And even more startling, we must ask, what about the mind of Jesus of Nazareth itself; is it created or uncreated? Does the human mind of Jesus of Nazareth need be constantly recreated? If Jesus is to be truly incarnate as a human being, he must exist in his humanity in the same way as all human creations do, right? And yet this is made quite a bit more complex still by the fact that the Son is also eternal and timeless; begotten by the Father. The reader is challenged to work through these complex questions alongside Hamilton as he considers each one in turn.

When Hamilton is working through Edwards’ first hand materials, he is primarily doing work in his Miscellanies and his book Original Sin. It is in the latter that we see his doctrine of continuous creation explained most fully, and in the former that Edwards talks about such ideas as idealism and occasionalism freely. There are moments when Hamilton, in order to explain what Edwards likely thought, is somewhat forced to make conjectures and leaps to fill in that gaps that are not fully explained by Edwards himself in his extant writings. Of course, he rigorously works through the relevant literature, and especially interacts with Crisp in the footnotes.

Since the book is short, the reader moves through these questions a bit fast. Perhaps too fast at times, although Hamilton tries to give the reader enough illustrations and examples to keep his or her mind focused on the topic at hand. Several times, just when my focus was about to “tap out” from mental perplexity, Hamilton would give just the right illustration that helped me to jump back on board and cling on a bit longer. Readers will find themselves preserved from mental fatigue by helpful handholds such as the recurring “cupcake” illustration (p. 32-33), a Monet painting reference (page 38), an illustration of an actor watching himself on film (p. 40), a memorable old-school slide projector (p. 56) and so on.  The constant use of these illustrations gives the reader the assurance of “Okay, I’m still with you!”

Without giving too many spoilers, Hamilton holds that Edwards does have a coherent view of continuous creation that sustains challenges from other problematic issues related to Christology. Edwards’ view of immaterialism is that the universe consists of minds and ideas only. He holds that the ideas must be constantly recreated, but not the minds. This prevents him from having to admit that the created mind of Jesus of Nazareth (as distinct from the uncreated mind of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity) need be remade continually. This makes Edwards, in Hamilton’s view an “immaterial realist.” Thus, Hamilton concludes the following propositions can be discerned in Edwards’ metaphysics:

  • The humanity of Jesus is a real substance, composed of an immaterial mind and a body composed entirely of ideas presented to Him by the Spirit
  • The mind of Jesus persists through time by enduring moment-to-moment whereas the body of Jesus, like all other perceptible objects, is continuously created and re-presented ex nihilo to the mind of Jesus (p. 92-93).

The book does get embroiled in quite a bit of jargon. Each chapter introduces new terms to the reader that must be considered before one or the other is finally preferred by the author. Is time discreet or dense? We must become familiar with fusion theory and fission theory. Neophytes will struggle to keep up with terms like idealism, occasionalism, substances, minds, immaterialism etc. Readers may do well to keep the new Edwards Encyclopedia close at hand. Thus, the constant introduction of new terms may give some uninitated readers the sense of playing “catch up” throughout the book. On the other hand, the brevity, clarity, and illustrations of the book make it an attainable read for all who are interested to go further into Edwards’ somewhat idiosyncratic thoughts on metaphysics.



Edwards Encyclopedia Preview

Forthwith, the world’s first look at the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (pre-order this volume here), edited by Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Adriaan C. Neele (Eerdmans, 2017). The edition shown in the video below is not the final version, but is rather an advanced, uncorrected proof provided by the good folks at Eerdmans Publishing. The hardback edition will be released in November of this year, and will weigh in at well over 700 pages. It will likely be the definitive one volume reference work on Jonathan Edwards for decades to come. Contributing authors include: Robert L. Boss, Jonathan S. Marko, Oliver Crisp, Joel Beeke, Sean Michael Lucas, Thomas S. Kidd, Rhys S. Bezzant, Jeffery C. Waddington and many more.


Video Book Review: Meet the Puritans (Beeke & Pederson)

Today, 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.

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?”


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.”

The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, by Michal Choinski (Book Review)

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.

Michal Choinski

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 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.