Jonathan Edwards: Contribution to American Literature

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      LIFE AND WRITINGS.— Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758 who ranks among the world's greatest theologians and metaphysicians, was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut. Like Cotton Mather, Edwards was precocious, entering Yale before he was thirteen. The year previous to his going to college, he wrote a paper on spiders, showing careful scientific observation and argument. This paper has been called "one of the rarest specimens of precocious scientific genius on record." At fourteen, he read Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, receiving from it, he says, higher pleasure "than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure." Before he was seventeen, he had graduated from Yale, and he had become a tutor there before he was twenty-one.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

      Like Dante, he had a Beatrice. Thinking of her, he wrote this prose hymn of a maiden's love for the Divine Power:—

      "They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that great Being who made and rules the world, and there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on Him, that she expects after a while to be received up where He is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven, being assured that He loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from Him always. She will sometimes go about from place to place singing sweetly, and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure, and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her"

      MEMORIAL TABLET TO JONATHAN EDWARDS (First Church, Northampton, Mass)— Jonathan Edwards thus places before us Sarah Pierrepont, a New England Puritan maiden. To note the similarity of thought between the Old Puritan England and the New, let us turn to the maiden in Milton's Comus:—

  "A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
  Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
  And in clear dream and solemn vision,
  Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
  Till oft converse with heav'nly habitants
  Begin to cast a beam on th'outward shape,
  The unpolluted temple of the mind,
  And turns it by degrees to the soul's essence,
  Till all be made immortal."

      Unlike Dante, Edwards married his Beatrice at the age of seventeen. In 1727, the year of his marriage, he became pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. With the aid of his wife, he inaugurated the greatest religious revival of the century, known as the "Great Awakening," which spread to other colonial churches, crossed the ocean, and stimulated Wesley to call sinners to repentance.

      Early in life, Edwards formed a series of resolutions, three of which are:—

      "To live with all my might, while I do live." "Never to do anything, which, if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him." "Never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God's." He earnestly tried to keep these resolutions until the end. After a successful pastorate of twenty-three years at Northampton, the church dismissed him for no fault of his own.

      Like Dante, he was driven into exile, and he went from Northampton to the frontier town of Stockbridge, where he remained for seven years as a missionary to the Indians. His wife and daughters did their utmost to add to the family income, and some contributions were sent him from Scotland, but he was so poor that he wrote his books on the backs of letters and on the blank margins cut from newspapers. His fame was not swallowed up in the wilderness. Princeton College called him to its presidency in 1757. He died in that office in 1758, after less than three months' service in his new position. His wife was still in Stockbridge when he passed away. "Tell her," he said to his daughter, "that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever." In September of the same year she came to lie beside him in the graveyard at Princeton.

      In 1900, the church that had dismissed him one hundred and fifty years before placed on its walls a bronze tablet in his memory, with the noble inscription from Malachi ii., 6.

      As a writer, Jonathan Edwards won fame in three fields. He is (1) America's greatest metaphysician, (2) her greatest theologian, and (3) a unique poetic interpreter of the universe as a manifestation of the divine love.

      His best known metaphysical work is The Freedom of the Will (1754). The central point of this work is that the will is determined by the strongest motive, that it is "repugnant to reason that one act of the will should come into existence without a cause." He boldly says that God is free to do only what is right. Edwards emphasizes the higher freedom, gained through repeated acts of the right kind, until both the inclination and the power to do wrong disappear.

      As a theologian, America has not yet produced his superior. His Treatise concerning the Religious Affections, his account of the Great Awakening, called Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, and Thoughts on the Revival, as well as his more distinctly technical theological works, show his ability in this field. Unfortunately, he did not rise superior to the Puritan custom of preaching about hell fire. He delivered on that subject a sermon which causes modern readers to shudder; but this, although the most often quoted, is the least typical of the man and his writings. Those in search of really typical statements of his theology will find them in such specimens as, "God and real existence is the same. God is and there is nothing else." He was a theological idealist, believing that all the varied phenomena of the universe are "constantly proceeding from God, as light from the sun." Such statements suggest Shelley's lines, which tell how

     "… the one Spirit's plastic stress
    Sweeps through the dull dense world compelling there
  All new successions to the forms they wear."

      Dr. Allen, Edwards's biographer and critic, and a careful student of his unpublished, as well as of his published, writings, says, "He was at his best and greatest, most original and creative, when he described the divine love." Such passages as the following, and also the one quoted on page 51, show this quality:—

  "When we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love and purity.

  So the green trees and fields and singing of birds are the emanations of

  His infinite joy and benignity. The easiness and naturalness of trees and   vines are shadows of His beauty and loveliness."

  His favorite text was, "I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the valleys," and his favorite words were "sweet and bright."

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