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

      Jonathan Edwards, a sort of a religious poet, is the virtual antithesis of John Woolman. He was born in East Windsor, Connecticut and educated at Yale. In 1727 he was ordained as minister of the Church of Northampton, Massachusetts. There he served jointly with his grandfather, Soloman Stoddard until Stoddard’s death in 1729. He wrote early sermons God Glorified in the Work of Redemption (1731) and A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734), the latter was notable for its emphasis on the aesthetic aspect of religious experience. He preached the religious revival and contributed to the “Great Awakening” (1740) which spread through the colonies in general. These spiritual awakenings prompted Edwards to reflect on his religious experience. His other books are The Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1737). The Distinguishing Marks (1741). Personal Narrative (1740) was not intended to be published, tells the story of his conversion. Dismissed by the Northampton Congregation for his unorthodox views he went to Stockbridge where he ministered to an Indian mission. During this period he wrote important work The Freedom of the Will (1754), The Great Christian Doctrine of original Sin Defended (1758), The Nature of True Virtue (1765) and The Great End for which God Created the World (1765). These are his works of philosophy which expand on his conception of religious experience. Fusing an orthodox Calvinism with Lockean psychology and Newtonian physics, he explains religious conversion in 18th century in rationalistic teens. In 1757 he was appointed as the President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) but unfortunately died from a small fox inoculation soon after taking office. At the time of his death he was working on his systematic history, The History of the Work of Redemption, abused on sermons delivered in 1739. The series was published later in 1774 and held the important place in American millennial thought.

      Edwards is the best known for his frightening, powerful sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). He says: “God should let you go, you would immediately sink, and sinfully descend, and plunge into the bottomless gulf... The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked... he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the bottomless gulf. His sermons had an enormous impact, sending whole congregations into hysterical fits of weeping. In the long run, though, their grotesque harshness alienated people from the Calvinism that Edwards valiantly defended. Edwards's dogmatic, medieval sermons no longer fit the experiences of relatively peaceful, prosperous 18th-century colonists. After Edwards, fresh, liberal currents of tolerance gathered much more force. It Now, let us look at literature of the Southern and Middle Colonies only 17 years before the Quaker notable. Woolman had little formal schooling. Edwards was highly educated. Woolman followed his ‘inner light’. Edwards was devoted to the law and authority. Both men became fine writers but they revealed opposite poles of the colonial religious experience. Edwards was molded by his extreme sense of duty and by the rigid Puritan environment, which conspired to make him defend a strict and gloomy Calvinism from the forces of liberalism springing up around him.

      The pre-revolutionary southern literature was aristocratic and secular, reflecting the dominant social and economic systems of the south. Early English immigrants were drawn to the southern colonies because of economic opportunity rather than religious freedom. Although many southerners were poor farmers or traders people living not much better than slaves do, the southern literate upper class was shaped by the classical, Old World ideal of a noble landed gentry made possible by the slavery. The institution of slavery released wealthy southern whites from manual labor, ordered them leisurely, and made the dream of an aristocratic life in the American wilderness possible. The Puritan emphasis on hard work, education, and earnestness was rare - instead, we hear of such pleasures as horse-riding and hunting etc,. The church was the focus of a genteel social life, not a forum for minute examination of the conscience.

      In this chapter, we see how the European migrants settled to the east of the America and constructed colonies, facing the rebuff of the native Americans on the one hand and the protest of the other Christian sects on how they established schools and colleges, developed agriculture and also industry at the initial stages. The English, of all the Europeans, had the upper hand in colonizing the America. There were religious conflicts well as well as political strifes, battles and wars. The encounter between the native Americans and the immigrants was always fierce from all sides though it led to slow intermixing and assimilation of the cultures sometimes. The literature of this period is the replica of the literature of England and also that of the European literatures. Moreover, there was a mixing up of various cultures, leading to the concept of ‘boiling pot’ of all cultures.

      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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