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Kathryn Reklis: Jonathan Edwards and the afterlife of failure

A feminist scholar finds inspiration in Jonathan Edwards the experimenter, who had no choice but to reach for new language, new methods and new ideas to make the truth of the divine drama come alive for his age.

Jonathan Edwards

November 5, 2013

When I’m asked about my research, I rarely make it past the first five words: “I’m writing on Jonathan Edwards.”

“Wasn’t he that hellfire guy?” “The ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ guy, right?” Or my personal favorite, “You know, he believed that children would be tortured in hell for all eternity.”

“Actually,” I am tempted to say, “he only believed that about people who made ill-formed historical judgments.”

It is hard enough to defend a man everyone remembers from high school English as an exemplar of “terror preaching.” Add to this the fact that I am a feminist historical and constructive theologian and that Edwards was a staunch defender of orthodox Calvinism and late Puritan social hierarchy, and the defense is even harder to mount.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t Edwards’s way with a hellfire metaphor that first drew me in. I was attracted to Edwards because he was perched on the edge of a world expanding faster than the ability to take the measure of it.

Caught in the crosshairs of early modern philosophy and early practices of globalization, ministering and writing on the periphery of an expanding global empire, Edwards sensed the world changing around him.

From every corner -- the merchant fixing abstract prices for goods acquired and manufactured around the Atlantic world, the mariner relying on new navigational tools to speed his travel, the farmer caught in battles over decreasing communal lands and increasing claims to private property -- came cries for personal, sensible experience as the surest form of knowledge.

It wasn’t just philosophers like Locke who demanded to know things for themselves. The material, the measurable and the experiential were becoming a new standard for truth. On this shifting epistemological ground, old-fashioned Calvinist theology was losing its shine.

Edwards was determined to find a way to make divine truth seem as real to his parishioners as the knowledge they got from their senses.

The truth of the world, as he saw it, was the cosmic unity of all things in God’s benevolent and self-giving being. To know oneself as graciously pulled into the interconnected web of God’s being, and held there by God’s grace, connected in love to all other beings, was the main work of salvation.

Edwards experimented with different sermon styles to find a way to awaken his parishioners to this experience of reality.

In the 1730s, he hit pay dirt. Revivals that started in his Northampton, Mass., parish began to spread around the colonies and the broader Atlantic world. The experience of divine reality was so real for people caught up in the revivals, it overwhelmed them, body and soul: people wailed, flailed, shook and fainted. They were, as Edwards began to describe it, “swallowed up in God.”

Faced with detractors who saw only irrationality and charlatanism, Edwards developed an elaborate theological system to account for revival conversion, and in so doing he became the architect of a new style of Christian experience. Today he is claimed as “the bud of the bud and the root of the root” of American (and global) evangelicalism, which is either commendation or censure, depending on one’s perspective.

That we read his life and work as so successful would come, I think, as a surprise to Edwards.

He was dismissed by his congregation after many years of acrimonious discord. He died a relatively young man, at the prime of his intellectual production, having just assumed the presidency of the fledgling College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), but having never written the “new system of divinity” he had long had in mind.

The revivals he helped to prompt, spread and defend escaped his best efforts at ecclesial and theological control and took on lives of their own in more radical evangelical and social movements.

But the more time I’ve spent with Edwards, the more I’ve wondered whether this is the portrait of Edwards most useful to us now, perched as we are, too, on the edge of the world remaking itself.

Not the lambasting terror preacher who proliferated images of impending damnation to startle his “sermon-proof” congregation into some response. Not the erudite systematizer, penning magisterial treatises on everything from “true virtue” to “original sin.”

But the experimenter who had no choice but to reach for new language, new methods and new ideas to make the truth of the divine drama come alive for his age.

Given his aristocratic manner and unswerving Calvinism, what we recognize as some of the greatest successes of the style of Christianity he helped to birth would likely be seen by him as failures -- new denominations like Methodism and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the prophetic traditions of black Christianity, and the overall emphasis on the experiential nature of Christian life. And to the degree that he could predict where some of these forces were headed, he was dismayed.

Persevering in the face of these “failures” seems, in retrospect, to be the strongest proof of his faithfulness. Even though he could not see or control the ends to which his preaching and writing would be used, he persisted in following a call to make the truth real in a new way.

In his experimentation, he engaged everything at his disposal. He sought truth from every possible source: in the new philosophy of John Locke, the new science of Isaac Newton, the shipping logs of the Atlantic trade and the gossip magazines of London coffeehouses.

There was nothing too grand or too mundane but that it could point to the more encompassing reality of God’s truth.

I take this as a personal word of encouragement to the feminist theologian lost in the thickets of Edwards’s work and context. Perhaps it is another lesson Edwards can teach our own context: even in historical and theological worlds different from our own -- even in the work of that “hellfire guy” -- there are truths to learn that just might fund new experiments for present-day revival.