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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

[6871] John Stevens, The Mary Carr Stone (1721), courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.

Jonathan Edwards’s writings articulate a complex synthesis of traditional Puritan piety, Enlightenment beliefs in the potential of the human will, and an almost mystical appreciation of natural beauty. Intrigued by his unique combination of scientific rationalism and ecstatic faith, scholars continue to debate whether Edwards should be understood as the last great Puritan or the first American Romantic. Born just after the turn of the century, Edwards is the quintessential transitional figure between seventeenth-century Puritan culture and eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals. Descended from a long line of ministers, including the influential Solomon Stoddard, Edwards seemed destined for a life in the church. He showed remarkable promise as a child, entering Yale–at that time, a bastion of conservative religious training–when he was thirteen and graduating as valedictorian. While in college, Edwards complemented his traditional theological education by studying the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke and Isaac Newton. He also developed a scientific interest in the natural world: his earliest known writings are scientific examinations of such natural phenomena as atoms, rainbows, and spiders. As a young man, Edwards adopted a regimen of intense study and meditation (he rose at four in the morning and would read for up to thirteen hours a day) that he would continue for the rest of his life.

After spending a short time in New York and then receiving his master’s degree in theology at Yale, Edwards accepted a call to assist his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts. There he married Sarah Pierrepont, a woman renowned for her devotion to spiritual matters, and started what would become a family of eleven children. When Stoddard died in 1729, Edwards was made the sole pastor of the Northampton church. Throughout the following decades, Edwards had remarkable success in revitalizing religious commitment among his flock. The forceful language and vivid imagery of his sermons had a powerful effect on many of his parishioners, touching off an unprecedented wave of conversions within the church. This revival Edwards witnessed in Massachusetts found a corollary in the mass conversions effected by itinerant preachers like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent at the large camp meetings they held throughout the American southern and middle colonies.

The revitalization of spirituality and religious enthusiasm that swept through the American colonies from 1734 until around 1750 is referred to as the Great Awakening">Great Awakening. Great Awakening preachers were united in their desire to promote what they called a “religion of the heart,” through which converts would move beyond mere adherence to moral duties into an ecstatic experience of spiritual grace. Some of Edwards’s parishioners were so moved by their conversions that they could not stop themselves from crying out or fainting. Converts at Tennent’s and Whitefield’s camp meetings had even more extreme physical reactions, including shouting, shaking, groveling on the ground, and even falling unconscious. Although Edwards worried that the excessive enthusiasm and emotionalism that prevailed at camp meetings could be delusions rather than true conversions, he used some of the itinerant ministers’ rhetorical strategies in his own sermons.

Despite his enormous successes in the 1730s and 1740s, Edwards was unable to sustain his popularity with his congregation. In his desire to purify the church, he attempted to abolish the practice of giving communion to anyone who had only been baptized; instead, he required a formal, public profession of conversion of all full church members. He also began to use the pulpit to chastise prominent church members for immorality. Although some of Edwards’s followers continued to support his efforts, many felt that he had gone too far and turned bitterly against him. In 1750, the Northampton church voted to dismiss its pastor.

Although Edwards received many offers to serve as pastor at other churches both in America and abroad, he accepted a calling to Stockbridge, near Northampton, where he served as a missionary to the Housatonnuck Indians. His new position afforded him freedom to set his own schedule and allowed him to focus on his writings and philosophical inquiries. In 1754, he published Freedom of the Will, a work that was widely heralded as an important contribution to theological debates. In 1757, he received an offer from the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton) to serve as its president. He was reluctant to accept, citing his own inadequacy and his fear that the new post would distract him from his writing. When the college offered him a reduced workload, Edwards agreed to take the position. Upon arriving, Edwards instituted and participated in what was at the time a controversial innoculation program against smallpox. He had a reaction to the vaccine, became ill, and died at the age of fifty-five.

Teaching Tips

  • Students have different responses to the vivid imagery Edwards employs in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: some may find it surprising, others frightening, and still others are amused. Sometimes students will associate the “fire and brimstone” nature of the text with contemporary televangelism or TV talk shows and believe that Edwards was something of a religious huckster. You should stress to them that Edwards distrusted extreme enthusiasm and reportedly delivered his sermons in a sober monotone rather than ranting or shouting. Most of Edwards’s sermons are characterized by a desire to make salvation emotionally and aesthetically appealing to his listeners, and the sternness and anger in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is somewhat anomalous for him. It is also important that students realize that Edwards actually managed to live in accordance with his strict beliefs: his devotion to his family, rigorous dedication to study, and lifelong focus on God testify to the conviction that underlay his rhetoric.
  • Ask students to outline the structure and argument of one of Edwards’s sermons (“A Divine and Supernatural Light” or “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” would work well). Have them pay attention to the way Edwards begins with a quotation from Scripture, elucidates the doctrine it contains, and elaborates on its applications in the lives of his listeners. Ask them to analyze the kinds of arguments and appeals Edwards relies upon to make his sermon meaningful and potent to his listeners. A careful analysis of Edwards’s systematic, logically organized arguments should help students appreciate the way his intellect worked and the power his sermons had over his listeners.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What language does Edwards use to describe his experience of grace in his “Personal Narrative”? What kinds of difficulties does he seem to have articulating his experience? What imagery and metaphors does he employ?
  2. Comprehension: What was the Great Awakening?
  3. Context: Both Edwards and Emerson were profoundly affected by the beauty of the natural world and understood it to be an expression of God’s glory. Compare Edwards’s descriptions of his experiences in nature in the “Personal Narrative” with Emerson’s descriptions in Nature. How are they similar? How are they different? How does Edwards use natural imagery in his sermons?
  4. Exploration: During the Great Awakening preachers and clerics had a tremendous influence on American culture: they captivated audiences with their powerful messages and transformed people’s beliefs and the way they lived their everyday lives. What charismatic figures seem to exert this kind of influence over American culture today?

Selected Archive Items

[3169Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Edwards delivered this sermon on July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut. Edwards’s preaching helped fan the flames of religious revival at the dawn of the first Great Awakening.

[4475Anonymous, Old Ship Church, 88 Main St., Hingham, Plymouth County, MA Interior (1681),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MASS,12-HING,5-].
The Old Ship Church is the oldest meetinghouse in continuous ecclesiastical use in the United States. Puritan meetinghouses were square in shape, unadorned, and lacked altars, reflecting the plain-style aesthetic and a congregational emphasis.

[6871John Stevens, The Mary Carr Stone (1721),
courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.
The Mary Carr Stone rests in Old Common Burying-ground in Newport, Rhode Island. It reads, “Here lyeth the Body of Mary the Wife of John Carr, Dyed Sepr; ye 28th: 1721: in ye 21st: year of her age.” The carving was made at the John Stevens Shop by the elder Stevens, a carver known for the quality and innovativeness of his work. Its imagery emphasizes rebirth. The sides and bottom house show leaf patterns, pilasters, rosettes: flowers and leaves were associated with life (Job 14) and fecundity. At the top is a cherub with wings, and at the base is a pair of peacocks, symbols of immortality.

[8811] Emory Elliot, Interview: “Puritan Impact” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Elliott, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, discusses the impact of Puritan thought and ideology on American culture.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6