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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

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

Jonathan Edwards Activities
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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 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.

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