The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)

[1] Much attention globally is being given to the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards. The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale is an excellent gateway to much of this activity. Yale University is to be commended for making available his works, with accompanying scholarly introductions, in twenty-six printed volumes as well as in digital format. With such a vast corpus, how does one begin to gain an understanding of this seminal American thinker? Gerald McDermott and Ronald Story have provided an introduction to the theological core and passion of Jonathan Edwards. Their book consists of twenty edited selections from the works of Edwards arranged in chronological order. Thirteen of these selections are from his sermons. Other sections come from his publications, his private notebook, and his correspondence. Of necessity, these selections are highly abridged to give the reader the essential argument and ethos of Edwards. This book does not attempt to be a representative sample of the breadth of his thought. The subtitle of the book clearly states the three themes which these selections highlight: society, love and justice.

[2] Each of the selections is prefaced with an introduction which contextualizes the selection within the personal life and historical times of Edwards. The book begins with a nineteen page introduction to the world of 18th century Massachusetts, Edwards’ ministry, and his theological thought. A chronological chart of his life and work has been provided along with a map of Colonial America, a map of settlement growth and distribution in Massachusetts and its environs during Edwards’ life, as well as a brief history of the Northampton’s meeting house where Edwards ministered. With these features, this books becomes an ideal introduction to the times and thought of Edwards. The “For Further Reading” section at the end of the book offers excellent guidance for the reader who desires guidance in reading Edwards’s original works or the scholarly literature devoted to him.

[3] McDermott and Story have shown that Edwards’ thought has at its core the commandments of Jesus to love God and to love neighbor. The gracious God through love brings about a change in a person’s character and being, which then manifests itself in the Christian through acts of love and virtue. If Edwards’ argument would have stopped there, he would be counted among the revivalist and pietists whose descendants are still with us in American Evangelicals. However, over and over again, one is struck with Edwards’ stress upon the public and social consequences of faith. While not diminishing the impact of sin on the individual, he was concerned with its social impact, “the ruin of a public society…it weakens and breaks the bonds of union…which is the end of society,” (p. 37). Envy may be a sin of the individual, but its consequences are social. It “destroys the comfort of society….[and] makes confusion in a society,” (p. 45). With such formulations, one could imagine him as an advocate for a Gospel with social dimensions and a church which emphasizes social justice. Edwards says, “The temporal welfare of a people consists in these following things, viz. in their health and longevity, in their wealth, in their strength and ability to defend themselves, in their peace, in the prevalency of common justice, in public good order and government, in civility and decency.” (p. 37). He does not draw a sharp distinction between the Church and Society nor the Church and State. I suspect he could not have envisioned anything like a secular society. But one of his last works, The Nature of True Virtue, is more philosophical and less overtly theological in its argumentation and language. Here he shows his awareness and critical engagement with current Enlightenment thought with its more secular orientation. One can only speculate what his intellectual legacy would have been had he not died within a month of assuming the presidency of the College of New Jersey, the present Princeton University. His death resulted from receiving an impure Smallpox vaccination which he had received in order to encourage other members of the community to receive vaccinations. He died, as he lived and preached, showing love for the community of neighbors.

[4] With the majority of the selection coming from his sermons, one sees the oral rhetoric of Edwards as he builds passionate arguments designed to persuade the hearts and minds of congregants to action. While not the intended audience of McDermott and Story, preachers will find this book a helpful guide as it illustrates someone who balanced both the concerns of pastoral ministry with prophetic proclamation. Many of his paragraphs sound fresh and contemporary as if they could be preached today without any alternation in vocabulary or syntax. The clarity of his argumentation and the simplicity of diction are stunning. One sees that a great deal of Edwards’ ethical thinking of was done in the social and oral setting of corporate worship and in the form of public preaching. He is aware of the power of words and he attempts to use them for the edification of the individual Christian, the community, and the society. Being keenly aware of the power of his own words, he on numerous occasions cautions his listeners to guard their tongue thereby avoiding gossip, back biting, and other forms of destructive speech. With little difficulty, one could construct from Edwards a theology and an ethic of Christian speech and rhetoric.

[5] Edwards’ works are forged in the crucible of pastoral ministry with the grinding pestle of politics both in the church and in the community. He is not a wild eyed idealist; his eyes are wide open to the realities around him. Edwards, while building general theological arguments about the nature of the Christian life, nonetheless does so with pastoral awareness of the concrete situations of the community. The introductions of McDermott and Story to each selection prove invaluable to the reader in understanding these concrete situations. Edwards brings a sharp prophetic focus to his exhortation for specific changes in individuals and in the community. This prophetic voice eventually led to his dismissal from the church after more than twenty years of pastoral service in Northampton.

[6] After his dismissal from the church, he spends most of the last seven years of his life as a missionary to Native Americans in Massachusetts. His advocacy and creative ideas on behalf Native Americans are illustrated in the excerpt from the Letter he wrote to Speaker Thomas Hubbard in 1751 (pp. 133-135). His passionate and clear rhetoric on matters of food, shelter, education, children, and the development of Native American leadership shows the kind of prophetic leadership Edwards exercised as he endeavored to exhort those in political office to acts of love and service on behalf of their neighbors and Christian brothers and sisters, the Native Americans. Here one also sees Edwards powerful use of language designed to move the heart in love acts of justice in society.

[7] What is so striking from all these selections is how they reveal a single consistent emphasis in Edwards upon the love of neighbor which builds a community and a just society. One sees this in the Church Covenant, which everyone at the Northampton Church over the age of fourteen signed and to which they gave public assent. It is not a creed of common theology or dogma but a covenant of common practice and mutual community obligations with “strict regard to rules of honesty, justice, and uprightness,” (p. 103). There are clauses regarding the payments of debts, making restitution, as well as a commitment to justice in community above personal interests. In the selection from “The Duties of Christians in a time of War” (pp. 106-11) his arguments for armed self-defense of the colony are made in light of his concern for the community as a whole. Yet he leaves room for individuals to differ with him in good conscience. The selections from his Post-Millennial theological writings show again his concern for community justice. This is the community of eschatological vision where, “the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ,” (p.32). One should also be reminded that his eschatological concerns were just the continuation of his sweeping view of history which he articulated in History of the Work of Redemption (a series of thirty sermon preached in 1739 published in 1774) a work he had hoped to revise while president of the College of New Jersey.

[8] In short, McDermott and Story have succeeded in showing us “the other Jonathan Edwards” not the one stereotyped as the Calvinist Revivalist of the Great Awakening made famous for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” but the Edwards who was a passionate pastor-preacher ablaze with the love of God, dedicated to the proclamation of the love of neighbor, a harmonious community, and a just society. I trust that through this book many readers will be introduced to this remarkable “other Jonathan Edwards.”

E. Wray Bryant

E. Wray Bryant, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Capital University in Columbus Ohio.