Scott McLemee
A Great Awakening
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Newsday, 20 March 2005

JONATHAN EDWARDS: America's Evangelical, by Philip F. Gura. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 284 pp.


Next year's tricentennial of his birth has lately made Benjamin Franklin inescapable -- his life story retailed in a series of ever-longer biographies, along with television documentaries full of quills and powdered wigs. His ingenuity and practicality make Franklin our prototype of choice for the American character. Never mind that, as Gordon Woods spells out in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, even though he was a cosmopolitan sophisticate, he was shrewd about branding himself as the embodiment of plainspoken simplicity. The important thing is that he was successful at it.

No such luck for Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). There were books and conferences to mark his tricentennial in 2003, but George Mardsen's definitive biography, Jonathan Edwards, was not exactly a media sensation that year.

Philip Gura's survey of the career of "America's Evangelical" is perhaps more suited for the general reader. Even its subtitle feels like a concession to the standard image of Edwards as the preacher of the original hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, "The Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God" -- hence, presumably, an ancestor of the televangelists. That judgment is unfair. The notebooks Edwards began keeping as a pre-adolescent reveal a mind as sharp and subtle as any in Colonial America. Like Franklin, he was in touch with developments in European thought, but also very alert to the way of life taking shape in the New World.

Gura's account tends to skimp on treating the philosophical issues that Edwards wrestled with over the years. That omission is, to be frank, a serious and possibly fatal one. It leaves the reader with only a dim sense of just how substantial a thinker Edwards really was. But to his credit, Gura does a fine job of sketching the problems Edwards faced "on the ground" in the pre-Revolutionary War era -- a period that is, for most people, unfamiliar beyond a handful of images involving Pocahontas, Thanksgiving and witchcraft trials.

When Edwards began preaching in Northampton, Mass., in his 20s, he inherited a set of problems that had, as it were, bedeviled the Puritan clergy for years. A sense of decline from the promise of American righteousness was already solidly established since well before his birth. In the old days (as any colonist in the 1690s knew), religion had governed civil life with a strong hand. But prosperity, selfishness and vulgar forms of popular entertainment were taking America to hell in a handbasket.

Edwards' grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, had tried to brook the decline by making it easier to join the church. That relaxing of standards was, to conservatives, itself part of the problem. Could righteous order be restored without tightening up membership requirements?

A partial answer came in the wave of revivalism that was unleashed by Edwards' sermons in the 1740s -- during which thousands of people underwent conversion. Among the earliest, writes Gura, was "a young woman who had been one of the greatest 'company-keepers' -- that is, someone frequently with men -- in the whole town."

If even a party girl could reform, perhaps all was not lost. Edwards' writings soon found a trans-Atlantic audience. He offered a model of the stages that someone undergoing conversion went through: in effect, a psychological analysis of the experience. Here, I think, "Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical" suffers from not drawing enough on the notebooks in which Edwards worked out his philosophical speculations on the mind. But Gura's account does have the slightly puzzling and perhaps unintentional effect of suggesting that Edwards' contemporary heir is not the Rev. Billy Graham but Dr. Phil.

In any case, the deep reformation didn't really take. Some of Edwards' prize converts among the town's young men obtained a couple of books containing detailed information on female anatomy, then "used their newly acquired knowledge to harass young women" with rude jokes. And when Edwards tried to raise the standards for admission to communion, he was dismissed from his position in the Northampton church.

In 1751, he started over as a preacher in a Massachusetts settlement that did missionary work among American Indians. Edwards seemed on the verge of another major life-change when he was called to serve as president of Princeton University in 1757, only to succumb, a few months later, to complications from a botched smallpox vaccination.

Gura notes that Edwards -- who his contemporaries expected would be soon forgotten -- was rediscovered in the 19th century as part of the revival of evangelical Christianity. I only wish the book had tried to account for something that the great American intellectual historian Perry Miller pointed to more than 50 years ago: the fascination of Edwards' writings "for the modern reader, [even] though that reader be entirely secular minded."