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People & Ideas: Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

As the Great Awakening swept across Massachusetts in the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards, a minister and supporter of George Whitefield, delivered what would become one of the most famous sermons from the colonial era, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The sermon featured a frightening central image: the hand of all-powerful God dangling a terrified believer over a fiery pit, ready on a moment's notice to drop him into the flames of eternal damnation. Edwards hoped his sermon would wake up the faithful and remind them of the terrible fate that awaited them if they failed to confess their sins and to seek God's mercy.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" eclipsed Edwards' more important contribution to religion in America. The son and grandson of preachers, he not only became a minister but also one of the greatest theologians in American history. His precocious intelligence and range of intellect was evident early on. He learned Latin, read Newton's Optics and wrote about rainbows and the captivating movement of spiders. Reveling in nature, he found "a divine glory, in almost everything." He described his own religious experience in almost mystical terms, as being "swallowed up by God."

A prodigious writer, Edwards produced volumes of sermons, journals and observations. His capacious mind engaged two persistent religious questions that transcend time: What is the nature of religious experience? What is the source of religious authority? The question of experience arose with urgency during the Great Awakening. Heeding the calls of Whitefield and his followers, men and women frequently engaged in flamboyant displays of emotional excess, often accompanied by extreme bodily movements. Boston minister Charles Chauncy sharply criticized this behavior, arguing that people were being tricked by their overheated imaginations into calling the result true religion. Reason, not emotion or "animal instinct," he argued, must govern religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards demurred. In his Treatise on Religious Affectations, he defended the place of emotion in religious experience not as "animal instinct," but as part of human will. At the same time, he questioned whether subjective experience alone could serve as the source of religious authority. He concluded that individuals could not rely solely on their own spiritual experience, however luminous it appeared. Satan, Edwards warned, stood ever ready to appeal to human self-centeredness.

By the time he died in 1758, Edwards had left behind a formidable body of work that addressed topics that have occupied Christian thinkers for nearly 2,000 years: the nature of sin, the will and virtue. As his biographer Perry Miller noted, Edwards treated these topics "in the manner of Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, not as problems of dogma, but of life."

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Published October 11, 2010

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