Father of the
By Matt McKeown
The religious revivals of the eighteenth century are one of the great keys to American social history, and no figure from them stands taller than Edwards.
When we hear the name Jonathan Edwards, our first thought is probably his most famous sermon, the formidably titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Even allowing for the strongly religious culture of eighteenth-century New England, it is difficult to imagine a single sermon producing an influence so immense and lasting that its author can be ranked beside minds like Newman or Voltaire; and indeed, it was not that single sermon but Edwards’ whole career that made him one of the most brilliant lights of the First Great Awakening, which in turn has shaped the religious history of all America.
The First Great Awakening was, as the name implies, the first in a series of periods of religious revival following a season of more conventional religious practice and growth in things like skepticism or atheism. Later Great Awakenings would see the formation of new churches, of which Mormonism, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism are the best-known. But the First Great Awakening was a predominantly Reformed (or Calvinist) phenomenon, centered in though not limited to the two Englands, old and New. It took place mostly within the confines of pre-existing institutions, especially the Congregationalist movement and the Church of England, though the disciples of another well-known revivalist, John Wesley, would go on to found the Methodist tradition. In many ways, this was the beginning of a general “evangelical” identity that transcended denominational boundaries, which remains a major force in American culture to this day.
The character of the First Great Awakening was fairly straightforward: it emphasized a profound personal conviction of one’s sinfulness, followed by supernatural conversion of heart and a subsequent outpouring of faith, uprightness of life, and (with time and maturity) consolation and confidence in God’s grace. While a minister might guide the individual penitent and preach in ways that gave opportunities for listeners to start on the way, conversion was a strictly miraculous thing, something only God could do.
Edwards was typical and indeed prototypical of the Great Awakening in this respect, and his books and sermons reflect this. One reason that Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has become famous, besides being a stirring (if frightening or even, at moments, disgusting) piece of rhetoric, is that hellfire sermons were a standard feature of the Awakening—not because conversion motivated by fear of hell was valued by the revivalists (indeed, the opposite was true), but because they considered it a way to prompt hearers towards conviction of sin, the necessary prerequisite of the rest of the process of conversion.
But other works by Edwards were more significant at the time, and remain so to this day; his Religious Affections is considered a spiritual classic by many Reformed Christians. One aspect of the First Great Awakening that drew criticism from many more conservative churchgoers at the time was its emotional expressiveness: cries, tears, and even fainting were frequent at revivalist meetings. The word enthusiasm was applied to them, and at the time, it was a strong pejorative, deriving from a Greek root that meant “frenzy” or, more literally, “possession.” In Religious Affections and elsewhere, Edwards, though a reserved man himself, defended these dramatic expressions of piety. While avoiding the claim that demonstrative gestures like weeping were necessary evidence of God’s work upon the sinner’s heart, he insisted that these were legitimate expressions of repentance and devotion and that stifling them was wrong. Not everyone was going to respond to divine grace in the same way, and neither the quiet nor the “enthusiastic” ought to be condemned for any outward sign or the lack of it.
Edwards, and the First Great Awakening more generally, also mark an interesting shift in Protestant theology, namely a turn toward the experience of faith as distinct from participation in the sacraments. Reformers like Luther, Cranmer, and Calvin had disputed the number and nature of the sacraments with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but the Christian life in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed churches was still conceived of in sacramental terms. Without abolishing the sacraments, the Awakening shifted the focus to devotional and practical aspects of the faith, drawing on the German and Scandinavian tradition of Pietism.
It would not be quite honest to review Edwards’ life and work without noting some of his less appealing influences. The abolitionist was taking shape in both England and the Colonies in the eighteenth century; although Edwards did oppose the transatlantic trade in slaves, he also wrote a pamphlet defending the enslavement of war captives and debtors, as well as those born into slavery, and he owned several slaves himself (including a girl who had been brought across the Atlantic). He, and the revivalists in general, also drew criticism for some of the effects of their sermons: in the summer of 1735, during the first great “wave” of revival, several individuals who experienced conviction of sin but no miraculous conversion concluded that they were predestined to damnation, and a few—including Edwards’ uncle, Joseph Hawley—committed suicide. This more or less halted the Awakening for a time, until George Whitefield came to tour the colonies four years later.
Reformed theology and revivalist praxis continue to be major forces in most if not all Protestant churches in the United States to this day, and the legacy of the First Great Awakening was carried into the Second, Third, and by some accounts Fourth Great Awakenings as well. Even Edwards’ familial influence was significant: the father of twelve children and grandfather of forty-eight, his descendants have included dozens of statesmen, clergymen, and academics, one of them being Aaron Burr, our third Vice President. All in all, Edwards may be the single most important religious figure in American history.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our “Great Conversation” pieces, which cover subjects from angels to fate to war and peace. Or check out this essay from one of our highest-scoring test-takers on the various forms of friendship.