Northampton Edwards conference: “Jonathan Edwards: An American Apocalyptic Prophet”

John Martin, The Last Judgement

John Martin, The Last Judgement

Jonathan Edwards is an apocalyptic prophet, not so much as a prognosticator but as a revealer of what lies hidden.  Edwards discerned the trends of events of his own time and place and viewed them sub specie aeternitatis.  Since then some of these trends have gathered momentum and come to fruition in our own day.  The framework of Edwards’ world-view is radically eschatological.  He interprets the course of human and natural events as tending inexorably towards a future denouement in the form of the establishment of God’s postmillennial kingdom on earth.  His conceptions of history and nature are teleological.  Edwards conceives of history as a divine comedy.  Though history has its periodic tragic regressions when its wheels seem to turn backwards, its overreaching arc is towards a postmillennial denouement.  The locus classicus of Edwards’ eschatology, together with its attendant philosophy of history, is his History of the Work of Redemption, an updating of Augustine’s City of the God. This was to be a new kind of divinity written in an historical key.  It would have been Edwards’ theological summa had it not remained unfinished at his death.  Edwards’ postmillennialism lodged in the American psyche and took a secular turn in the nineteenth century when it gave rise to fictional utopias (Bellamy’s Looking Backward) and dystopias (Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance) as well as utopian social experiments like Brookfarm.

As might be expected of one who took the bird’s-eye view of history and discerned deeper historical trends, Edwards pronounced jeremiads on his own social-political milieu with its emergent mercantile economy based upon the unregulated pursuit of self-interest.  He diagnosed this cultural malaise as a symptom of Arminianism which in all its forms he strenuously opposed throughout his life.  He understood that forms of self-determination, individually and collectively, which were not consonant with the will of God or an expression of disinterested benevolence to general being are nothing less than demonic and doomed.  On one reading (Alan Heimert’s) Edwards, as a fomenter of the Great Awakening that prepared the way for the American Revolution, is a prophet of the American capitalist-republican polity.  On an alternative reading he is more rightly regarded as an American Jonah who stands in stark judgment on the American cult of self-reliance (Arminianism again) as represented paradigmatically by Edwards’ contemporary and nemesis, Benjamin Franklin; indeed, Franklin had the victory over the American mind.

The focus of this conference is the light that Edwards sheds on contemporary social, political and economic movements.  The conference will consider which of these Edwards would have approved and those he would not have.  In brief, the purpose of this conference hopes to bring an Edwardsean perspective on, among other things, the many conflicts that have riven contemporary society, the crises that seem endemic to it, but also those things boding well for the future.  This perspective need not be narrowly sectarian.  The conference encourages applying the spirit, if not the letter, of Edwards to interpreting the present age.

Papers need not be confined to Edwards alone.  They may be concerned with other, later thinkers or even your own reflections on these matters.  The only criterion is that the papers be informed by an Edwardsean perspective broadly conceived.

SOME SUGGESTED TOPICS:

  • Edwards’ eschatology and philosophy of history
  • Edwards’ eschatology in its historical context
  • Arminianism
  • American utopian and dystopian literature
  • Utopian social experiments
  • The social, political, and economic context of Edwards’ thought
  • Contemporary cultural trends in light of Edwards’ eschatology and ethics.

Please e-mail your papers or abstracts to me in Microsoft Word format no later than September 1st, 2013.  The papers should be geared to a reading time of 20 to 30 minutes.

DATE:  Thursday, October 3rd through Saturday, October 5th, 2013

LOCATION:  The First Churches, Northampton, Massachusetts