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Archive for April, 2015

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Sympathetic Puritans

Abram C. Van Engen, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

9780199379637This work has little to do with Edwards, at least not directly, but much to do with his argument that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” It also has to do with Edwards’ interest in the sentimental fiction of his age (especially that of Samuel Richardson), and his legacy in the writings of American sentimentalists (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner, in particular)—though these literary connections are my own.

The author, son of Notre Dame medievalist John Van Engen, is an alumnus of Calvin College working at Washington University. Sympathetic Puritans began as a dissertation in English literature at Northwestern University.

Van Engen seeks to revise the still prevalent assumption that the Puritans were cold, stern, and pessimistic people. He also wants to correct the regnant view among scholars that Western sentimentalism and sentimental literature are best traced back to opposition to the Puritans by Latitudinarians and moral sense philosophers who held a higher view of the native human capacity for sympathy with others (because they held a lower view of native depravity).

Making use of Puritan sermons, poems, journals, and major treatises, Van Engen demonstrates that “a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England” (p. 2), and that sympathetic Calvinism played a major role in the development of Anglophone sentimentalism. Along the way, he crafts a fine interpretation of the Puritans’ understanding of the affections, which framed the way that many came to view fellow feeling, or sympathy with others, especially those whose hearts seemed to be tuned to the symphony of the Lord.

“The history of modern sympathy,” Van Engen summarizes, “extends beyond Latitudinarianism and moral sense philosophy to the Calvinist theology of fellow feeling emerging out of early modern England. From the moment Puritans first set themselves apart and called for greater reform in the Church of England, they turned to sympathy as a Christian duty and a sign of salvation. Required of all, it was reserved for some, and in coming years, the display of a tender heart melting for the misery of certain others could mark one as godly—as a member of the communion of saints. This is the discourse that Latitudinarians subtly changed as they began to preach a universal ethics shorn of election and human depravity. Yet in changing sympathy, they still used it as a mark of identity: what it identified, however, was no longer godliness, but goodness—no longer the grace of salvation but the refinement of civilization. Thus, while the eighteenth-century sympathetic, tender-hearted man of sensibility may have been familiar only with Latitudinarian preaching and the treatises of moral sense philosophers, his ancestry went back much further. This gentleman—quick to his tears and always ready with a compassionate sigh—descended from a people concerned with predestination and the communion of saints; his presence included a past of sympathetic Puritans” (p. 220).

There are merely three references to Edwards in this monograph, whose argument would gain greater traction if it featured some examples of sentimentalists from eighteenth-century England and/or nineteenth-century America whose attitude was shaped self-consciously by Puritans. (Edwards could help here as a literary conduit.) Its importance for our understanding of Edwards and his world will need to be worked out by specialists for many years to come.

This is a beautifully written book that deserves a wide, “sympathetic” readership.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Approaching Jonathan Edwards: The Evolution of a Persona

Carol Ball, Approaching Jonathan Edwards: The Evolution of a Persona (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2015)

BallCoverThis book began as a dissertation at the University of Queensland. It offers no new research in Edwards’ eighteenth-century world but, rather, an innovative thesis regarding what Ball calls Edwards’ effort to fashion his own persona and project it into the world.

In eight intriguing chapters, the author reviews the leading events of Edwards’ life and ministry and interprets them in relation to his quest to make a difference on the transatlantic stage through self-construction in the service of Reformed Christianity. In Ball’s estimation, “Edwards spent a considerable amount of time and energy in fashioning the conduct and character of his person” (p. 148). His “efforts were carefully crafted, even at times contrived” (p. 5). He refused to leave the shaping of his reputation to others, but developed his own character and wrote his own part in the play of human history. “From his writings,” Ball concludes, “it is clear that this formative process [of self-fashioning] was not mere accident but rather it was a deliberate, intentional and strategic development orchestrated by Edwards himself” (p. 179). Ball characterizes Edwards as a “self-shaped man” (p. 193).

As the author describes her project, “the focus of this study is the persona of the philosophical theologian Jonathan Edwards” (p. 15). And “the object of this book” is “to penetrate into the depths of what made Edwards the man he was and to inquire into the process of the development of that person” (p. 179).

Ball underlines the role of Edwards’ writings in his efforts to control his own impact, relying on what scholars call his “regulatory manuscripts” to reconstruct Edwards’ private aims in self-construction (especially his “Cover-Leaf Memoranda,” “Sermon Notebook 45,” and “Subjects of Inquiry”). She also leans consistently on Edwards’ personal writings, a smattering of sermons, and treatises like that on the Affections (1746) as exhibits of his reputational work.

Sometimes Ball overreaches. She claims that Edwards’ self-construction at the time of his ejection from Northampton was an “obsession” (p. 119); that late in life this obsession “came to control [his] activity” to the degree that “the message had effectively become the man” (p. 149); and that his so-called “Personal Narrative,” which is actually a letter to a friend and future son-in-law (the Rev. Aaron Burr), was “a theological treatise dressed loosely in testimonial garb” (p. 140).

Ball neglects the larger history of self-fashioning in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America (usually termed “self-culture”), which would have helped her to contextualize the place and significance of Edwards’ self-fashioning–not to mention the historiographical significance of her work. (Among the several books and articles devoted to this subject, Daniel Walker Howe’s would have proved the most germane: Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln [Harvard University Press, 1997; repr. Oxford University Press, 2009].)

I don’t imagine that Edwards himself would have affirmed Ball’s thesis. He liked to characterize himself as a God-shaped man. But Ball has raised some crucial questions about what drove Edwards’ career, questions that might well be asked of any public intellectual. Where is the line between authentic efforts to represent one’s views in a clear and compelling manner and obsessive self-concern about one’s own reputation as a defender of those views? How much ego is necessary to make a major difference on a crowded public stage? And does history offer lessons that can help us keep such ego working properly–and humbly–in pursuit of the common good?