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?