Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Other Jonathan Edwards

Gerald McDermott and Ronald Story, eds., The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)

9781625341518This is a judicious and well-timed collection of primary sources, introduced well, which reveals for students, general readers, and interested Christian laity “the other Jonathan Edwards,” that is, the one whose life was dedicated to sharing the love of God, preaching social justice prophetically, and promoting peace, harmony, and the welfare of the needy in his own local communities and the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world.

The Edwards known by most today was a hellfire preacher of revivalistic sermons (such as the frequently anthologized “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) who cared more about the next life than about this one. As a result of this reputation, most thoughtful people today dismiss Edwards as irrelevant to the improvement of social life in modern America (or anywhere else, for that matter).

McDermott’s and Story’s Edwards proves much more interesting than the caricature, especially to young readers in the post-modern West. He is a flawed yet strangely attractive moral and spiritual example who was fired for having the courage of his convictions regarding the mutual obligations of people living with one another in tightly-ordered Christian covenant communities.

McDermott and Story are the best two scholars in the world to present this strange new Edwards. In fact, the two most important books to date on this socially-conscious Edwards have been written by them. McDermott’s One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Penn State University Press, 1992), is highly regarded and widely cited, as McDermott is one of the most important Edwards scholars alive. Story’s Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), is a recent publication that has received some rave reviews (See my review here). Story’s book is somewhat personal, which adds to its appeal. Raised in a strict Protestant home, he left the church for a time, but has returned in recent years to join the church that Edwards pastored and re-discover the hellfire preacher as a theologian of love. Both of these are excellent books. And their authors use them well in setting up the significance of the sources in this anthology.

The Other Jonathan Edwards includes 21 items (in 20 different chapters) on society, love, and justice, ranging from sermons to brief snippets from Edwards’ major published treatises to selections from his notebooks. The sources it includes are all available online via the Jonathan Edwards Center. But McDermott and Story have framed them well for students in this volume, which would make a great textbook in colleges and seminaries.