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Sweeney’s Booknotes: John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

Gideon Mailer, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WitherspoonThis book is not about Edwards. But it does discuss Edwards, revising the way we think about the legacy of his Calvinist engagement with British moral philosophy.

John Witherspoon was one of Edwards’ successors in the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Born in Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland in 1723, he sailed to America 1768, serving as Princeton’s sixth president and a major civic leader in the nascent U.S. (Edwards had died a decade earlier, in 1758, while serving as the school’s third president.) During his 26 years in office (1768-94), he taught one U.S. president (James Madison), one vice president (Aaron Burr, Jr.), 49 members of the House of Representatives, 28 Senators, three Supreme Court justices, one secretary of state, three attorneys general, and two foreign ministers. More than 11% of his graduates became college presidents. Witherspoon himself served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1776-82), worked on three national standing committees and dozens of congressional committees during the Revolution, and was the only ordained clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In a fine summary statement of his book and its significance, Mailer, a British historian trained at the University of Cambridge but based now at the University of Minnesota Duluth, writes, “John Witherspoon’s American Revolution considers the ways in which Witherspoon’s Presbyterian evangelicalism could compete with, combine with, or even supersede the civic influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought in the British Atlantic world. It uncovers the association between evangelical Presbyterian religion and Anglo-Scottish unionism and the impact of such an association on social, religious, and political developments in American patriot discourse and in early national America. And it highlights the eventual legacy of Presbyterian political theology, through Witherspoon’s students, in nineteenth-century America” (pp. 12-13).

For several decades, most scholars have suggested that Witherspoon underwent a major sea change as he moved to America. Though an evangelical Calvinist and leader of the Popular party in the Church of Scotland, he became a leading promoter of the moral sense theories of the Scottish Moderate party as he settled in the colonies–thus functioning, ironically, as a conduit of the less Calvinistic Scottish Enlightenment in America during the age of Revolution. (The Scottish Popular party emphasized total depravity and the role of conversion in enabling civic virtue. The Moderates, by contrast, held a more optimistic view of the moral and intellectual potential of the populace, regardless of conversion. Their disagreement became especially important during the era of the American Revolution, many of whose leaders agreed that the health and success of their republic, or any democracy, would depend on the inculcation of virtue in its citizens.)

Mailer disagrees with the sea change thesis, claiming that Witherspoon retained and taught a Calvinistic view of human potential till the end, thus serving as a conduit of both kinds of Scottish thought in early U.S. history. As he told the boys at Princeton, conversion was required for the best kinds of civic virtue in the new nation. Or as Mailer explains the matter in the book’s introduction, “Witherspoon continued to claim that religious regeneration initially required a personal admission of sin, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The latter assisted individuals as they struggled to acknowledge the necessity of grace in supplying a regenerated moral sensibility. Provided their acknowledgment of iniquity was genuine, individuals would then receive divine mercy and a new moral understanding wrought by the ‘grace of God’ and the ‘Grace of hope.’ Societal stability, in such a formulation, required enough individuals to become similarly awakened. Moral sensory philosophy [i.e. of the Moderate kind], in Witherspoon’s opinion, failed to acknowledge such a requirement. Common sensory perception might allow individuals (and their leaders) to apprehend the difference between right and wrong in some circumstances. But Witherspoon’s evangelical hermeneutic tended to differ from the notion of sensus communis [taught by the Moderates] in warning that initial moral conceptions did not imply a predictable ethical reaction, benevolent or otherwise” (pp. 10-11).

Just as Edwards, then, repackaged traditional Calvinism vis-à-vis the work of the British moralists, employing their philosophy to valorize the moral lives of everyday people even as he distinguished this from truly Christian virtue, so Witherspoon did the same in his own day and age—for a broader body politic engaged in the founding of a righteous new republic. “The nature of the association between Witherspoon’s developing moral philosophy and the earlier values of the College of New Jersey founders, Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, and Jonathan Edwards,” Mailer argues, “needs reassessment as well. In many ways, Witherspoon continued their synthesis of evangelical moral theory and formal instruction . . . . It is important to keep in mind that revivalism was not always antithetical to the conceptual terminology of moral sense theory” (p. 146).

This book will be tough sledding for all but specialists in early American intellectual history, but it sets the record straight on a most important aspect of the legacy of Edwards. Highly recommended.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Bible in American Life

Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

BibleinAmericanLifeThis is a gold mine for anyone who wants to know more about the uses of the Bible in the lives of average Americans outside their houses of worship. Its editors, all based at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), added questions on this topic to a couple national surveys: the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study III. Then they wrote up their results and invited a diverse group of social scientists and intellectual historians to interpret them in view of larger trends in American culture. The group met in 2014 to share their work. This tightly packed volume bears their meeting’s ripest fruit.

The results of the survey are worth the price of the book ($35 in paperback): Americans continue to hold high views of the Bible (91% of those who read the Bible at all called its contents the inspired Word of God and/or inerrant); but only half of them had read it in the past 12 months; more than half of Bible readers still preferred the King James (almost three times as many as preferred the NIV, the next most popular version); black Americans read the Bible most (far more frequently than any other group); and similar results, some surprising, some predictable.

None of the book’s chapters says much about Edwards. But those by Jan Stievermann and Robert E. Brown (titles below) deal at length with Cotton Mather as a bellwether of early evangelical attempts to interpret sacred scripture “between faith and criticism” (to steal a phrase from Mark Noll, who penned the volume’s conclusion).

Here’s a peek at the table of contents:

Introduction

Part One: Overview
1. “The Bible in American Life Today,” by Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsley, and Peter Thuesen

Part Two: Past
2. “America’s First Bible: Native Uses, Abuses, and Re-uses of the Indian Bible of 1663,” by Linford D. Fisher
3. “The Debate over Prophetic Evidence for the Authority of the Bible in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana,” by Jan Stievermann
4. “Navigating the Loss of Interpretive Innocence: Reading the ‘Enlightenment’ Bible in Early Modern America,” by Robert E. Brown
5. “Reading the Bible in a Romantic Era,” by Beth Schweiger
6. “The Origins of Whiteness and the Black (Biblical) Imagination: The Bible in the ‘Slave Narrative’ Tradition,” by Emerson B. Powery
7. “Biblical Women in the Woman’s Exponent: The Bible in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” by Amy Easton-Flake
8. “Scriptualizing Religion and Ethnicity: The Circle Seven Koran,” by Sylvester Johnson
9. “Reading the Bible in War and Crisis to Know the Future,” by Matthew Avery Sutton
10. “Reference Bibles and Interpretive Authority,” by B.M. Pietsch
11. “The Soul’s Train: The Bible and Southern Folk and Popular Music,” by Paul Harvey
12. “Where Two or Three are Gathered: The Adult Bible Class Movement and the Social Life of Scripture,” by Christopher D. Cantwell
13. “The Word is True: King James Onlyism and the Quest for Certainty in American Evangelical Life,” by Jason A. Hentschel
14. “Selling Trust: The Living Bible and the Business of Biblicism,” by Daniel Vaca
15. “The Bible and the Legacy of First Wave Feminism,” by Claudia Setzer
16. “Let Us Be Attentive: The Orthodox Study Bible, Converts, and the Debate on Orthodox Lay Uses of Scripture,” by Garrett Spivey

Part Three: Present
17. “The Continuing Distinctive Role of the Bible in American Lives: A Comparative Analysis,” by Corwin Smidt
18. “Emerging Trends in American Children’s Bibles, 1990-2015,” by Russell W. Dalton
19. “The Curious Case of the Christian Bible and the U.S. Constitution: Challenges for Educators Teaching the Bible in a Multi-Religious Context,” by John F. Kutsko
20. “Transforming Practice: American Bible Reading in Digital Culture,” by John B. Weaver
21. “Readers and their E-Bibles: The Shape and Authority of the Hypertext Canon,” by Bryan Bibb
22. “How American Women and Men Read the Bible,” by Amanda Friesen
23. “Feels Right Exegesis: Qualitative Research on How Millennials Read the Bible,” by J. Derrick Lemons
24. “Crowning the King: The Use of Production and Reception Studies to Determine the Most Popular English-Language Bible Translation in Contemporary America,” by Paul Gutjahr
25. “Literalism as Creativity: Intertextuality in Making a Biblical Theme Park,” by James S. Bielo
26. “The Bible in the Evangelical Imagination,” by Daniel Silliman
27. “Feeling the Word: Sensing Scripture at Salvation Mountain,” by Sara M. Patterson

Part Four: Retrospective
28. “The Bible: Then and Now,” by Mark Noll

These essays offer perspective on the long-range significance of uses of the Bible in Edwards’ life and world, suggesting, ironically, that most of those today who share Edwards’ biblical worldview and sacred reading practices are probably not Edwards fans at all. Hmm.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings

Catherine A. Brekus, ed., Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

BrekusThis lightly annotated edition of selected Osborn manuscripts arrives as a companion to the highly-acclaimed monograph on Osborn Brekus published back in 2013, which we reviewed here.

Brekus, who teaches at Harvard, is a specialist in the religious lives of women in early America. And Osborn (1714-1796) is one of the few colonial American women–religious or otherwise–whose writings were preserved. More than 2,000 pages of her manuscripts survive (out of nearly 15,000 Osborn penned altogether), in addition to a book published anonymously by Osborn (with the help of a local clergyman) and material by Osborn published shortly after she died (by two of her admirers). Several other scholars have treated Osborn before, but only now is she receiving the attention she deserves, thanks in large part to Brekus.

Born in London to a Congregationalist tanner and his wife, Osborn moved to Newport, Rhode Island with her family in 1730. While still a young girl, she married a sailor, Samuel Wheaten, in 1731 (against the wishes of her parents) and had a son named Samuel in 1732 (who died young, at age 11, in 1744). Husband Samuel died at sea only two years after their marriage (1733), while Sarah was still a teen. She remarried several years later (1742), but this time to a widower with three boys of his own, Henry Osborn, a tailor, who was more than twice her age.

Sarah worked as a teacher, the mistress of a boarding school, and leader of Newport’s First Congregational Church. She led a large women’s prayer group. She founded several Bible studies. Most famously, perhaps, she led a ministry to slaves and free blacks in the region. (She owned a slave herself and was something of a racist, but had a passion for gospel ministry with Africans.) These efforts hit their peak during the mid-1760s when she supervised a startling revival from her home, speaking to hundreds every week in her crowded living room.

Even after this revival, Osborn’s ministry continued and exerted striking influence in Newport and beyond. Osborn’s women’s group, in fact, took the lead in the appointment of Edwards’ student, Samuel Hopkins, to the pastorate of their church in 1770. (This happened behind the scenes. Only men in the church could vote. But the ladies in Sarah’s charge persuaded their husbands of Hopkins’ merits over much initial skepticism.)

Hopkins and Osborn grew close. Hopkins assumed primary leadership of most of Osborn’s meetings. But as he did, he consulted her and other women for help (most significantly Susanna Anthony, a close friend of Osborn and supporter of Hopkins’ ministry). Hopkins persuaded many women to oppose the slave trade—no mean feat in a seaport town that found this trade extremely lucrative. He pushed Edwards’ “New Divinity,” divisively, in town. (Ezra Stiles served the Second Church till 1776, gently opposing Hopkins’ views.) And when Sarah and Susanna (known as “Susa”) passed away, he published their memoirs, canonizing them for later evangelicals.

The present volume includes the full text of Osborn’s memoir, more than 20 of her letters, and parts of her diary. Brekus has transcribed most of these manuscripts herself, but has also used material from two older works: Samuel Hopkins, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn (1799), from which Brekus has taken extracts from Osborn’s diaries; and Elizabeth West Hopkins, ed., Familiar Letters, Written by Mrs. Sarah Osborn and Miss Susanna Anthony (1807), from which Brekus has taken correspondence.

Anyone interested in women in the history of Christianity, Edwards’ vast importance in the lives of lay people, or eighteenth-century history will cherish this collection.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement

Brandon James Crawford, Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement: Understanding the Legacy of America’s Greatest Theologian (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

JEandAtonementCrawford

We are pleased to offer the following booknote by former Edwards Center fellow, Dr. Daniel W. Cooley, who wrote his dissertation at Trinity on the topic of the booknote. See Daniel W. Cooley, “The New England Theology and the Atonement: Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2014); and Daniel W. Cooley and Douglas A. Sweeney, “The Novelty of the New Divinity,” in A New Divinity: Transatlantic Reformed Evangelical Debates During the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Mark Jones and Michael A. G. Haykin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017).

This volume offers a study on the atonement in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Crawford explains that this study aims to address the “lack of consensus” on the question of whether there is a genuine “trajectory” of thought between Edwards and the Edwardseans on the atonement (8–9). This problem has persisted because of the lack of literature on Edwards’ views of the atonement. The author concludes that the literature to date has maintained a predominantly historical interest in the subject rather than a theological emphasis. In fact, I would add that this is generally true across the academic study of Edwards. Crawford writes, “The present study aims to address this problem by offering a thorough presentation of Edwards’s doctrine of the atonement as revealed in his collected works” (10).

The author introduces his study with a brief narrative of Edwards’ “legacy under dispute” (1). He sketches out Edwards’ influence on his successors such as Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins as well as those who came after—such as John Smalley, Nathan Strong, Nathanael Emmons, Nathaniel William Taylor, and Edwards Amasa Park, who figures prominently in the story of the Edwardseans on the atonement.

Crawford asserts from the outset that he agrees with Mark Noll, who argues that Edwards left no intellectual or theological heirs. Jonathan Edwards “did not leave any clear intellectual successors behind” (1). Crawford agrees that the Edwardseans dominated theological discourse in New England for the hundred year period after Edwards’s death, ironically citing Doug Sweeney and Allen Guelzo who disagree with Crawford’s premise that Edwardseans took a clean break from Edwards. While they dominated the scene they were not quite like Edwards himself, though “their ministries did parallel his in many ways” (6). Crawford cites the Edwardseans’ defense of reformed theology as one of the key similarities in the face of an “enlightened” age. He makes clear that the sort of atonement that the Edwardseans taught was unlike that which Edwards taught.

Crawford continues his study with an overview of the development of the doctrine of the atonement in chapters 1, 2, and 3, from Clement of Rome in the first century to the medieval period and the Reformation era and the Post-Reformation era that saw the development of the moral example and governmental theories of the atonement and further developments of penal substitution.

These initial chapters provide a series of sketches of the varying contributions of select individuals on the doctrine of the atonement. The length of each treatment ranges from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages. Some of these figures include Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, William Ames, and John Owen. In addition, he mentions the influence of some other figures such as Socinus, Arminius, and Hugo Grotius.

The next four chapters discuss Edwards’ views of theology from a broad framework and then narrowing in on the atonement. Chapters four and five delve into the doctrines of God, Humanity, Sin, and Christ, showing the theological framework in which Edwards’ view of the atonement resides. Chapters six and seven describe the “vital content” of Edwards’ atonement and additional themes found in Edwards’ writing as they relate to the atonement where he draws upon material from many different “Miscellanies” as well as a handful of sermons and major works.

Crawford closes with a discussion of Edwards’ legacy on the atonement and concludes that Edwards falls within the bounds of reformed orthodoxy. The views of his followers, the New Divinity, diverged from Edwards’ views. Crawford explains that Edwards may not have been clear enough in his views, which led to misunderstandings among his followers. His conclusion fits with the regnant historiography concerning Edwards and the Edwardseans, though the proponents of this viewpoint that the followers of Edwards represented a decline from Edwards struggle to explain how this misunderstanding took place.

Readers looking for an introduction to Edwards on the atonement can find help in Crawford’s treatment. It is not overly technical, so informed laypeople, pastors, and students can benefit from it. Crawford has presented evidence that helps him in his argument that Edwards held to a recognizably reformed version of the doctrine of the atonement; however, he does not present evidence in regard to Edwards’ relationship with the Edwardseans—so readers will want to look elsewhere on that score.