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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture

Jonathan M. Yeager. Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 256 pp. $74/£47.99.

YeagerJE&TransatlanticPrintCultureHundreds of books and articles have been published on Jonathan Edwards since the birth of the Yale Edition of his Works. Yet we still know very little about how Edwards’ varied publications actually came to print. We know little of Samuel Kneeland, Edwards’ go-to printer in Boston. We know little of Daniel Henchman, Edwards’ bookseller there (and, thus, his publisher as well). We know little of the shift to British publishers of Edwards’ works shortly after he died, the roles of Jonathan Edwards, Jr., John Erskine, and John Ryland in facilitating this shift, and thus the mechanisms by which Edwards’ writings played a major role in undergirding the rise of British evangelicalism.

In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Yeager (an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who has appeared here before) addresses this deficit in a manner that will fascinate everyone interested in American social history, the history of the book, or the book trade in the eighteenth-century transatlantic world. Inspired by Richard Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (2006), but convinced “that much more work needed to be done on early evangelical authors” and the publishers who moved their work from manuscript to market, Yeager undertook a study of “how Edwards’s works came to print, the various people who were involved, and the role that the formation of these texts had on early evangelicalism” (pp. ix-x).

The book has five chapters: an introduction on the reception of Edwards’ writings through the end of the eighteenth century; a chapter on Samuel Kneeland and the business of printing in Boston; a chapter on Edwards’ publishers; a chapter on Edwards’ editors; and a chapter on the people who assumed these roles between the time of Edwards’ death and the end of the eighteenth century.

Yeager’s two main arguments are that “evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even if they seemed more concerned about disseminating their particular beliefs than profiting from publications” (p. xv), and that “Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (p. xi). This will sound like common sense to all who publish books themselves, those who work in the book trade, and those who pay as much attention to the production and the buzz surrounding books as to their contents. But, strangely, no one has made a case like this before regarding the work of Edwards himself.

This is an outstanding monograph, the best so far this year to treat the mundane realities that shaped Edwards’ life and historical significance. The author overreaches when he claims in conclusion that “the favorable reception of [Edwards’] books had just as much to do with the way that they were packaged and marketed as with the content that they represented” (p. 149). But I am glad that he has made a strong case for the importance of this packaging and marketing, and I hope that this is just the first of many more studies of the people and the businesses that shaped public perception of Edwards’ work and its legacies.

N.B. Yeager gave a public lecture at our Jonathan Edwards Center on this topic last year. Click here for the recording.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy

Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones, eds. George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 352 pp. $105/£65.

Whitefield300OUPThis is the most important scholarly book ever published on Whitefield (1714-1770). It derives from a major conference at Pembroke College, Oxford (Whitefield’s alma mater), “George Whitefield at 300,” held in June 2014, which featured presentations from more than 40 scholars from several different countries (the U.K., Germany, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand). The sixteen here (see the table of contents, below) are among the best of the bunch. Well-researched and up-to-date, they represent well the state of Whitefield studies, a field plowed often since the publication of Harry Stout’s book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, in 1991.

This is certainly not an effort in hagiography. Apparently embarrassed by the largely uncritical assessments of Whitefield by Protestants before the 1990s, rather, Boyd Stanley Schlenther, in the book’s opening chapter (“Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” pp. 12-28), mainly catalogues Whitefield’s numerous shortcomings—a rather striking compensation for his predecessors’ sins, some would say an overreaction.

Chapter 7, entitled “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival” (pp. 115-31), is the only one that treats this blog’s subject in detail. Written by Kenneth P. Minkema, it is premised on the fact that most scholarship on Whitefield and Edwards in the past “centred on Whitefield’s first visit to Edwards’s home and church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in late 1740, a visit that, while dramatic in terms of impact, left the pair at an emotional and theological distance from one another.” Minkema reviews this remarkable encounter but also covers the rest of the story of this pair, “showing that there were initial points of friction between the two—points over which Edwards, true to character, confronted his visitor. However, Whitefield’s subsequent moderation, combined with Edwards’s evolving views of the revivals, resolved the friction to a large extent. In the end,” Minkema summarizes, “Edwards’s public support of Whitefield as an instrument of God and as a fellow labourer in the revival vineyard reflected a consensus they had reached about the nature of the subjectivity of spiritual experience” (p. 115).

My other favorite chapters include the one by Beebe and Jones, “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals” (pp. 132-49), a subject about which I knew precious little; Boren, “Whitefield’s Voice” (pp. 167-89), which employs acoustical models to estimate the size of Whitefield’s largest outdoor crowds (concluding that he could have reached 50,000 people amid ideal conditions, and thus that contemporary estimates of 20,000-30,000 “seem acoustically reasonable,” p. 188); and Berry, “Whitefield and the Atlantic” (pp. 207-23), which focuses on Whitefield’s life and ministry at sea. (“George Whitefield spent over two of his fifty-six years of life on board ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. If one adds the days and weeks spent coasting along the British and American shores, he passed nearly three full years of his life on water, or roughly 8 per cent of his adult ministerial career.” Impressive numbers indeed. Why had no one thought to investigate this subject matter before?)

Here is the book’s table of contents:

“Introduction,” Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones

1. “Whitefield’s Personal Life and Character,” Boyd Stanley Schlenther
2. “Whitefield’s Conversion and Early Theological Formation,” Mark K. Olson
3. “Whitefield and the Church of England,” William Gibson
4. “Whitefield and the Enlightenment,” Frank Lambert
5. “Whitefield and Empire,” Carla Gardina Pestana
6. “Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership,” Geordan Hammond
7. “Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Revival,” Kenneth P. Minkema
8. “Whitefield and the ‘Celtic’ Revivals,” Keith Edward Beebe and David Ceri Jones
9. “Whitefield and His Critics,” Brett C. McInelly
10. “Whitefield’s Voice,” Braxton Boren
11. “Whitefield and Literary Affect,” Emma Salgard Cunha
12. “Whitefield and the Atlantic,” Stephen R. Berry
13. “Whitefield, Georgia, and the Quest for Bethesda College,” Peter Choi
14. “Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality,” Mark A. Noll
15. “Whitefield’s Reception in England, 1770-1839,” Isabel Rivers
16. “Commemorating Whitefield in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Andrew Atherstone


This is must reading for students/scholars interested in Whitefield and the rise of transatlantic evangelicalism.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology, Cambridge Companions to Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 360 pp. $34.99/£19.99.

CambridgeCompanionReformedTheologyThis new addition to the well-known series of Cambridge Companions—one of which, published ten years ago, focused on Edwards—treats the origins, development, and significance of Reformed theology around the world. Both of its editors are Scottish Presbyterian academics. Nimmo teaches theology at the University of Aberdeen. Fergusson does the same at the University of Edinburgh.

The volume has three parts (see the table of contents below). Part One, “Theological Topics,” addresses key themes, “instincts and impulses” (5) that contributed to the emergence of Reformed theology. Part Two, “Theological Figures,” examines an assortment of especially influential Reformed doctors of the church. Part Three, “Theological Contexts,” looks at some of the most important settings (historical and geographical) in which Reformed theology has been pursued by proponents.

Edwards is discussed at length in two of the book’s chapters: the first in Part Two, by Oliver Crisp, “Jonathan Edwards”; the second in Part Three, by James Bratt, “Reformed Theology in North America.”

Crisp’s chapter (148-62) presents Edwards as a “constructive” theologian, Reformed, to be sure, but also eccentric and entrepreneurial. “Edwards is most certainly a Reformed theologian of the first rank,” he writes, “and the most influential theologian yet to appear on the American continent. Nevertheless, he was not a confessional theologian in the mold of Hodge, who famously remarked that no new doctrine had been taught at Princeton during his tenure. Edwards was not concerned merely to transmit a tradition, or to reiterate certain confessional standards. . . . He was a constructive theologian who did not appeal to tradition, but Scripture, and ‘called no man father’—not even John Calvin” (149). Consequently, Crisp continues, he contributed significantly (though also rather oddly) to the history of Christian thought, especially in the areas of “divine and human freedom, original sin, the Trinity, personal eschatology, theological aesthetics, theological ethics, religious psychology, and hagiography” (151). He never fancied himself a maverick. But “his intellectual project could be characterized as an attempt to re-envision Reformed theology using aspects of early Enlightenment philosophy” (150).

Bratt’s chapter (269-84) also presents Edwards mainly as an innovator, a thinker bent on a project of “radical reconstruction” (270) that, in the years since his death, may have done more harm than good. “He intended his work to rearticulate classic Calvinism in a voice fit for the age,” Bratt underscores with Crisp, “so as to dispel the enlightened delusions of the time.” He also sought to interpret the phenomena of revival. And “the result was a theology with distinctive markers: the controlling place he gave the affections and his all-or-nothing polarization between holiness and ungodliness there; his distinction between the natural freedom and the moral bondage of the will; his argument, respecting original sin, that God conceived of all humanity as organically present . . . in Adam; the strong polarity he drew between self-love, however generously cast, and the disinterested benevolence God demands; and the idealist metaphysics that held that the universe and every particular it contains were not just created but were sustained in being every moment by the active mind of God. Finally, Edwards’s system was pervaded by an aesthetic sensibility. The believer’s new disposition, he averred, would find God’s work ‘sweet,’ and would ‘relish’ it beyond all measure, as the gravity holding together the cosmos of God’s will was love” (271). Edwards’ disciples, Bratt continues in a manner reminiscent of complaints at Old Princeton and among the neo-orthodox, turned his theocentric piety into a grasping moralism, accommodating old-fashioned Calvinism further to the spirit of a now-more democratic age. And in the twenty-first century, Bratt concludes caustically, Edwards appeals most famously “to people left hungry by the evangelical bromides of their upbringing and also, clearly, to young ambitious males who aspire to a heroic spirituality and vehemently reject feminism, the sexual revolution, and everything thereunto pertaining” (283).

There are no surprises here, as Crisp and Bratt interpret Edwards in accordance with their earlier work on Reformed Christianity. But as a result, this volume is a useful bellwether of leading interpretations of Edwards and Reformed thought today. Those who don’t like these views can follow Edwards’ own example, study tirelessly, and enter the conversation.

Table of Contents

  1. “Introduction,” Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson

Part I. Theological Topics

  1. “Scripture,” J. Todd Billings
    3. “Confessions,” Michael Allen
    4. “Election,” Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer
    5. “Christology,” Bruce L. McCormack
    6. “Sacraments,” Paul T. Nimmo
    7. “The Christian Life,” Cynthia L. Rigby

Part II. Theological Figures

  1. “Huldrych Zwingli,” Peter Opitz
    9. “John Calvin,” Randall C. Zachman
    10. “Jonathan Edwards,” Oliver D. Crisp
    11. “Friedrich Schleiermacher,” Kevin W. Hector
    12. “Karl Barth,” Michael Beintker

Part III. Theological Contexts

  1. “Reformed Theology and Puritanism,” Susan Hardman Moore
    14. “Reformed Theology and Scholasticism,” Dolf te Velde
    15. “Reformed Theology in Continental Europe,” Eberhard Busch
    16. “Reformed Theology in the British Isles,” David A. S. Fergusson
    17. “Reformed Theology in North America,” James D. Bratt
    18. “Reformed Theology in Africa,” Isabel Apawo Phiri
    19. “Reformed Theology in Asia and Oceania,” Sung Bihn Yim, Alexander Chow, Yasuhiro Sekikawa, and Geoff Thompson
    20. “Reformed Theology, Mission, and Ecumenism,” Darrell L. Guder.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Rhetoric of the Revival

Michał Choiński. The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers, New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016. 212 pp. $100/£68.

ChoinskiThis insightful monograph by a young Polish scholar, Michał Choiński (a professor of American literature and culture at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland), marks the beginning of a new series of cutting-edge books published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies. Edited by Kenneth P. Minkema and Adriaan C. Neele, this series will feature new scholarship on Edwards and his world. Its second volume, by Philip Fisk (an alumnus of TEDS), should appear in a few months.

Choiński’s book is organized in three parts. Part One sketches the history of rhetoric both in general and as background against which the composition of sermons during New England’s Great Awakening is interpreted as discourse. Part Two treats the historical and cultural context of the Awakening itself, describing its emergence over three generations (that of the so-called “Pilgrim Fathers,” the “sustainers” of the New England way, and Enlightenment-era descendants who reformed Puritan preaching for more modern churchgoers). Part Three analyzes ten rhetorically different sermons preached by six different preachers from 1739 to 1745 in New England and its environs. Choiński examines public performances by George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Parsons, Jonathan Dickinson, and Andrew Croswell, featuring talks that represent a diversity of rhetorical styles and highlight the preachers’ strengths and idiosyncrasies.

The author combines a traditional rhetorical analysis of these sermons and their structure with a modern pragmatic interpretation of their effects (based on the speech-act theories of J. L. Austin, H. P. Grice, and John Searle). He is interested not only in their oratorical aspects, but also in the things that preachers accomplished with these sermons as they spoke them in particular cultural contexts.  “By paying attention to the language-related phenomena,” he writes, “we can arrive at a much deeper understanding of colonial religious thought. This book attempts to pursue this very topic—it surveys the stylistic and persuasive aspects of the language of the Great Awakening and examines the minutiae of the sermons of its important preachers” (9). Another aim, Choiński continues, “is to understand the mechanisms of rhetoric and the persuasive use of language in New England in the mid-18th century, a period which constituted an important stage in the evolution of oratory in America” (10).

Choiński claims that the words of his Great Awakening preachers “had a fantastic, almost magical power” on listeners (9). Their rhetoric, moreover, revolutionized America (or at least American speech), producing a lasting effect on modern religion, politics, and media. Or as the author makes this point in the conclusion of his book, “vivid and vibrant sermons, delivered in a dynamic manner, were particularly appealing to audiences who had been accustomed to rigid, conventional Calvinist homiletic patterns and viewed the ‘rhetoric of the revival’ as a completely original form of oratory” (202-203). This form captivated audiences for centuries to come. In fact, “in order to comprehend the present rhetorical complexity of religious discourse used in churches, in politics or in public media, one needs to look closer at its roots, especially the early revival tradition” (204).

This is a fine first book by an up-and-coming scholar of American life and letters, and a fine first volume in an up-and-coming series on Edwardsean history and thought. One only hopes that, in the future, these V & R volumes will include indices.