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Sweeney’s Booknotes — Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts

Toby K. Easley, Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts (Fort Worth: Feder Ink Publishing, 2016).

EasleyThis privately published book will be of greatest interest to preachers and other students of homiletics.

Easley argues in its pages that Edwards proved to be a much better preacher over time than his reputation for reading dense manuscripts to congregations in monotone suggests.

In fact, the author proposes, Edwards matured as a preacher through “five distinct stages of communication development,” stages through which preachers would do well to pass today (p. i). Raised on auditory learning from the sermons preached by others in his family and beyond (stage one—Edwards was the son and grandson of preachers), he was taught as a boy to draft complete manuscripts (stage two—a form of quality control). As he gained confidence and grew by watching George Whitefield, an oratorical dynamo, he moved from full manuscripts to annotated outlines except on rare occasions (stage three), and then to sketchy, skeletal outlines (stage four) before adapting new methods for his sermons to Native Americans and students at Princeton College (stage five). He improved as a preacher, that is to say, throughout his life. He matured “beyond the manuscripts,” to quote from Easley’s title.

Despite the tendency of most today to assume that extemporaneous preaching is always best, Easley exhorts young preachers to learn a thing or two from Edwards, following his lead through this five-stage process. They have far greater access to auditory aids than Edwards had in the eighteenth century and should learn whenever possible from preachers on the web. They should work on sermon quality by drafting full manuscripts, but also follow Edwards into the outline form, learning to preach substantial messages from memory as they grow. And they should always stay sensitive to audience and context, adapting speaking styles to meet the needs of those before them.

Wise words from a seasoned preacher and student of Edwards’ sermons.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Bright Shadows of Divine Things

Robert L. Boss, Bright Shadows of Divine Things: The Devotional World of Jonathan Edwards (n.p.: JESociety Press, 2017).

Boss_coverRob Boss, Director of the JESociety, is the most thoughtful and creative independent Edwards scholar at work today. All of his books are privately published and usually fall below the radar screens of mainstream academics. Nonetheless, Boss has built a large network of followers with his passion for Edwards’ writings and his knack for social media.

This most recent, little book, nicely illustrated throughout, offers extended rumination on Edwards’ natural typology (i.e. his investigation of the natural world for emblems of the divine). It is pitched as a devotional aimed at other serious Christians as well as seekers who are lovers of the beauty of the world. It uses Edwards’ famous notebook, “Images of Divine Things,” as a deep well of insight into the “nature” of reality, a nature that was made by God, Boss contends with Edwards, to reflect God’s glory and point sensitive souls to Scripture, which interprets its worldly sights and sounds in comprehensible ways.

As Boss explains his book’s message in a brief epilogue, “The Book of Nature is full of correspondences and similitudes that echo and illustrate the Book of Scripture. . . . Behind every bush and under every rock and within every tree, creature, and event is a voice of Wisdom crying out to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.” He then quotes from Edwards’ “Images of Divine Things” accordingly:

If we look on these shadows of divine things [in nature] as the voice of God, purposely, by them, teaching us these and those spiritual and divine things, . . . how agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind, and to affect the mind. By that we may as it were hear God speaking to us. Wherever we are and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented and held forth, and it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the Holy Scriptures. (p. 116)

This foretaste of the meal Boss has readied for hungry readers is enough to give you the flavor of the feast on offer. Spiritually-minded nature lovers will eat it up.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theologies of the American Revivalists

Robert W. Caldwell III, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

Caldwell booknoteI need to be careful here. Caldwell is one of my former doctoral students. I refereed this book in manuscript for the press, and then wrote an endorsement for it. I am one of the author’s biggest fans. But notwithstanding my bias, I can say in all honestly that this is a marvelous survey of American revival thinking from 1740 to 1840, or the time of the Great Awakening through that of the Second Great Awakening. It handles its controversial subject matter accurately, fairly, and with keen historical insight, even challenging contemporary views of conversion based on the story that it tells.

Noting that conversion experiences and narratives have long been central to evangelical identity, Caldwell contends that the theologies undergirding these phenomena are often overlooked, to the detriment of historical understanding of evangelicals and the practice of evangelism by Christians in the present. We have several good books on parts of the story Caldwell tells. But not until now have we had an expert overview of the whole–let alone one that avoids theological partisanship and contemporary denominational wrangling.

As the author of a first-rate monograph on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of communion in the Spirit, co-author of a sourcebook on Edwards and the Trinity, and professor of church history at a Southern Baptist seminary, Caldwell is well-placed to guide readers reliably through the often-dense thickets of early American revival thought.

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Introduction
Chapter 1. Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology in the First Great Awakening
Chapter 2. First Great Awakening Alternatives: The Revival Theologies of Andrew Croswell and Jonathan Edwards
Chapter 3. Revival Theology in the New Divinity Movement
Chapter 4. Congregationalist and New School Presbyterian Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 5. Methodist Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 6. Revival Theologies among Early American Baptists
Chapter 7. The New Measures Revival Theology of Charles Finney
Chapter 8. Two Responses to Modern Revival Theology: Princeton Seminary and theRestoration Movement
Conclusion
Bibliography
General Index
Scripture Index

Highly recommended for historians of American evangelical religion, college and seminary classes in American church history, and readers with an interest in the doctrine of conversion.

 

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light

Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WiniarskiThis finely researched project is a gold mine for students of New England church history. Its author, a professor at the University of Richmond, has provided us a volume of nearly 600 pages, which cites over 200 manuscript collections and builds upon a database of more than 1,200 church admission relations (i.e. spiritual narratives) from dozens of different towns throughout the region.

Winiarski details what he describes as a catastrophic “breakdown” of New England Congregationalism under the stress of nascent evangelicalism during the Great Awakening. His is “a tale of insurgent religious radicalism” during and after the 1740s, “an avalanche of innovative and incendiary religious beliefs and practices” inspired by George Whitefield (pp. 8-9 and passim). “The middle decades of the . . . century were the dark night of the collective New England soul,” the author claims, “as ordinary people groped toward a radically restructured religious order. The outcome of that struggle—the travail of New England Congregationalism—transformed the once-puritan churches from inclusive communities of interlocking parishes and families into exclusive networks of gifted spiritual seekers” (pp. 19-20), and transformed their homeland from a “gospel land of light” (p. 115 and passim) to a land of spiritual stridency, belligerency, and schism.

The book has five parts. Part One, “Godly Walkers” (pp. 23-130), “examines the widely shared religious vocabulary through which church membership candidates during the period between 1680 and 1740 pledged to ‘walk answerably’ to their doctrinal professions.” This was the region’s golden age, by Winiarski’s telling, one that “was tolerant, inclusive, steady, and comforting” (pp. 17-18). Part Two, “In a Flame” (pp. 131-206), describes the strategies through which evangelicals like Whitefield called the region’s Congregationalists to swap the kindly faith of New England’s “godly walkers” for a born-again fissiparousness. Part Three, “Exercised Bodies, Impulsive Bibles” (pp. 207-284), interprets the ecstatic Spirit possession purportedly promoted by Whitefield and his followers by zooming in on efforts of a Hartford magistrate, Joseph Pitkin, to discern it in a young revival convert, Martha Robinson of Boston. Part Four, “Pentecost and Protest” (pp. 285-364), shines a light on the ministries of flame-throwing evangelical preachers like James Davenport, who burned the books and vanities of less divisive Christians, dubbed their neighbors hypocrites, and split the region’s congregations. Part Five, “Travels” (pp. 365-506), narrates the demise of the old church order that resulted as schismatics put an end once-and-for-all to the golden age of Congregationalism.

The protagonists in Winiarski’s tale are not usually intellectuals like Edwards, but layfolk empowered by their preachers to act up. Still, Edwards does play an important role in the story, throwing fuel on the fires that were burning down New England (perhaps unintentionally—it’s hard to tell) by insisting in the late 1740s that his people give him testimony about the work of the Spirit in their lives before joining the Northampton church officially. Not only did this move get him sacked, the author says, by inclusive church members. It encouraged the region’s radicals to become separatists, a trend that even an evangelical like Edwards had opposed. As Winiarski avers, “the Northampton qualifications controversy signaled the beginning of the end for the churches of the Congregational standing order. . . . Edwards’s dismissal from Northampton laid bare the gaping fissures that had emerged in the gospel land of light, as ministers and lay people struggled to distinguish traditional relations and professions of doctrine from the inspired narratives of conversion” required by evangelicals (pp. 459-60).

Winiarski’s story is a bit overdramatic. There had been schismatic Protestants as long as there had been Protestants, even in New England. Further, Edwards’ closest allies stayed within the standing order (just as Edwards had commended), transforming it with Edwards’ own evangelical principles, healing most of the rifts caused by more schismatic Christians, and fighting against their churches’ disestablishment to the end (in the 1830s). Winiarski projects a far-too-unitary image of New England church history on the eve of the Awakening, and a too-chaotic view of the same religious landscape in the wake of the revivals. The land of light did change over the long eighteenth century—in part as a result of New England’s Great Awakening–but not quite as darkly and explosively as Winiarski claims.

Just when many started to worry that colonial New England had been mined for too long–and had little left to offer serious scholars of religion–Winiarski’s research has proved them wrong. This is one of the best compendia of New England social history to appear in many years. Despite my reservations regarding the book’s thesis, I recommend it highly. Students of the region will be building on its findings for decades to come.