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Dissertation Note: “The Edwardsean Isaac Backus”

Brandon O’Brien. “The Edwardsean Isaac Backus.” PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2013.

As an intellectual biography of Isaac Backus, the 18th-century Baptist preacher and activist, Brandon O’Brien’s dissertation* makes the case for another Edwardsean strain, beyond those that scholars have traced largely within Congregationalist and Presbyterian circles in early American culture: this time, within Baptist circles, prefiguring the Baptist co-option of Edwards today, as seen in the ministries of prominent Baptist leaders such as Al Mohler, John Piper and Josh Moody. Where previous studies of Backus have emphasized pieces of Backus’s corpus to focus on one issue or another (predominantly religious liberty), O’Brien takes in the whole of Backus’s published writings. His central concern is to drive Backus’s Calvinism and his concern for the New England tradition to the center of Backus’s life’s work, looking at his writings as an organic whole in which each work supports the other. In this framework, the influence of Edwards is undeniable and extensive. Backus draws extensively on Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Humble Inquiry, and Freedom of Will in particular in his anthropology, epistemology, and sociopolitical arguments. For Backus, Edwards’s view of the operation of the human will was essential and was applicable to many areas. (See, for example, Edwards’s letter of Feb. 9, 1744 to Elnathan Whitman on “liberty of conscience,” in Works of Jonathan Edwards 16:128-33.)

However, the study does not simply show the use of Edwards, but does so for broader purposes, purposes that make Backus’s an original voice while drawing on other great voices. Two impulses, the author claims, characterize Backus’s thought. The first is that New England Congregationalism, established by true agents of reform and of the Reformation, had over time strayed from its original glory to become a persecuting and narrow way. Despite this declension, there was nonetheless a continuing Reformation, which was now in the hands of the Baptists, who had taken up where the founders of New England had left off.

This study actively builds on as well as critiques existing scholarship (McLoughlin, Grenz, etc.). It points to the compatibility of Calvinism (or the Reformed tradition) and the concept of religious liberty, a theme taken up recently by writers such as Chris Beneke, Evan Haefeli, and Andrew Murphy in their work on religious tolerance and the First Amendment. Revivifying in interesting ways Alan Heimert’s thesis about the relationship of evangelical theology and republicanism, O’Brien also reassesses the relationship of evangelicalism and the Enlightenment.

The methodology of this study is rather traditional, insofar as it relies on printed elite sources. It would have been helped by attention to Backus’s unpublished corpus, and to his private writings. While we don’t have Backus’s sermons because he was an extempore preacher, there are manuscript letters and other items, as well as his three-volume printed Diary. Perhaps this could be a dimension that O’Brien adds when he writes the new biography of Backus, which is sorely needed, since soon it will be half a century since the last one came out.

Kenneth Minkema
Executive Editor and director of the Works of Jonathan Edwards and Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University

Dissertation Note: “Edward Dorr Griffin and the Edwardsian Second Great Awakening”

Rogers, Mark. “Edward Dorr Griffin and the Edwardsian Second Great Awakening.” PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2012.

In the heat of an early American revival, one church was characterized by quiet and calm. What may surprise many is that this revival took place not in the First Great Awakening, but in the Second. While historians generally point to the hysterics of the Cane Ridge revivals or the anxious bench of Charles Finney as the defining characteristics of the Second Great Awakening, Mark Rogers calls our attention to a contemporary revival that took on quite a different tenor.

In his dissertation, Rogers explores the life of Edward Dorr Griffin (1770–1837) to help us better understand the complexity of both the Second Great Awakening and the legacy of Jonathan Edwards. As Rogers argues, while historians have long recognized a discontinuity between the First and Second Great Awakenings, Griffin’s life and ministry help us see a continuity, for the revivals he led were characterized by a Calvinist Edwardsianism. And so Rogers argues against both an Arminianization of the nineteenth century thesis and a declension of Edwardsianism thesis.

Rogers recounts the life of Edward Dorr Griffin, whose times intersected with many early American evangelical institutions. We see his Edwardsian development under the tutelage of Jonathan Edwards Jr. and his influence through pastorates in New Hartford, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey, and through his role in the founding of institutions like Andover Seminary (America’s first seminary), Park Street Church in Boston, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Bible Society.

Throughout the monograph, Rogers again and again traces Edwards’ influence on Griffin’s theology and ministry. Griffin intentionally sought to place himself in the stream of Edwards, and Rogers repeatedly shows how he mirrored Edwards by comparing the primary sources of both men. Griffin and others sought to promote Edwardsianism in a number of ways, including reprinting several of Edwards’ works like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Others, such as Nathaniel Taylor and Charles Finney, who disagreed with Griffin on certain theological issues, also claimed the mantle of Edwards. While such claims illustrate the complexity of the Edwardsian movement in the decades after his death, Rogers convincingly demonstrates the continuity between Edwards and Griffin.

Edwardsianism’s influence affected the way Griffin conducted his ministry. As Edwards emphasized revival, so Griffin preached for revival from his earliest pastorate down to his final days as president of Williams College. Yet he called for emotional restraint in revivals in ways that Edwards did not, a call that arose in reaction to radicals such as James Davenport and bodily manifestations in the First Great Awakening, which Griffin and other New Divinity pastors believed had derailed the earlier revival. As Rogers explains, “Griffin and his fellow Edwardsians deradicalized the First Great Awakening … in order to promote another Awakening, this time more pure and, hopefully, longer lasting” (108).

Edwards’ influence on Griffin was also visible in his use of means to promote revival. Rogers offers a corrective to the idea that the First Great Awakening was merely “a surprising work of God,” while the Second Great Awakening was a humanly implemented revival through the use of means. He shows both that Edwards used means and that Griffin used the same kinds of means as Edwards, such as concerts of prayer, preaching for revival, pulpit exchange, and reporting revivals in public media.

How did these means differ from Finney, the most vocal proponent in his day of using means to promote revival? While Griffin embraced innovative means, he nonetheless rejected certain means, such as the anxious bench, calling for people by name in public prayer and preaching (something Edwards denounced as well), and getting people angry to show that they were sinners who hate God. Rogers identifies the major difference between the conservative revivalists like Griffin and the new-measure revivalists like Finney: “While [Griffin] had always thought means were important and were used by God in revival, he had also maintained that regeneration and revival were both supernatural miracles that could not be guaranteed by the right use of means” (314). This debate over means and revivalism in the Second Great Awakening revealed a fragmentation within Edwardsianism. Everyone claimed the Edwardsian mantle; Griffin stood as the conservative revivalist of the time.

In further correcting our understanding of the Second Great Awakening, Rogers shows that Griffin identified the year 1792 as the time when revivals broke out in the U.S.—not 1801 or 1802, as many historians suggest. His Calvinism formed a critical aspect of his brand of revivalism, which differentiated him and his colleagues from some of the Arminianizing tendencies in other revivals. And in his ministry he also combatted Unitarianism in Boston and led the way in promoting foreign missions.

After Griffin died, it became clear that the new measures had won the day—they would evolve into the modern revivalism of D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. And Griffin’s death, Rogers argues, represented the passing of “the conservative, Edwardsian revivalism that had helped launch the Second Great Awakening in New England” (321). But Griffin’s life illustrates well the tensions in revivalist approaches within evangelical Christianity even today and raises questions about how new generations can and should appropriate Edwards in their own practices and theology.

Rogers writes his dissertation in a lucid style, and he not only displays a good grasp of the historiographical literature on the Second Great Awakening and Edwards’ legacy, he also examines a wide selection of primary sources, including sermons, lectures, letters, notes, and church and organization records. He places Griffin in his Edwardsian, Presbyterian, Congregational, and the Second Great Awakening context, and he recognizes the very real impact of social concerns such as salary on the relations between a church and its pastor.

This dissertation makes several important contributions to scholarly conversations about American revivalism and Edwardsianism. But it also offers insights to pastors today by exploring the life of a pastor who sought to live a life of piety, practiced self-examination, struggled at times to balance his own broader ministry priorities with his responsibilities to his congregation, yet made it his habit of finishing his sermon preparation by Tuesday to devote time to visiting people all day Thursday.

One major question remains: Given this picture of Griffin and his distinction from other revivalists like Finney and those at Cane Ridge, how representative is Griffin in his time? He certainly complicates our understanding of the Second Great Awakening, and it is clear that he was influential in New England and New Jersey. But how many others in his day embraced his theological and revival emphases? How common was his kind in that time? Perhaps those questions necessarily fall outside the constraints of a dissertation this length. Nonetheless, this line of inquiry would be a fruitful area for others to explore, building on Roger’s work.

Rogers’ dissertation should cause professors of American history—and especially American religious history—to change how we teach the First and Second Great Awakenings. It complicates the Second Awakening in a way that gives us a better sense of the diversity in those revivals, a diversity that mirrored the increasing diversity of the young Republic. This monograph is highly recommended, and historians should hope that it will soon be published. Rogers certainly makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Second Great Awakening and the legacy of Jonathan Edwards.

~ David P. Barshinger, PhD

Trinity International University

Dissertation Note: “Rhetoric of the Revival: A Pragma-Rhetorical Analysis of the Language of the Great Awakening Preachers”

Michał Choiński’s dissertation “Rhetoric of the Revival: A Pragma-Rhetorical Analysis of the Language of the Great Awakening Preachers”, completed at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, aims to analyze the “rhetoric of revival” in ten New England revival sermons from 1739 to 1745. Using the academic methodology of rhetoric, the author unpacks the “mechanisms of rhetoric and the persuasive use of language” employed by several well known preachers of the First Great Awakening including George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennant, Jonathan Parsons, and Andrew Croswell.

The study is organized into three parts: methodology, cultural and historical background, and sermon analysis. In first chapter, Choiński defines the scope of rhetoric, he selectively reviews the history of rhetoric including the classic taxonomy or the “canon of rhetoric”: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio. Combined with traditional rhetorical analysis, he utilizes the relatively new approach to rhetoric called the pragmatic approach defined as the “relations of signs to interpreters.”

Chapter two delivers an admirable historical and cultural overview of New England as it relates to the Great Awakening and to the subjects of his study. The author walks the reader through preaching practices in Puritan New England from 1620 to the dawn of the Awakening. He also considers the phenomenon of the Great Awakening from an historical standpoint and surveys some of the key historical interpretations. The author strikes a cautious but sympathetic tone in his treatment of his controversial topic. In the end, the author agrees that there was a general spiritual awakening in New England in the 1740s rather than a constructed or invented phenomenon on the basis of a few pockets of revival.

Chapter three, the bulk of the dissertation, is devoted to the analysis of ten sermons which the author selected to demonstrate the rhetorical range of material that was produced in the Great Awakening. His work here is largely composed of rhetorical commentary upon each of the sermons. The selections are Whitefield’s What Think Ye of Christ?, Abraham’s Offering Up His Son Isaac, The Lord Our Righteousness, The Conversion of Zaccheus, Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable, and The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Gilbert Tennent’s The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, Jonathan Parsons’s A Needful Caution in a Critical Day, and Andrew Croswell’s The Apostle’s Advice to the Jaylor Improved. A brief conclusion summarizes the findings concerning each of preachers. Concerning Edwards in particular, He observed “intricate rhetorical mechanisms” and “highly elaborate imagery and structured argumentation” as well as extended metaphors.

This dissertation will be useful for specialists who interested in the construction and delivery of revival sermons, especially concerning the preaching of the Great Awakening. The author’s expertise is in rhetoric, so his main contributions lie in that domain. A second group who may be helped by this dissertation are pastors who have formal training in rhetoric. These pastors could find sermon inspiration in this analysis of the “rhetoric of revival.” To be sure, this study’s aim is to describe the main rhetorical features of the selected sermons. While Choiński does pay close attention to the primary source materials in his study, he does not marshal any significant argument concerning the “rhetoric of revival.”

— Daniel Cooley, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS

Dissertation Note: “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards”

Světlíková, Anna. “Typology as Rhetoric: Reading Jonathan Edwards.” PhD diss., Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), 2012.

Jonathan Edwards’ typology has often attracted attention because it constitutes one of the unique aspects of his thought. Typology enjoyed a signal position in much of the history of Christian exegesis, but Edwards innovatively extended it beyond the interpretation of the Bible to apply it to both history and nature.

While scholars have debated the theological merits of Edwards’ typology, Anna Světlíková seeks to shake up the discussion by approaching it not from a theological or historical standpoint, but from a literary theory perspective. She claims that the current Edwards field is confined by “methodological limitations” (7), and one of the major overarching claims she posits is that the study of Edwards needs to benefit from the insight of literary theory. She offers her dissertation as a model of this literary approach. (Světlíková gave a lecture related to this topic at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 30, 2012, which is available on the “Media” page of our website.)

In her project Světlíková offers a rhetorical assessment of Edwards’ typology. She models her methodology on the deconstructive criticism of Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida. To balance this literary method, she seeks to conduct “close readings” of the text and to contextualize Edwards’ typology in the history of typology (35).

The four chapters that form the bulk of her dissertation address the problem of language in Edwards’ typology and compare Edwards’ typology to the emblematic tradition, to the “performative” aspect of speech-act theory, and to allegory—always with a focus on the literary nature of these devices.

Central to Světlíková’s arguments are the notions of complexity, indefiniteness, and process. For example, she declines to offer a definition of Edwards’ typology, noting instead that typology exists as a range between two extremes and that she provides a treatment with “greater complexity than a simple definition could accomplish” (80). In fact, throughout her dissertation she compounds qualification upon qualification to develop a web of tension for understanding Edwards’ thought. And in some ways, the process is more important than the conclusion, as Světlíková states in her acknowledgements: “I do not think I have found some particular thing, indeed if there is something to be found it might not be a thing at all. This work, then, is not about what I have found; rather, it is a record of a part of that search” (iv).

This complexity is visible in her discussion of language. In essence, Světlíková rejects Edwards’ defense of his typology as inadequate, raising more questions than it answers. She notes that Edwards’ theory of types is grounded in his understanding of language, not just theology. But she finds Edwards’ idea of language troublingly complex and filled with tensions: she says that he thought language was referentially reliable, yet also complex; that he said typology communicated spiritual knowledge while such knowledge is incomprehensible; and that for Edwards, language has an arbitrary value to it, while at the same time it has a certainty about it when God reveals spiritual things through figures of speech. Světlíková concludes that the problem with Edwards’ typology is that instead of defining it in distinction to metaphors, he uses a metaphor to describe it. This complexity, she suggests, detracts from his typology.

In her discussion of the emblem, Světlíková argues that while Edwards may have anticipated the Romantic tradition in some points, he differed from it in several other literary ways. Particularly, while the Romantics situated the meaning of nature in the individual’s experience, Edwards situated the spiritual meaning of nature in its divinely endowed ontology. Thus, he seems to have had more in common with emblem and meditation traditions, even if they did not directly influence him.

In exploring the “performative” nature of Edwards’ typology, Světlíková claims that Edwards’ typology inevitably falls into subjectivism because the authoritative judgment of what constitutes a type lies ultimately in the individual self who “performs” the act of identifying a type. Edwards’ appeals to Scripture as the authoritative guide fail, she says, because while such appeals point to the “constative” nature of his typology, the “performative” nature cannot be denied. Still, Světlíková complicates her own analysis by saying that, in some ways, Edwards’ occasionalism and idealism imply that the self is wholly dependent on God. With the performative act of typology thus itself a type, authority may in some sense shift from self to God.

As she turns to a discussion of allegory, heavily informed by the literary theory of Michael Murrin and Paul de Man, Světlíková throws doubt on whether the discussion of Edwards’ typology as constative and performative is even the right question. In her comparisons, she argues that in one way Edwards connects more with Renaissance allegory because his types assume a divine presence, as does Renaissance allegory, while Romantic poetry assumes a divine absence. At the same time, she suggests that Edwards’ typology fails to establish a divine presence because he opens the possibility of misinterpretation or error in typology, which has more in common with the Romantic rejection of a reliable foundation.

In the end, Světlíková’s deconstructive literary approach points to the failure of Edwards’ theory of typology. She suggests that “an uncritical theological appropriation of Edwards might admire the gist of his natural typology,” but her study “points out that the typological project is inherently conflicted not because Edwards is wrong but because it cannot be otherwise, because such conflict is not even a failure of his theory but part of language itself” (206).

As a historian—and not a literary theorist—I approach this dissertation from one outside of Světlíková’s literary discipline while sharing her interest in Edwards. I appreciate that she seeks, at times, to contextualize Edwards historically. Her discussion also helpfully shows the limitations of language, which complicates Edwards’ understanding and practice of typology and raises fair questions about what it would actually look like for someone to adopt Edwards’ typology. And her comparisons of his typology with Renaissance allegory and Romantic poetry show how his theological commitments connect him more closely to the ideas of the former, while his expanded view of typology in nature foreshadows elements of Romanticism.

At the same time, a number of considerations from a historian’s viewpoint should be raised. Methodologically speaking, Světlíková does not explain how she chooses which Edwards texts to include in her study. And the lack of definition at times leaves the reader grasping for a concrete conclusion. In addition, the literary approach often sidelines the theological priorities in Edwards’ thought. For example, while Světlíková argues that Edwards’ typology falls into subjectivism, Edwards himself held theological constraints and guides for his typology, specifically reading types through the lens of God’s work of redemption. She also describes the subjectivity of Edwards’ typology by saying that while Scripture is the standard of interpretation, it is, in Edwards’ view, filled with figures and types, which undermines its authority since “typological judgment … can only be verified against more typology or figurative expressions which in turn are liable to the same problems of interpretation” (145). But this description of the Bible does not accurately reflect Edwards’ broader understanding of Scripture, his confidence that it communicates much with “the amiable simplicity of truth” (WJE 13:203), and his practice of using clear passages in Scripture to shed light on passages that were less clear (e.g., see WJE 22:101). When constrained by the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith, as we see from a historical and theological viewpoint, Edwards’ typology sheds much of its subjectivity.

From another angle, Světlíková takes a skeptical view of language and the ability to communicate through it. By saying that Edwards’ typology is bound to fail simply because of the nature of language, one wonders whether all communicative efforts are thus bound to fail. At best, we can recognize in such an argument the necessity of humility in discourse. But retaining a realistic optimism about the sufficiency of language gives Edwards’ typology a chance to float on its own merits.

To the larger question we must ask: how useful is literary theory for Edwards studies? In this study Světlíková raises some interesting questions about Edwards’ typology and tackles it from the unique standpoint of deconstructive literary theory. She ultimately argues that Edwards scholars need to open up their methodological approach to embrace literary theory as a way forward for interpreting Edwards. From this historian’s standpoint, though, while literary theory may have something to add to Edwards studies, it proves less helpful when it disconnects Edwards from his theology and historical setting.

~ David Barshinger, PhD