From the JEC Blog

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination

Kathryn Reklis, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Kathryn Reklis has written a fascinating study of the manner in which Edwards’ accounts of “revival ecstasies” in eighteenth-century New England created space for a corporeal way of understanding the self that countered the disembodied self of early modern Cartesian thinkers and the excessively rational self of his “Arminian” opponents. Edwards offered such accounts as an alternative to the usual kinds of theological history, “one that lives not in written doctrine and theological treatise so much as in bodily gesture and movement” (20). In so doing, he paid respect to the theological importance of people other than elite white males.

As one can tell from the preceding, this book is not for the faint of heart, the casual reader, or for those who prefer traditional modes of theological discourse. It will prove to be most useful to those invested rather heavily in late-modern theology.

A constructive theologian teaching at Fordham University, Reklis uses Edwards mainly to retrieve embodied experience, desire, and physical beauty as sources for theological reflection and Christian practice.

As Reklis summarizes the methodological import of her project, “the bodily ecstasy of the revivals can be read as a kind of kinesthetic imagination that carried, through bodily gestures, alternative ways to understand and imagine oneself as a self. . . . Interpreting the ecstatic gestures of the revivals as forming and expressing a kind of kinesthetic imagination is one way to rethink the relationship between embodied religious experience and theological meaning. Or, to put it another way, the concept of kinesthetic imagination allows one to explore how theological belief manifests in embodied experience and how embodied experience conveys and shapes theological meaning” (14).

As used in Reklis’s book, “kinesthetic imagination” is a way of referring to the transmission of meaning (remembered meaning) through bodily gesture. “What is conveyed in physical gesture, when described as kinesthetic imagination, is not simply the same thing twice, but the attempt to both remember and reinvent the original gesture and its meaning as it is imagined or desired” (4). In Edwards’ context of revival, “parishioners around the Atlantic had a way of knowing in their bodies what it meant to be swallowed up in God, to convey that truth to others, and to recognize in others the same consummation” (97). Edwards promoted this way of thinking about the experience of ecstasy as he described and valorized it in his writings on conversion (especially the Faithful Narrative of 1737). “The bodily gestures of the revivals became the means by which people were inserted into the scenario of universality such that they experienced it as both spontaneous and natural, while it also partook of the same repeatable, predictable patterns as in different places on the circum-Atlantic map. Despite significant theological and ecclesiological diversity in the congregations attesting to awakenings, the revival narratives report a remarkable coherence of experience. What these uniform narratives attest to is a powerful kinesthetic imagination that allowed circum-Atlantic subjects to enact alternative ways of being (acting and thinking) in the early modern world” (97-98).

I am not persuaded that Edwards intended to promote such communication, but I am persuaded of the utility of Reklis’s own effort to use Edwards’ revival writings to promote this kind of theology. For a constructive theologian such as Reklis, success in demonstrating the latter is more important than proving the former.

It might be worth mentioning here (as Reklis grants on p. 14) that Edwards classed bodily ecstasies among what he called the “negative signs” of a work of the Spirit of God, telling people not to focus much attention on such things when they were seeking to discern the work of God within their world. Reklis is reading and using Edwards in a way that he would neither have understood (right away) nor embraced. As Edwards wrote in Religious Affections (1746), “‘Tis no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:131). Edwards discouraged people from using bodily ecstasies to transmit theological meaning. He taught that bodily ecstasies often accompany the work of the Spirit in one’s life, but do not convey reliable knowledge of God.

Nonetheless, specialists today will find Reklis’s book a catalyst for thinking about the role of bodily movement and physical memory in theology. I’m glad to see that all kinds of theologians find Edwards a useful conversation partner.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Spider in a Tree

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree: A Novel (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013)

Spider in a Tree

Whenever I teach a survey of American religion, I require students to read historical novels. My goal for this assignment is to awaken the historical imaginations of my charges, helping them sense what it was like to be a common religious person in the communities we study. This is not an easy task. I do not have a time machine, and cannot transport them personally to the places I describe. Most of the standard survey texts inform them mainly of megatrends and the concerns of Christian elites. So in an effort to help them see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the worlds of most religious people, I ask them to read a major work of historical fiction.

I decided this afternoon to add Susan Stinson’s latest to the list of historical novels from which my survey students may choose. It seeks to recreate Edwards’ lost eighteenth-century world, from the early years of his ministry to his firing and removal to the Stockbridge Indian mission. Told mainly from the perspective of people like Edwards’ wife, Sarah, Edwards’ first slave, Leah, Edwards’ cousins, the Hawley boys (who for a season were his enemies), even the spiders, beetles, and other bugs in Edwards’ house and yard, it is a fascinating tale about the mystery and humanity of Edwards’ daily life. Well informed by recent scholarship in American social history, especially social history on colonial Massachusetts, it is anchored from beginning to end in things that really happened–to Edwards and those around him.

Some readers will object to some of Stinson’s creative embellishments. They will find it hard to imagine Edwards writing in a tree, or spiders preaching silent sermons. They will wish for more of Edwards’ own biblical theology, and less of Stinson’s musings on the vagaries of nature. I, for one, regret the suggestion that Edwards was fired for requiring a public profession of godliness (he required no such thing).

But those who ignore this lovely book due to objections such as these have only themselves to blame for the loss. This is not a simple history. It is fiction, good fiction. It will take you places history by itself can never go.

Though not for young children (it depicts adult themes), this book is highly recommended.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening

Philip F. Gura, ed., Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening (New York: Library of America, 2013)

Edwards has finally made it into the Library of America, a prestigious set of volumes containing the most important work in American literary history.

The publishers in New York could not have a chosen a better person to serve as editor of this volume. Philip Gura teaches English in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written several books on American literary history, including Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).

In this volume, he has reprinted much of the most important literature penned by Edwards during the so-called Great Awakening in New England.

  • A Faithful Narrative (1737/38)
  • Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741)
  • Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742/43)1
  • “Personal Narrative” (published posthumously)
  • Seven sermons (only three of which were published in Edwards’ lifetime), including Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)
  • Four letters that treat revival (only one of which was published in Edwards’ day).

In most cases, Gura has reprinted Edwards’ first editions, or has re-transcribed and printed Edwards’ manuscripts. In the case of the Faithful Narrative, however, he has printed the first American edition, corrected by Edwards and published in 1738. (Edwards felt the editors of the first London edition, printed in 1737, had revised and abridged too much, distorting the story Edwards told.) And in the case of the “Personal Narrative” (whose manuscript is lost), Gura has printed the version found in Samuel Hopkins’ Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards (1765), the same as that used by the Yale Edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.

Specialists will continue to use the versions of these texts published in the Yale Edition. But the appearance of Edwards’ writings in the Library of America ensures his lasting legacy in American belles lettres. Many thanks to Philip Gura for this beautiful anthology.


1 Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England was published in 1743 as reckoned by our new style calendars. It was published in 1742 by Edwards’ old style calendar, whose new year commenced in March.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: History of the Stockbridge Mohicans

Jeffrey Siemers, Proud and Determined: A History of the Stockbridge Mohicans, 1734-2014 (Fond du Lac, WI: Big Smokey Press, 2013)

jeffrey-siemers_proud-and-determinedThis is a fine general history of the Stockbridge Mohicans by a sympathetic amateur historian. It traces the complicated history of this variegated people from its founding in Massachusetts in the early 1730s through its difficult modern history in Shawano County, Wisconsin.

The early chapters of the book are based on the work of other scholars (the late Patrick Frazier, Rachel Wheeler, Lion Miles, Trinity’s own Mark Rogers, and several others), though its latter chapters include some original research.

Siemers writes like a journalist, clearly and compellingly. He spends little time engaging the work of other scholars, but succeeds admirably in writing a solid and uplifting tribal history.

The author devotes several pages to Edwards’ work at the mission, treating him fairly as a caring and courageous friend of the Indians who nonetheless had weaknesses as a missionary (mainly cultural and linguistic).

Specialists will find nothing new here on Edwards. But those seeking information on the history of this people will find Proud and Determined a helpful place to begin (but will want to supplement it with the work of Wheeler and Silverman noted previously on this blog. See bibliography on Native American Christianity in the Great Awakening in the review of David J. Silverman’s Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America.

[Note: Jeffrey Siemers maintains a blog at http://algonkianchurchhistory.blogspot.com/]