From the JEC Blog

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]

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and the Church

Rhys S. Bezzant, Jonathan Edwards and the Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Jonathan Edwards and the Church

This groundbreaking book began as a doctoral dissertation in the Australian College of Theology. Its author, Rhys Bezzant, is a friend and fellow director of a Jonathan Edwards Center, his at Ridley College, Melbourne, where he has worked for nearly a decade. It offers a diachronic treatment of Edwards’ ecclesiological work as well as synchronic summaries and analysis of the nature and significance of Edwards’ doctrine of the church. As I note on the dust jacket, “It’s sad but true: among the hundreds of books on Edwards, nary a one has been published on his view of the Christian church, a doctrine Edwards preached and wrote about throughout his pastoral ministry (despite what you may have heard from other leading scholars). We have needed Rhys Bezzant’s book for a very long time. It is far and away the best, most systematic and comprehensive work on the subject ever written.”

Most previous Edwards scholars, such as Harvard’s David Hall, have suggested that Edwards never had a real ecclesiology, but that his ecclesiastical ministries and battles were shaped primarily by other theological and especially social forces. Bezzant demonstrates that Edwards did maintain a comprehensive ecclesiological vision. Bezzant does not deny that social and interpersonal forces contributed to the contours of Edwards’ ecclesiology. Yet he insists that scholars not reduce Edwards’ churchly writings by describing them as little more than functions of New England’s social history.

This monograph makes several contributions to Edwards studies. The most visible one is found in Bezzant’s manner of balancing Edwards’ high ecclesiology with his ecclesiological reflection “from below.” He argues correctly that Schafer’s classic treatment of Edwards’ ecclesiology (in an article published in Church History in 1955) proves too narrowly ontological, and insufficiently evangelical. It pays short shrift to the ways in which Edwards’ pastoral labors and leadership of revivals also played a role in shaping his view of the church. As a result, Schafer left us with an Edwards who is not as evangelical or pastoral as the real Edwards of history. Bezzant, by way of contrast, offers an Edwards much closer to the minister of Northampton. He finds a golden mean, that is, between Schafer’s purely metaphysical view of Edwards’ doctrine and Hall’s social-historical reduction. In Bezzant’s able treatment, Edwards appears as a genuine theologian after all, but one whose work was forged in the fires of revival and a long life of ministry to people in the church. Bezzant’s Edwards is a man of his time who thought very deeply about the nature of the church, a man who developed an “evangelical ecclesiology” with “revivalist emphases at its core” (256-57).

Another important contribution is Bezzant’s argument that Edwards was evangelical without being a separatist. Edwards moved beyond the Christendom model of ecclesial identity without becoming sectarian. “Edwards was suspicious of the pride generated by separatist certainties growing out of their claimed clarity of personal experience. . . . Purity was secured in the separatists’ model at the expense of social stability, a position Edwards rejected” (176). I hope this argument will exert a salutary effect on the field of Edwards studies, which too often is divided between those emphasizing Edwards’ socio-cultural power and those who nearly turn Edwards into an eighteenth-century Baptist.

Finally, Bezzant corrects the tendency among Edwards scholars to account for his ejection from the pulpit in Northampton by suggesting that he was too old-fashioned, hierarchical, insensitive to the family needs of traditional New Englanders to manage their concerns about church order. Bezzant demonstrates that Edwards was not ejected for his allegedly reactionary attempt to re-impose an antiquated social order on his people. Rather, he held a biblically progressive view of the church and society transformed by the gospel—and was ejected primarily as a result of ecclesiological conviction.

“Edwards’s representation of the church is an exemplary model, not of traditional mechanistic ecclesiology, nor of revivalist and separatist ecclesiology, but of evangelical ecclesiology, which harnesses creative innovative missiological forms to received and systematically constructed Biblical truth” (260). Indeed. This book is highly recommended. It is one of those rare finds useful to scholars, pastors, and church leaders alike.