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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Heaven

Gary Scott Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Smith is a veteran historian at Grove City College, the author of The Seeds of Secularization: Calvinism, Culture, and Pluralism in America, 1870-1915 (1985), The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925 (2000), and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (2006). In this new book, he focuses mainly on Reformed and evangelical views of heaven, its inhabitants, and how they spend their time (if time is a word that even applies there). It is a most instructive read—crisply written, largely accurate, and far more narrowly focused than the more famous histories of heaven by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang (co-authors of Heaven: A History, 1988) and Jeffrey Burton Russell (A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, 1997).

Like most other cultural histories of particular Christian doctrines, this book is rather unsurprising–one might even say predictable. It shows that American views of heaven, though rooted in Scripture and tradition, have also shifted with the prevailing winds of American popular culture. Smith is fairer than most who have followed the well-worn formula for this genre (identify an allegedly timeless Christian doctrine; place it in multiple historical contexts; describe the macro-level cultural values regnant in those contexts; demonstrate the ways in which the allegedly timeless doctrine has actually morphed rather dramatically in keeping with those values; ignore most counter-examples, either of cultural trends or of those who march to the beat of a different drummer). He does not suggest that doctrine is always and only a social construct, or is absolutely relative. But the burden of his book is to show that while “most Americans have claimed to derive their images of heaven solely from the Bible, they also display their dreams, hopes, and visions of the good life. As a result, their depictions of celestial life shed substantial light on what Americans have most treasured and feared in various eras” (p. 7).

Those with a solid knowledge of American popular culture can guess what Smith says has characterized American views of heaven in each of the periods he describes. And in the main, what he says about his subjects is correct. However, adherence to formulaic views of American cultural history and its bearing on religion, seen as they must be with a bird’s eye, from 30,000 feet, leads him astray from time to time. When treating Edwards, for example, Smith claims that “[h]e delivered numerous sermons that focused on heaven and only a few that primarily dealt with hell,” and thus that “Heaven Is a World of Love” is “much more typical of his preaching” than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (p. 29). This is largely wishful thinking in the service of his plotline. For though it is true that Edwards was not, pace his critics, obsessed with hell, he preached dozens of hellfire sermons over the course of his career, many of which survive today in Yale’s Beinecke Library (and some of which appear to have proven rather more effective in “awakening” his listeners than more pleasing, culturally sensitive sermons on heaven). When treating his legacy, moreover, Smith asserts that “only a few” who led the Second Great Awakening “defended the Calvinist view of salvation” that had prevailed in Edwards’ day (p. 56). However, as several scholars have demonstrated in numerous publications (Joseph Conforti, David Kling, Allen Guelzo, myself), this is simply not true. Edwards’ legacy endured during the Second Great Awakening. Few would parrot his phraseology, but most within New England adhered to one form or another of his evangelical Calvinism.

This popular genre also abounds with unsubstantiated claims, such as that Edwards’ “depiction of heaven has significantly affected the way countless American Christians, especially Reformed ones, have viewed heaven” (p. 45). I’d like to think that this is true, but Smith provides us with no evidence. Much of his narrative seems to suggest, in fact, that Edwards has enjoyed few theological heirs.

But again, such problems attend nearly every book in this genre. They can hardly be avoided. And such books are worth the trouble. They offer little that is original for academic specialists, but much that is informative, entertaining, and even preachable for many other readers.

This is a great general survey of American views of heaven. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS