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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Theologian of Love?

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of LoveThis is a wonderful introduction to Edwards for people reared to assume that he was mainly a Calvinist scold who majored in hellfire and brimstone. Ronald Story, an emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used to assume the same thing. Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, he long thought of Edwards only as the fearful preacher of—yes, that’s right, you guessed it—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But in the late 1990s, Story stumbled into Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, soon became a member, and discovered the Edwards of love, the Edwards of Charity and Its Fruits who spoke of “Heaven as a World of Love” much more than he spoke of hell.

This book serves as an apology from Story for the many years he spent misconstruing Edwards’ life and significance (in places such as his best-selling text, A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History). It overcompensates a little bit for Story’s earlier sins, portraying Edwards as a progressive social prophet of reform whose social teachings paved a way for Theodore Parker, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King. In the main, though, it portrays Edwards accurately, fairly, and with honest sympathy.

Here is Story’s main thesis: “Love pervades Jonathan Edwards’s ministry and writings, a point often overlooked given his lingering reputation as a preacher of damnation. In fact, Edwards, though understanding, as we have seen, that fear had its utility in the pulpit, was overwhelmingly a minister of the gospel of love rather than of fear. . . . Though a Calvinist, Edwards was not chiefly a preacher of damnation. Though damnation was ever at hand, Edwards the Calvinist was chiefly a preacher within the tradition of Christian love. Considering Edwards in this context will locate him at the epicenter of his faith and increase our understanding of what he was about” (98).

Story stresses what he calls “Edwards’s preoccupation with the poor” (60), his opposition to “materialism and avaricious scheming” (73), and his “notion of togetherness—social peace, amiableness, unity, harmony, collective worship, conversation, friendship, neighborliness, holy community, the oneness of mankind” (75). His work will likely evoke for specialists fond memories of older books by Roland Delattre and Gerald McDermott.

I recommend this book to everyone whose journey is like Story’s, and to students everywhere who know of Edwards only as the “fiery Puritan” of yesteryear.