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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.

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

Sweeney’s BookNotes: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Casebook

Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Casebook, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Caleb J. D. Maskell, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

At long last, this masterful teaching aid is here. The editors have reproduced the definitive edition of this most famous Edwards sermon along with a host of study helps: an historical and literary introduction to “Sinners” (by Kimnach); a theological primer on the themes within the sermon (by Maskell); a dozen companion texts by Edwards himself that place it in context; five contemporary documents that testify to the power of the sermon and/or the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening; and sixteen interpretations of Edwards and his doctrine, including fascinating comments by a wide array of readers, both friends and foes alike, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Robert Lowell, Perry Miller, Billy Graham, and Marilyn Robinson. Appended to the book are a brief chronology of Edwards’ life, a glossary of names and terms, discussion questions, web resources, a handy bibliography, and even a list of audio productions of the sermon.

This is an ideal teaching tool. I recommend it strongly for high school teachers, home schoolers, Sunday school teachers, and college professors–at Christian or secular schools–anyone who wants to teach “Sinners” with excellence, helping students understand what Edwards was actually trying to do by preaching this frightening, classic, and spiritually powerful sermon.

Can anyone remember the biblical text on which it was based (without checking!)? How about the alternate text for the sermon in the Psalms?

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS