Toward the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote an obituary for Jonathan Edwards's theology: "The truth is that [his] whole system of beliefs . . . is gently fading out of enlightened human intelligence, and we are hardly in a condition to realize what a tyranny it once exerted over many of the strongest minds." Holmes's pronouncement was premature.
Christopher Niebuhr of the well-known Niebuhr tribe wrote to me recently. He is celebrating the Yale University Press publication of Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 (edited by Wilson H. Kimnach), 800 pages of transcribed scripts and notes that make up the 25th and final volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.
On October 5, Jonathan Edwards turns 300. From my vantage point in Northampton, where he preached the Great Awakening and served as pastor for 23 turbulent years, it is tempting to imagine bringing him back in a time machine.
Only one portrait of Jonathan Edwards was painted during his lifetime, a rather conventional “likeness” done by the Boston-based painter Joseph Badger. The face is severe, aloof, unsmiling and suspiciously similar to many of the other faces in Badger’s 150 or so portraits from the 1740s and ’50s.
The Puritans were earnest folk. They had little patience with those who had no depth, no deep conviction, no profound concern with what God was doing in their lives. They wanted everyone to become a believer, of course—to assent to the reality of God and God’s providence, justice and compassion, and thus find a confidence for living in this precarious world.
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