Jonathan Edwards, Theologian for the Church -- By: Gerald R. McDermott

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 12:3 (Summer 2003)
Article: Jonathan Edwards, Theologian for the Church
Author: Gerald R. McDermott


Jonathan Edwards, Theologian for the Church

Gerald R. McDermott

Provocateur Extraordinaire

Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) has always provoked extreme reactions. People have found it impossible to be neutral or indifferent toward him.

Many have been provoked by his most famous sermon—arguably the most famous sermon in American history—”Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Lyman Beecher’s wife, for example, upon hearing the sermon read to her, exclaimed, “Dr Beecher, I shall not listen to another word of that slander on my Heavenly Father,” and stormed out of the room.

In point of fact, hellfire and damnation were not Edwards’ specialty. Of 1,300 extant sermons, 655 are related to eschatology or the Kingdom of God. Only 155 of those even mention damnation and hell, and most not centrally. Edwards was obsessed by God’s beauty not wrath.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was another modern reader revolted by the “Sinners” sermon. “Is it possible,” he wrote, “that Edwards read the text mothers love so well, ‘Suffer little vipers to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God’?”

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that Edwards’ sermons on sin and suffering were “refined poetry of torture.”

Mark Twain was even more disturbed:

Continuously until near midnight I wallowed and reeked w/Jonathan in his insane debauch; I rose immediately refreshed and fine at 10 this morning, but with a strange and haunting sense of having been on a three-day tear with a drunken lunatic.. .. All through the book [Freedom of the Will] is the glare of a resplendent intellect gone mad—a marvelous spectacle. No, not all thru the book—the drunk does not come on till the last third, where what I take to be Calvinism and its God begins to show up and shine red and hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment. By God, I was ashamed to be in such company.

As recently as 1950, George Godwin in The Great Revivalists warned the world that “Edwards was a psychopath, a spiritual quack, a sadist[ic], half-insane, self-tortured prophet.”

Yet there were just as many who regarded Edwards as fearlessly and creatively engaging reality with its paradoxical blend of beauty and ferocity. Samuel Hopkins, the eighteenth-century theologian who lived for a year in Edwards’ home, remembered Edwards

as one of those men of whom it is not easy to speak with justice, without seeming, at first, to border on the marvelous [miraculous], and to incur the guilt of adulation. .. in the esteem of...

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