Heaven Is a World of Love, Congregations Can Be Full of Strife: The Life of Jonathan Edwards and Handling Conflict -- By: Stephen J. Nichols

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 12:3 (Summer 2003)
Article: Heaven Is a World of Love, Congregations Can Be Full of Strife: The Life of Jonathan Edwards and Handling Conflict
Author: Stephen J. Nichols


Heaven Is a World of Love, Congregations Can Be Full of Strife: The Life of Jonathan Edwards and Handling Conflict

Stephen J. Nichols

To some, Jonathan Edwards represents the consummate Puritan image of one preaching hellfire and brimstone, self-righteously cajoling his fellow human beings as mere spiders dangling precariously over the pit of hell. This Edwards is typically known by those whose exposure to him consists solely of having read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” most likely in a high school American literature anthology. To others, Edwards represents far more than the content of a single sermon. Here the view of the late Edwards scholar Paul Ramsey comes to mind. Ramsey contended that those most familiar with Jonathan Edwards know that his lexicon overflowed with words such as “beauty,” “sweetness,” and “harmony.” For Ramsey, the sermon most paradigmatic of Edwards’ thought and preaching was not “Sinners,” but rather “Heaven Is a World of Love,” the final installment in Edwards’ sermon series on Charity and Its Fruits from 1 Corinthians 13.1 To a certain extent, Ramsey succeeded in drawing attention to the full-orbed and more accurate depiction of Jonathan Edwards.2 In fact, portrayals of the Puritans in general as well as of Edwards in particular have progressed far beyond the sentiment best expressed humorously in the quip that a Puritan is anyone who thinks that somewhere someone might just be having a good time.

Yet, while this fuller understanding of Edwards’ thought might be in place, it presents a conundrum for those studying his life. The recent work of Amy Plantinga Pauw has raised awareness of the tension between Edwards’ preaching and ruminations on harmony and unity, sweetness and beauty, and the conflict that seemed to plague his public ministry. She expresses the dilemma this way: “Glorious Christian communion modeled after the harmonious society of the Trinity seemed to come to easier expression in Edwards’ private notebooks than in his actual intercourse with Northampton parishioners.”3 Intrigued by Pauw’s observation, this article offers a biographical synopsis of America’s most celebrated pastor, focusing on the conflicts he encountered. The intention is to learn from the conflicts endured by Edwards, uncovering the principles and ideas that undergirded him through these struggles.

One of the most perplexing questions for historians of American Christianity is how it came about that one of the most popular preachers in c...

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