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In the Toils of Edwards

By August 16, 2013 One Comment

Late summer means slogging through tasks you signed up for under fairer prospects and distant deadlines. For me that means writing an essay on the history of Reformed theology in America. Thankfully, other writers are covering Puritanism and Jonathan Edwards, but still one has to treat Edwards’s long and complicated legacy. After the master died prematurely of a smallpox inoculation, three generations of his heirs carried on a century of immense and much controverted theological construction. Their schools were dubbed, successively, the New Divinity, the New England theology, and the New Haven theology, and their suggestions were bold enough to provoke parties Left and Right to challenge, and often disparage, their tenets, spirit, motives, and/or consequences and implications. For opposite reasons, of course. To Unitarians and Universalists, it was all hyper-Calvinism. To Episcopalians it was rather in bad taste. To Princeton Presbyterians, the Edwardsean train had been cruelly hijacked and ended at Pelagian station. (Although they wondered whether Engineer Jonathan might have been a bit sloppy at the controls.) Meanwhile the heirs themselves scolded each other for materially altering the master’s teaching at one point or another—a charge sometimes true, even truer than the critic could see.

Historians’ judgments on the matter have diverged radically too—it qualified as either the biggest waste of energy or the greatest single indigenous enterprise in American intellectual history, or something in between. The most intriguing assessment might have come from an astute theologian and historian who grew up at an intense hearth of this school, the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, who was in turn a (Yale) student convert of Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight; a friend of Nathaniel William Taylor, architect of the New Haven theology; and the impresario of the moral crusades of the Second Great Awakening, which owed much to Edwardsean logic. Lyman was also a booming, busy father much concerned about his children’s faith. He told them that there was no salvation without a distinct conversion experience, that God expected the same of them now as their prime duty, and that they were entirely free, so far as their natural will was concerned, to effect that choice at any time. Except that their moral will was bound to the devil’s ways, the pastor father continued, and could not budge until the Holy Spirit broke it up in a startling act of grace. No mistake–they would know it when, if, it came. In short, they were bound and able to do what they could not do, with nothing less than their eternal salvation at stake.

We can leave to the side here the logical steps by which Edwardseans got themselves into this corner. Suffice it to say that master Jonathan’s controlling concept of divine initiative suffused with majestic love (as Newton’s physical universe operated on gravity) encountered problems when translated into atomistic, moralistic, and legalistic terms. Such, nonetheless, was almost inevitable for a generation, like those of Edwards’s successors, who worked in and after the American Revolution which wanted nothing of monarchical majesty, human or divine, thank you very much. Year after year, American life was suffused with questions of law and newly framed constitutions, and law was regarded as legitimate only when it was adopted with the consent of free individuals who possessed inherent rights. Good luck getting your Calvinist God through that wicket!

But how did this all register in young Harriet Beecher’s experience, and what did she do about it? Those are your burning questions, I know, gentle reader, but space does not permit me to answer just now. Rather, as was the practice of sister Harriet and brother Charles Dickens and a whole host of other Victorian writers, we will leave this to next time. I promise you that installment will be the conclusion. Not for me to pull off a four-parter like Theresa Latini!




James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I wonder why Edward's great-grandson Maurice Dwight became Dutch Reformed and served so many years at Old First, Brooklyn, and what effect that had on him and them. I will have to check on his dates, to see if they coincide at all with Beecher's up the street.

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