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If people recognize Harriet Beecher Stowe, it is as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the antislavery classic and the best-selling novel of the 19th century. She was also familiar first-hand with the theology of Jonathan Edwards and remains one of his most astute commentators today.
Long story short, she thought his mind was awesome, and his influence awful.
Admittedly, she received “her Edwards” via three generations of intermediaries who were highly selective in their choice of the master’s themes and applied them in a radically different context from his. Further, Stowe’s spirit was not optimally designed for their message. She yearned for beauty and affection in the world, for a God who was nearby. Laura de Jong spoke her longing in this space yesterday: “To feel at home in God. To know the presence of our faithful God, in every situation. To be shepherded into his presence.” As 16-year-old Harriet put it in a letter to her pastor-brother: “I sometimes wish that the Saviour were visibly present in this world, that I might go to Him for a solution of some of my difficulties.”
But just such a Savior is on offer in the Jonathan Edwards that George Marsden captures in his new An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century (IVP, 2023). This Edwards is full of the light and divine love for which Stowe was starving. She herself saw none of it, however. Indeed, she saw the opposite, a God who was distant, impossible to please, meager in grace, and willing to see multitudes suffer in the present age for some glory known only to him in a distant age to come.
The Master and the Heirs
Seeing this disparity prompts us to ponder how legacies can be passed along and what might happen to them through the toils of time and chance. Edwards’s successors thought they were doing him a service by isolating what they took to be his main agenda and fitting it to an era, their era, bound by the demands of reason and the American Revolution.
The result was an Edwards trimmed to the cause of revivalism and transplanted from his framework of beauty to one of law and ethics. God was still an absolute sovereign but also a rationally accountable governor. Edwards’s idealist, sometimes mystical, vision was translated into an idiom of bare fact and remorseless logic. His social vision, of people tied together in the bonds of organic relationships, gave way to a republic of independent individuals, free agents in a marketplace full of choices.
Shooting this rapids was the task of men such as Harriet’s father, Lyman Beecher. He had been converted while a student at Yale by its president Timothy Dwight, Edwards’s grandson, and he dedicated his life to projecting that experience on a national scale, leading the crusade dubbed the Second Great Awakening. The First, he and his allies said, had been triggered by Edwards himself.
To fit the times Beecher’s theology did not start from Edwards’s glory of God but from the premise of human free agency under divine moral government. The first and last thing to be said about humanity was its obligation to comply with that regime—immediately, consistently, and wholeheartedly—and a person’s first question in life was to see if she did so obey. Inevitably, the answer was no. Human beings each and all were “children of wrath,” bound to eternal perdition unless they came to consciously repent of their sins and submit entirely to the rule of God.
The Toils of Conversion
This step was expected to take place in a season of unsparing self-assessment over against the unyielding standards of the Lord, at the end of which struggle one might feel “hopeful” or finally “convicted” of redemption. That is, salvation typically came by way of a personal experience of conversion in a concentrated episode of spiritual combat. Yet enough Calvinism remained to gum up the works. Repent we can and must, Beecher taught, but only the elect will repent because we need God’s inducement to do so. That is, we must convert and can convert but won’t convert until God ordains it. As Stowe aptly reflected years later, it was a system “calculated, like a skillful engine of torture, to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.”
Furthermore, any number of snares and delusions lay in wait along the way. Observing the ordinary exercises of religion? Basking in false hope. Trying to prepare your heart for the Lord? Arminian hubris. Rejoicing in your converted status? Young Harriet felt the boom lowered when a stalwart Edwardsean pastor probed her recent experience of the new birth. Would Harriet be happy with God alone should the rest of the universe be destroyed, he inquired. Did she recognize, “in some measure at least, the deceitfulness of your heart, and that in punishment for your sins God might justly leave you to make yourself as miserable as you have made yourself sinful?”
Stowe’s mature reflection put the hard theology and suspicious psychology together in one of the great assessments of Edwards’s legacy:
There is a ladder to heaven, whose base God has placed in human affections, tender instincts, symbolic feelings, sacraments of love, through which the soul rises higher and higher, refining as she goes, till she outgrows the human, and changes, as she rises, into the image of the divine. At the very top of this ladder, at the threshold of Paradise, blazes dazzling and crystalline that celestial grade where the soul knows self no more, having learned, through a long experience of devotion, how blest it is to lose herself in that eternal Love and Beauty of which all earthly fairness and grandeur are but the dim type, the distant shadow. This highest step, this saintly elevation, which but few selectest spirits ever on earth attain…had been seized upon by our [Edwardsean] sage as the all of religion. He knocked out every round of the ladder but the highest, and then, pointing to its hopeless splendor, said to the world, “Go up thither and be saved!”
Hard Theology, Noble Character
Stowe’s Edwardsean God was not only difficult to reach but extremely parsimonious in grace. How few, how very few, of the multitudes born to human life had reached the eternal shore of beatitude. And how grossly some of the master’s disciples worked to find justice in that fate. All the woes of human history, they proclaimed, happened not despite but by the conscious will of God. As the waves of revival inevitably mounted all over the world, however, with unbounded material and social benefits coming in their wake, the net number of the regenerate would far surpass that of the lost at the millennial day, while the sum of human happiness would so outshine the sufferings of the past as to make these forgotten—in fact, make them testimony to the glorious wisdom of divine providence.
Given Stowe’s personal losses—one son dead in a cholera epidemic, another drowned at college, a third lost to alcoholism and Civil War wounds—the real wonder is that she did not renounce the whole tradition. But she did not. She gave its hardest pastors due praise for their unrelenting opposition to slavery.
She argued that only a strong sense of the sovereignty of God could have fought a successful war for independence without descending into lawlessness. In other words, Puritan New England was the salvation of America, and Edwards’s real fault then lay in breaking its unity. Secondly, in replacing the Puritans’ covenantal nurture of children with the model of dramatic conversion drawn from his own inestimable, but also unrepeatable, experience. And thirdly, in a rationalism (she was really blaming his descendants here) which sought to resolve the heavy mysteries that made the Puritan spirit soar and steeled its soul for life’s exigencies.
All in all, she preferred Cotton Mather.
NOTE: Stowe’s wrestling with Edwards occurs in her two best novels of New England life: The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869). See chapter 23 and chapters 19 and 29, respectively.