On the Massachusetts frontier in April 1753, a famous preacher, known for his belief in an angry and highly selective God, sat in his Stockbridge study, writing a letter. In it, he described his neighbors, a group of unconverted Indians, as excelling "in religion and virtue."

Surprising? This doesn't fit the stereotype of the preacher, Jonathan Edwards. But during this period, Edwards was assembling a "Catalogue" of hundreds of notebook pages filled with evidence that pagans had received knowledge about God the Redeemer both from the Jews and from traditions going back to Noah's sons.

Whence this open-mindedness toward those who had not heard the name of Christ? The explanation starts with the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers of the East and the New World, who had discovered not just spices and trade routes but also "heathen" who exhibited better morals than most European Christ-ians.

Edwards vs. the monstrous God

Seventeenth-century geographers estimated that only one-sixth of the planet had heard the gospel, so, according to hyper-Calvinists of the day, at least five-sixths of the world's population was doomed to hell.

Beginning with Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the deists, those self-appointed guardians of a reasonable religion, suggested that the Calvinist god responsible for this scenario was a monster. These deists succeeded at popularizing the disjunction between the heathen who were damned but morally good and the Christians who were saved but morally bad.

Edwards, disturbed by deist use of non-Christian religions to attack God's goodness and justice, worked hard to learn about these religions. He sought out and read travelogues, dictionaries, and encyclopedias of religion available in his time. The books cited in his "Catalogue" include George Sale's translation of the Qur'an, reports of the Jesuits in China, an analysis of the Qabbalah, comparative mythology, and a wide range of reference works—from skeptic Peter Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary to Daniel Defoe's Dictionary of All Religions Ancient and Modern.

Edwards developed three strategies to defend Reformed orthodoxy against deist charges.

First, he used the idea of a prisca theologia (ancient theology) to try to prove that vestiges of true religion were taught by the Greeks and other non-Christian traditions. Therefore, he concluded, five-sixths of the world had not been deprived of the basic truths of the gospel.

Second, he developed an elaborate typological system to show that God is constantly communicating Reformed truths wherever the eye can see and the ear can hear—in nature, history, and even the history of religions.

Finally, Edwards taught that an inner "disposition" is better evidence of regeneration than precision in belief. He described the necessary disposition as "a sense of the dangerousness of sin, and of the dreadfulness of God's anger … [such a conviction of] their wickedness, that they trusted to nothing but the mere mercy of God, and then bitterly lamented and mourned for their sins."

Therefore, some people can be regenerated before explicit conversion to Christ: elect infants, Old Testament saints, and New Testament saints (such as Cornelius before he heard the gospel from Peter, Nathaniel, "probably" John's two disciples, and several others who were "good men before [they met Christ]"). In all these cases, "conversion may still be by divine constitution necessary to salvation in some respect even after [a person] is really a saint."

The un-churched saved

A fourth class of people who Edwards thought enjoyed salvation without explicit knowledge of Christ were those we might call holy pagans.

In his 1739 sermons on the history of the work of redemption, Edwards surmised that conversion to true religion, justification, and glorification have occurred in all ages of the world since the Fall. He cited examples of such holy pagans living outside of Israel: Melchizedek, the posterity of Nahor (Job and his family), Job's three friends, and Elihu. These were individuals outside the national covenant with Israel, and of course without explicit knowledge of Christ, who nonetheless seem to have been regenerate.

Virtue among "the devil's captives"

In correspondence during his last years, Edwards wrote of a group of Onohquaga Indians from the Susquehanna River Valley as excelling "in religion and virtue" and "far the best disposed Indians we have had to do with, and [who] would be inclined to their utmost to assist, encourage, and to strengthen the hands of missionaries and instructors, should [any] be sent among [them]."

The letters do not claim that these Indians were converted. But it is significant that Edwards said they excelled in both religion and virtue. In his sermons and private notebooks he criticized pagan moralists who sometimes had good ideas about religion and virtue but failed to live virtuous or religious lives. Yet Edwards praised these Indians not for the truth of their ideas but the quality of their lives, just as Luke had commended Cornelius for the quality of his practice.

In another letter during that period, Edwards wrote that "many" members of that tribe "that used to be notorious drunkards and blood-thirsty warriors, have of late strangely had their dispositions [my emphasis] and manners changed through some wonderful influence on their minds."

Edwards had only contempt for Native American religion and referred to Indians generally as "the devil's captives." But he seemed deeply moved by the uncivilized natives at Stockbridge who showed more civility and virtue than the educated English "saints" who had thrown him out of Northampton.

Early in his tenure at Stockbridge, he boasted to his father that "the Indians seem much pleased with my family, especially my wife." Later he referred to them warmly as "my people" and noted happily that "they steadfastly adhere to me" despite his enemies' efforts to alienate them from him.

One would never guess this from Edwards's learned treatises or most of his public statements about Indian religion, but his private correspondence and notebooks suggest that in his last decade, while in exile, the great theologian might have concluded that he had found holy pagans who, like Cornelius, were sincerely seeking the gospel.

Gerald R. McDermott teaches religion at Roanoke College in Virginia.