Jonathan Edwards: A Gallery - The Mind Shapers
John Calvin, the forerunner of the Reformed tradition, leaves his imprint upon Edwards in a variety of ways. The Reformer's influence especially pervades Edwards's writings and sermons on the Arminian controversy, including Freedom of the Will (1754) and Original Sin (1758).
Calvin's most significant contribution to Edwards's thought is related to the Puritan theologian's doctrine of the "new sense." While this doctrine owes something to British empiricist John Locke (see below), Edwards forged it with help from John Calvin. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote of a "sense of sweetness" (sensus suavitatis), that is, the believer's newfound ability, through the regenerating and illuminating work of the Spirit, to see the truth and beauty of the gospel.
Edwards uses this expression throughout his writings as he describes his new relation to God and the world. The river valley was sweet, the words of the Psalmist were sweet, the young lady in New Haven whom he would eventually marry was bestowed with the sweetness from God, and, above all, Christ's work was "sweet and glorious … like green pastures" to his soul.
While Edwards learned how to preach from Puritan sermon manuals, he learned most from the "Connecticut River Valley School of Preaching." This informal school had a faculty of two: Timothy Edwards and Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan's father and maternal grandfather, respectively.
The young Edwards's grandfather wielded an impressive influence. Dubbed the "Pope of the Connecticut River Valley," he was held in such veneration that in his old age (tradition has it) a crude highway was built from Boston to Northampton to transport him to Harvard commencements.
Boston born and Harvard educated, Stoddard arrived as the second minister of the Congregational church at Northampton in 1672, holding the post until his death in 1729. Edwards joined his grandfather in 1727 as an apprentice and associate, a relationship cut short by Stoddard's death.
In the history of the Northampton church he traced in his Faithful Narrative, Edwards recounts five seasons of "harvests," or revivals, that contributed to the growth of that church. By the time Edwards arrived as associate minister, it had grown to be the largest church in New England outside of Boston—and Northampton had become a model Puritan town. As Edwards ascended to the pulpit and, over time, experienced his own "harvests," he saw these movements as but further waves of the revivals enjoyed during his grandfather's tenure.
Stoddard's "affectionate" preaching—aimed at moving the whole person, including heart, soul, and mind—had contributed to these harvests. And this preaching left its mark on his young associate. It was the same sort of preaching that Edwards had heard, growing up, from his father, who ministered in East Windsor, Connecticut. As Edwards learned what the Puritans called "the art of prophesying" from these examples, he developed a respect for the power of bare rhetoric—of verbal imagery and metaphor. He learned to move congregations not by theatrics but by ideas brilliantly and vividly expressed.
Edwards did not, however, follow in his grandfather's footsteps entirely. Stoddard had handled church membership in the New England Congregationalist tradition of the Half-Way Covenant. This policy allowed for the baptism of children to parents who had not professed Christ and a fully open communion for both regenerate and unregenerate participants.
Initially Edwards followed his grandfather's practice. Eventually, however, he became convinced that the Half-Way Covenant was both unbiblical and unwise. His subsequent campaign against the policy led to his dismissal as Northampton's minister in 1750.
Visitors to Northampton will not find the house in which Edwards lived. A Roman Catholic church stands on the location. Stoddard's house, however, remains. Now a private residence, its impressive and expansive presence dominates the small hilltop overlooking the town, a lasting testimony to the watchful presence of the town's erstwhile "Pope."
William Ames's influence loomed large in Old and New England, as he was the principal architect of the congregational form of church government and perhaps the most scholarly mind among the Puritans.
Edwards, like his fellow students at Yale and those at Harvard, had a standard textbook for theology: William Ames's The Marrow of Theology (1627). Students memorized the work. At any moment an upperclassman could call upon a younger colleague to recite a passage from The Marrow. Those who flubbed the task got kitchen duty for the week—a strong incentive for study.
Edwards's personal copy of Marrow resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. He signed his name on the inside cover in 1721 and proceeded to annotate Ames's text generously.
Edwards also read, and quoted in Religious Affections, Ames's Cases of Conscience (1631), a work widely influential during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Ames was known for wedding the mind with the heart, solid intellectual rigor with deep piety. Edwards followed this same path. In his Personal Narrative, Edwards wrote, "On one Saturday night … [I] had a particular discovery of the excellency of the gospel of Christ, above all other doctrines."
This epiphany led Edwards to desire "to follow Christ, and to be taught and enlightened and instructed by him; to learn of him and to live to him." Like Ames, Edwards would come to define theology not as a science or a dry academic study, but as "the teaching of living toward God."
Edwards was no sheltered, isolated colonial Puritan, interested only in the dogma of the old theological writers. In his reading and writing, he engaged the brightest minds of his day and of the past—not only in theology and philosophy but also across a wide array of disciplines. His eager, omnivorous mind interacted with the thought of Isaac Newton; the Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith; and George Berkeley, among many others.
Standing out in this panoply of conversation partners was the British philosopher John Locke.
John Locke was the quintessential Enlightenment thinker. He is best known for developing an empirical approach to philosophy—that is, one in which truth is believed to derive chiefly from experience. In his famous image, each person is born with their mind a tabula rasa, or blank slate, to be filled up with data gathered through the senses and refined by thoughtful reflection.
By the 1710s Locke's writings dominated the universities in England and were slowly making their way to her colonies.
Edwards's first contact with Locke came in 1718 or 1719 while a student at Yale. A rare copy of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) had crossed the Atlantic. Edwards could barely contain his enthusiasm. His reading of Locke gave him more pleasure "than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure."
Years later, Edwards would say of Locke, "How greatly distinguished is the speech of some men of great genius."
Specifically, Locke's stress on lively ideas and learning by experience influenced Edwards. In one of his early sermons, "A Spiritual Understanding of Divine Things," Edwards observes, "It is not he that has heard a long description of the sweetness of honey that can be said to have the greatest understanding of it, but he that has tasted." To know the thing truly, Locke argued and Edwards followed, one must experience it.
Yet, Edwards did not always follow Locke. For example, Locke compartmentalized the human self into separate faculties, such as the intellect or mind and the volition or will. Edwards, while using these same category terms, instead viewed the self as a unity, centered in the "affections," which undergird and unify the intellect and the will, and guide our lives as a ship's rudder. Edwards's discussion of the nature of this key concept (which makes frequent reference to Locke) occupies the first section of his Religious Affections.
References to Locke's writings pepper the writings of Edwards.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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