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Jonathan Edwards helped to invent a new America, committed to a national covenant and an unprecedented spiritual egalitarianism…

edwardsIn 1930, the historian Henry Bamford Parkes critically assessed the legacy of America’s most famous Puritan intellectual, Jonathan Edwards. According to Parkes, “it is hardly a hyperbole to say that, if Edwards had never lived, there would be to-day no blue laws, no societies for the suppression of vice, no Volstead act…”[1] Parkes goes so far as to decry Edwards’ God as a great “cosmic despot,” whose very concept is a great “travesty of Christianity.”[2] Parkes’ conclusion quite clearly manifests the neo-progressive tendency in historiography to decry the religious fervor of the American Puritans in the eighteenth century while simultaneously praising their idealistic zeal for moral reforms. If Parkes is right, then Jonathan Edwards directly affected the course of American history by spawning a form of nationalistic jingoism dressed up in religious language. Furthermore, Parkes would hold that Edwards’ impassioned moral conservatism very well laid the foundation for Progressive Era-evangelicals to seek moral reform through the coercive power of the state.

But Parkes incorrectly assesses Jonathan Edwards’ contribution to American political history. Edwards’ legacy lies in neither of the accusations levied. Though most Americans, if they’ve even heard of Edwards, only recognize him for his fiery sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his contribution to American history is extravagant and is not based solely in the moralistic legalism prevalent among modern evangelicals. While Jonathan Edwards offers a comprehensive and Christian political theology that on its surface seems opposed to the American Revolution, his eschatology and ministry significantly influenced the American mind before and after the Revolutionary period.

Edwards’ Political Theology

While Edwards’ enormously impactful work in intellectual theology has been noted for almost three centuries, his political teachings are often shrouded among the density of his vast manuscripts. Edwards most explicitly outlines his view on government in a sermon entitled, God’s Awful Judgment in the Breaking and Withering of the Strong Rods of the Community,” delivered upon the death of Col. John Stoddard, a royal magistrate and close relative of the revivalist.[3]

Edwards uses the imagery of Ezekiel, chapter 19 to assert that a strong ruler is as a “strong rod” whom God uses as He wills. While the “breaking and withering” of the “strong rods” is often worthy of lamentation, Edwards reminds his congregation of God’s total sovereignty over this ephemeral world.[4] Each and every individual who possesses the great power of the magistracy is ordained by God himself, even those whose acts seem unjust. Despite Edwards’ political determinism, a view consistent with Romans 13, he does not shy away from expounding on the nature of earthly politics in the rest of this sermon.

As the sermon proceeds, Edwards’ view of the politically excellent man becomes apparent. These are the men of “uncommon strength of reason and largeness of understanding,”[5] who possess a profound insight into the great “mysteries of government.”[6] They use their insight for the purposes of prudent public management arranged in accordance to justice. Edwards’ political man has an unparalleled understanding of the state: its people, laws and its history.[7] Perhaps more importantly than any other worldly trait, the political magistrate must have a proper understanding of anthropology. If they understand human nature, Edwards alleges, they can influence both the governed and their fellow governors towards wisdom.[8] In short, Edwards’ political man is one who possesses an almost Aristotelian “greatness of the soul.”[9]

Edwards rejected two prevalent views of politics: firstly, the Lockean view later inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, and secondly, the Platonic idealism of the ancient world. The purpose of politics is not wealth of the temporal, earthly sort. Nor is it the shaping of political institutions to create a virtuous citizenry.

Edwards fervently attacked the materialism present in the liberal tradition of his day. Materialism was rampant in New England, and Edwards likely penned much of his philosophical theology to counter its spread in New England.[10] Edwards points out the facade of the public magistrate who does everything for the sake of wealth and is unafraid to “defile the faces of the poor” to that purpose.[11] He is no less critical of the common man’s inclination towards material gain as the end of existence. The materialistic, self-interested “virtue” advocated by one such as Thomas Hobbes is rejected by Edwards as an affront against God’s person.[12]

Edwards also believed that virtue was something far removed from politics. Virtue is the love of God— a matter dealing specifically with the soul, not political institutions.[13] Edwards agreed with Augustine that expecting true virtue in this temporal realm is a laughable prospect thanks to the total depravity of mankind and original sin. Edwards believed that humans cannot be inclined towards virtue at all without God’s intervention in their life. Even the Christian cannot fully drift away from enslavement to sin until the day of glorification. Since mankind is chained to its sinfulness except by God’s grace, politics cannot be the end for which man exists. As Edwards himself put it, “If men have nothing but human government to be a restraint upon their lusts… without an omnipotent governor, they are still left in a most woeful condition.”[14]

Edwards did not hold that politics was a worthless pursuit. After all, his address on the political man recognized that God often wills that nations have great leaders. Politics is valuable for its ability to prevent citizens from the woes of violent anarchism. However, if a country shapes its political institutions in a manner that strangles the church, it will inevitably descend into chaos regardless of its legal practices. Edwards believed that government fulfills its proper duty when it concerns itself with the protection of property rights, the maintenance of order, and establishment of justice.[15] To Edwards, man is not by nature a political animal; he is a religious animal. A strong government protects political rights which can, in turn, help the church flourish without interference. However, he warns that regardless of how many political rights a government bestows, abandoning God inevitably destroys any nation.

Edwardsian Eschatology and God’s American Covenant

Jonathan Edwards’ postmillennial eschatology undergirded his thought with something resembling a progressive philosophy of history that profoundly shaped his view of New England.[16] During the Great Awakening, Edwards believed that he was living in a great apex of history. God had bestowed, specifically upon the New England colonies, the chance to witness the millennium firsthand. Edwards, as heir to the Puritan tradition, viewed America much as John Winthrop did—a “city upon a hill” for all the world to see. Edwards believed that God had engaged himself with New England to carry forth the end of the age.[17] As Edwards explained in his Thoughts on the Revival: “This new world is probably now discovered, that the new and most glorious state of God’s church on earth might commence there; that God might in it begin a new world in a spiritual respect, when he creates the new heavens and new earth.”[18] God had entered into a special covenant with New England, just as he once did with Israel, or the nations of Europe. Indeed, this great new world was a unique opportunity. The “other continent,” Edwards expounded, “hath slain Christ and… has been deluged with the church’s blood.” [19] America was the new hope for the coming of God’s kingdom.

It is easy to imagine the implications of such a philosophy. Providing a divine backing towards the workings of a secular nation-state would seem to justify aggressive imperialism or nationalistic jingoism. The language of an almost messianic American destiny to spread freedom to all mankind is often justified in religious language with at least some superficial resemblance to national covenant theology.[20] However, it must be recognized that this is not at all to what Edwards is referring. God’s covenant with New England is as much a blessing as it is a responsibility. If New England were to fail in instigating the coming of Christ’s kingdom, there is nothing stopping God from bestowing this holy benefit on some other nation in the distant future. Indeed, Edwards believed that periods of great revival such as the Great Awakening may be a precursor to a great and powerful judgment by God.[21] Revivals simply cannot provide cause to complacency, or else their spiritual significance is fleeting. Edwards ardently opposed patriotic complacency and was unafraid to be extraordinarily critical of the manner and morality of his New England brethren.[22]

Edwards and the American Revolution

President Calvin Coolidge, in a speech delivered on the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, afforded great credit to Jonathan Edwards in helping to instigate the American Revolution. “No one,” the president asserted, “can escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period. The profound philosophy which Jonathan Edwards applied to theology… had aroused the thought and prepared the colonists for this great event.”[23]

This is a surprising claim. Edwards, as outlined above, seemed to afford little weight to revolutionary patriotism. Edwards was an ardent critic of the pursuit of freedom for its own sake. He observed and rejected “the common people’s notion of liberty” as a “person’s having opportunity to do as he pleases.”[24] To Edwards, freedom is instead the ability to pursue morality in accordance with Christianity.[25] Edwards believed that unfettered license was worthless not only in theological libertarianism but also in the political realm. Even more amazingly, Edwards never expressed disdain for the rigidly hierarchical structure of colonial New England. “There is a beauty in the order of society,” he alleged, when all have “their appointed office, place and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and everyone keeps his place, and continues in his proper business.”[26] Lastly, Edwards opposed the very Enlightenment tradition that shaped many of the Founders. A critic of reason as an end in and of itself, Edwards proudly professed that “there is not nor ever was nor will be any man in the world Enlightened but by Jesus.”[27]

Despite the fact that Edwards’ metaphysical views clearly contrasted with the Founding Fathers, he played an almost indispensable role in shaping the American mind in such a way that the Revolution could have been possible. Whether it was his intention or not, Edwards contributed to the “new spirit of defiant individualism” that arose during the Great Awakening.[28] Edwards’ teachings during the revivals deserve some credit in sparking a new sort of spiritual egalitarianism that would later undermine the very hierarchical system which he had supported. His preaching emphasized man’s ability, regardless of class, to experience God’s divine light. The poor and downtrodden saw fit to question the traditional structure of society after the Great Awakening provided them some feeling of spiritual dignity and power.[29] Furthermore, despite Edwards’ opposition to unfettered license, his perspective on freedom ultimately helped to provide some measure of religious sanction towards the Revolution. The Calvinists of the period often alleged that the British were tyrannical precisely because they were undermining the necessary political freedom to protect religion and the pursuit of morality.[30]

Conclusion

“If Edwards had thought about Christianity more deeply,” Henry Bamford Parkes stated, “he might have become the greatest figure in the history of American thought; he might have altered the whole of the future history of America.”[31] Edwards quite clearly thought about Christianity to an extent unusual even for a Puritan in New England. Edwards offered a political philosophy which was simultaneously Augustinian and compatible with facets of the Enlightenment. He articulated a vision for an America grounded in political freedom, but cognizant of the religion’s indispensability. His eschatology avoided jingoism and instead informed America of its profound duty to live up to the standards that God had designed. Abraham Lincoln, among others, echoed Edwards in maintaining that while America was “the last best hope” for mankind, it mustn’t forget the Providence which had “preserved us in peace, and multiplied, enriched and strengthened us.” Lincoln said that if Americans become “too proud to pray to the God that made us,” the divine punishment will be extraordinary. To Lincoln, such a day of judgment had arrived in the form of a great Civil War.[32]

As Edwards scholar and philosopher John McCracken explained, “Edwards’ philosophical efforts mark also the beginning of constructive philosophy in America. To search the intellectual history of Edwards is to ask, not merely for the antecedents of a great thinker, but for the genealogy of a new race.”[33] Edwards helped to invent a new America, committed to a national covenant and an unprecedented spiritual egalitarianism. Indeed, Jonathan Edwards very well may be the greatest figure in the history of American thought, and there can be no doubt that he altered the whole of the future history of America.

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Notes

[1]Henry Bamford Parkes. Jonathan Edwards, the Fiery Puritan (New York, NY: Minton, Balch & Co., 1930), 66-67.

[2] Henry Bamford Parkes. Jonathan Edwards, the Fiery Puritan (New York, NY: Minton, Balch & Co., 1930), 253.

[3] George M. Marsdan. Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press., 2004), 343.

[4] Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., 2005), 36.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeff Jay Stone. Mysteries of Government: The Political Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards (Newport Beach, CA: Publish Authority., 2015), 57.

[10] Mark Noll. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 2002), 23.

[11] Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., 2005), 36.

[12] Frederick Guyette. “Jonathan Edwards, The Ethics of Virtue and Public Theology.” International Journal of Public Theology 4, no. 2 (2010): 158-74.

[13] Jeff Jay Stone. Mysteries of Government: The Political Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards (Newport Beach, CA: Publish Authority., 2015), 45.

[14] Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., 2005), 512.

[15] Caleb Henry. “Pride, Property, and Providence: Jonathan Edwards on Property Rights.” Journal Of Church & State 53, no.3 (2011): 401.

[16] Gerald R. McDermott. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press., 1992), 55.

[17] D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic., 2003), 148.

[18] Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., 2005), 381.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gerald R. McDermott. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press., 1992), 5.

[21] D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic., 2003), 148.

[22] D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic., 2003), 152.

[23] Calvin Coolidge. The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses (Hendersonville, TN: The Minerva Group, Inc., 2001), 215.

[24] Jon Pahl. “Jonathan Edwards and the Aristocracy of Grace.” Fides Et Historia 25, no.1 (1993): 62-72.

[25] Alan Heimert. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers., 1966), 457.

[26] Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., 2005), 128.

[27] Jonathan Edwards. Manuscripts. (New Haven, CT: Reinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).

[28] Gerald R. McDermott. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press., 1992), 139.

[29] Gerald R. McDermott. One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press., 1992), 157.

[30] Alan Heimert. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers., 1966), 182.

[31] Henry Bamford Parkes. Jonathan Edwards, the Fiery Puritan (New York, NY: Minton, Balch & Co., 1930), 63.

[32] D.G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic., 2003), 154 – 155.

[33] John H. MacCracken, “The Sources of Jonathan Edwards’ Idealism,” Philosophical Review, XI (1902), 26.

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