Wunderkind and Firebrand

Today the church remembers an 18th Century pastor and theologian who, though kind of a mixed bag in my view, deserves a nod: Saint Jonathan Edwards, Wunderkind and Firebrand.

Saint Jonathan was the fifth child of eleven children, and the only son, born into a preacher’s household in 1703. He was educated at home and sent off to Yale at the age of thirteen and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1720. As he continued on to seminary studies he took the pulpit of a nearby church, vacillating between practical ministry and continuing his studies in the academy.

In 1726 he came alongside his grandfather as the pastor in Northampton, the most prominent church in Massachusetts, was ordained and married a young woman, Sarah, in the following year. Jonathan and Sarah would go on to have eleven children themselves.

In time Jonathan took over the pulpit at Northampton from his grandfather, and became widely known for his brilliant intellect. His understanding of philosophy, the mathematics of logic, and human psychology were astounding, but even more interesting was the way he applied these disciplines to his theological ideas. In his left hand he held the academy, and in his right hand he held intense mystical conversion experiences, and he brought them both together as he prayed.

Armed with a profound conversion experience and a robust mind, Edwards took on Arminianism, a growing theological trend that emphasized free will and downplayed traditional notions of original sin, essentially relegating religion to the realm of trite moralism. He embraced his inner Luther and took on faith and grace as the legs of the ladder of salvation, and through conversion one might ascend that ladder toward a higher way of being in the world.

Saint Jonathan was also a victim of fortune in these days as the American landscape was ripe for a religious revival and through his preaching joining the witness of others (George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennant amongst others), the Great Awakening spread across the colonies.

But, like most rock star pastors, Saint Jonathan’s growing fame came at a vocational cost. His congregation didn’t want a rock star pastor and were a bit jealous of the fame he was gaining. That, mixed with Edwards’s very strict ideas regarding who was saved and who wasn’t (he had a habit of refusing people communion if they weren’t “clearly converted”), caused a break in their relationship. Saint Jonathan eventually left the parish to become a frontier missionary to First Nations tribes elsewhere in Massachusetts. There he was met with a significant language barrier, personal demons that still gave chase, and tribal wars, but still was able to publish what some consider his greatest works, Freedom of the Will and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.

In 1757 Saint Jonathan was called from the frontier to serve as the president of the College of New Jersey (you know this college as Princeton). Princeton was experiencing an outbreak of smallpox just as he took his chair, and though Saint Jonathan had received inoculation (get vaccinated!) he suffered a secondary infection and died on this day in 1758.

His gravestone still stands in Princeton’s cemetery.

Saint Jonathan Edwards’s ghost has had a bit of a resurgence lately as the revival at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky reminded corporate memory of the kind of “convincing conversion” he wrote so passionately about. Whatever you call what happened in Asbury, it is pretty clear that there is a longing for belonging that still happens in humans, and a longing to feel.

On a personal note, though I do not agree with much (most all?) of Saint Jonathan Edwards’s theological notions it cannot be denied that he influenced humanity through his brilliance and passion. He was an intense and fiery preacher, and his zeal to make those in the pew feel something is important (even if I think it is wrong-headed and theologically abusive).

For his desire that people to be moved he deserves to be remembered, if not fully revered. I do not think we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” dangled over the pit of hell as “one holds a spider on its web.” It can’t be denied that the image, though, is powerful and evocative‚Ķeven if I think it’s wrong.

Saint Jonathan Edwards is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that intellect and mystical conversion can sometimes hold hands and, though we’re not often sure what to do about it, it does no good to deny it or scoff at it or decry it.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations