Posted: September 22, 2004
onathan Edwards is, by general consensus, the greatest theologian ever to have emerged from the New World. Since the time of his death, his religious writings have been continually studied, both here and—perhaps uniquely among Americans—abroad. Yet owing to the complexity of his thought, Edwards's formal treatises have remained primarily an object of scholarly interest. General readers, if aware of Edwards at all, are typically acquainted solely with his hellfire sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." What non-specialists have needed for some time is an accessible biography that integrates his tumultuous ministerial career with his serenely logical mind. That need has at last been met, thanks to the magisterial synthesis of Edwards's life and thought presented in George Marsden'sJonathan Edwards.
If previous biographers have tended to overstate the peerless brilliance of the lonely genius, Marsden, a renowned historian at Notre Dame, depicts Edwards as thoroughly immersed in the intellectual and social ferment of 18th-century New England. A young prodigy, Edwards spent his childhood deep in biblical and scientific study. He became increasingly anxious about his lack of heartfelt faith, until he was powerfully overcome at the age of 17 by an "inward sweet sense" of the glorious "work of redemption." He entered the ministry and was called to assist his grandfather, the renowned Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton. Upon Stoddard's death, a 26-year-old Edwards became full pastor to the most important colonial pulpit outside Boston. Ever eager to impart a "sense of the glory," Edwards's preaching helped foment two intense seasons of religious revival (later called the Great Awakening); mass conversions throughout the Connecticut River valley attracted considerable attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
But at the moment of his greatest prestige, Edwards revoked the lenient sacramental policy of his grandfather. Henceforth he would demand a credible, public profession of conversion before admitting church members to the Lord's Table. His congregation was enraged and expelled him. Edwards was compelled to remove his large family to an Indian mission at Stockbridge, on the exposed westernmost edge of the British Empire, shortly before war with France began. There, in an isolated and dangerous outpost, Edwards composed his magna opera on free will, original sin, and true virtue. Seven years later, he accepted the presidency of the fledgling College of New Jersey (later Princeton), only to die from a smallpox inoculation administered shortly after his arrival.
Despite its ample share of controversy, Edwards's life was spent mostly in quiet study, reflection, and writing. Marsden skillfully describes how Edwards inhabited a world of ideas, foremost among which was the awesome and utterly mysterious power of the loving, triune God. Although Newtonian physics and Lockean psychology brought many 18th-century thinkers to a mechanistic understanding of reality, the new natural philosophy impressed upon Edwards a profound sense of the endlessly creative activity of God. Everything, he reasoned, at every moment depends entirely upon the Almighty. Human acts, like any other realm of nature, must therefore derive from divine initiative. Accordingly, and against the more genteel currents of his age, Edwards endorsed a rigorously Calvinistic moral theology in which there exists no such thing as a self-determining free will. The sense that one controls the choice between good and evil is simply illusory; in the end, one acts in accordance with one's predominant disposition, over which there is no self-control. True virtue, the undifferentiated love for God that originates from God, is the only meritorious work of man, yet it derives entirely from a source outside of and above mere human choice. All other claims to virtue, he concluded, are counterfeit.
The question of whether Edwards was essentially medieval or modern continues to perplex historians. "The answer," Marsden proposes, "is that he was both." Although Edwards's preaching intended to evoke a spiritual response as palpable and unmistakable as the taste of pineapple, he expected that awakened individuals would naturally defer to their appointed shepherds. He was wrong, of course, and was shown as much by his flock. His relentless appeals to the individual soul quietly undermined his (and others') elevated position in a hierarchical society. As a result, colonial Christianity found public expression less and less in terms of the eternally-ordained Puritan covenant, and more and more in terms of the voluntarily-attended evangelical revival. This amounted to nothing less than a revolution in how Americans perceived themselves, a revolution to which Edwards contributed formidably, if unintentionally.
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Edwards inevitably invites comparison with the other best-known American of his generation: Benjamin Franklin, three years Edwards's junior. Quite unsurprisingly, the puritan and the philosophe differed sharply in how they approached questions of God and man, but, as Mark Noll shows in America's God, both approaches would long influence American religion.
Noll considers his book "a contextual history of Christian theology," which is to say, an assessment of the content of Protestant theology against the contextof early American culture. A lesser historian might succumb to either gross oversimplification or expansive pedantry, but Noll, the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, proves equal to the task. He brings a wealth of evidence to his explanation of why theology in America developed into a distinctively American theology. Although he litters his book with academic jargon—from deconstruct to discourse, all the modish verbs are "deployed"—his insights are quite original and deserve a wide hearing.
The study opens with Edwards, whom Noll believes serves as a useful "benchmark" against which to measure future theological change. In Noll's view, Edwards's theology fully attests to the vigor of traditional Calvinism in mid-18th century New England. It centered on the absolute, incomprehensible, and transcendent sovereignty of God; everything else radiated outwards from (but was intimately related to) this first, elemental reality. Edwards's principal mode of inquiry was contemplative, and his central categories were ontological.
What was true of Edwards was no less true of religious thought in the rest of British North America. Throughout all the colonies and among all the denominations, formal theological inquiry found expression in traditional European terms. Inklings of later changes began to appear around 1750, but by and large theologians remained faithful to their continental forebears.
Around the turn of the 19th century, however, a truly distinctive American theology emerged. When it did, it was unique; nowhere else did Christians accept its central claims. It was, moreover, thoroughly American; its assumptions drew from the revolutionary principles of the founders, and these were in turn adopted by all the major churches in the United States. His analysis is considerably more subtle than this, but it is fair to say that Noll perceives three basic elements to this theological synthesis: Christian republicanism, commonsense moral ethics, and evangelical activism.
Noll defines republicanism as a belief in ordered liberty, wherein the flourishing of society is held to require the widespread cultivation of virtue, which in turn relies upon the pervasive practice of religion. Continental and colonial ecclesiastics traditionally complained that republican instincts prized human self-sufficiency over dependence on God; liberals, meanwhile, found in such complaints evidence of Christianity's supposedly innate hostility towards liberty. Around the time of Edwards's death, however, American divines began to proclaim a deep-seated affinity between republican principles and the articles of faith.
This development, Noll contends, constituted a watershed in the history of Christian political thought. Just as importantly, though, republican concepts began to saturate formal theology itself. American theologians moved steadily away from Edwards's God, the ineffably mysterious font of Being, and towards Franklin's God, a disinterested yet benevolent magistrate. If Edwards saw true virtue as ineluctably flowing from the goodness of God, his successors described it as the proper activity of the self-determining individual.
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The second major element in the American synthesis was commonsense ethics, or the reliance upon universal human instincts as the basis of moral awareness. Protestants traditionally took a dim view of humanity's natural knowledge of morality, but in America such skepticism vanished. Engaged with a population in which inherited authority had ceased to exist, American theologians encouraged their audience to subject the tenets of Christianity to the test of their own experience and common sense. Even among theologians, the understanding of the ordinary man gradually came to displace deep learning and ancient tradition as the most acceptable criterion for establishing doctrinal truth.
As commonsense eclipsed profundity, action replaced contemplation as the principal mode of theological expression. The record of evangelical action in the early republic is truly astounding; organized Protestantism was the single most important centripetal force in the early years of the republic. By the middle of the 19th century, evangelical benevolence societies conducted virtually all of the nation's social welfare projects, and the ratio of federal employees to clergymen ran one-to-one. As a result, American culture became emphatically more Christian. Compare, for example, the most popular hymns of the Revolutionary and Civil wars. In the former, the orthodox Congregationalist William Billings sang praise to a virtually Hebraic God of Battles; in the latter, the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe would exclaim, "in the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me."
At a more profound level, the theological consensus lent itself to the sanctification of American nationalism. Preachers, every bit as much as politicians, portrayed liberty and commonsense as enjoying divine sanction. To a degree unprecedented in Christian history, religious conviction and civic culture mutually reinforced one another. But, as Noll points out, this formidable alliance of evangelical activism, commonsense reasoning, and Christian republicanism foundered on the question of slavery. Noll bypasses the oft-told history of antebellum denominational schisms, focusing instead on how the American theological synthesis could not, on its own terms, condemn slavery as sinful.
The problem stemmed from the way Americans, North and South alike, were taught to read the Scriptures. From their republican and commonsense commitments, Americans expected to read their Bible the same way they read their Constitution: all of its precepts were binding unless explicitly amended, none of its passages was superfluous, and its simplest exegesis was normative. Under these expectations, the Word of God was found to condone slavery: the Pentateuch regulated the practice, and the pastoral letters mentioned it without disapprobation. Opponents of slavery were thus faced with a stark choice: either renounce the Bible altogether, or argue that Americans were misinterpreting it. Much to the delight of slavery's proponents, a handful of radicals (William Lloyd Garrison most prominent among them) abandoned the Bible (even as they abandoned the Constitution). The more orthodox majority muddled along, invoking the Golden Rule, but ultimately unable to advance very far against the ingrained exegetical habits of American Protestants.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, arguments over the biblical status of slavery ceased. Throughout the South, the traditional literalism held sway; in the North, it was widely acknowledged that the spirit overrode the letter in this one instance. Noll concludes that this theological impasse partly explains the ferocity of the conflict. There were simply no grounds for reasonable adjudication. Each side reckoned itself fighting for the angels, and angels must never compromise with demons.
"Lincoln's religious convictions," Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, "were superior in depth and purity to those, not only of the political leaders of his day, but of the religious leaders of his era." Noll agrees completely. His closing chapters compare the "surprisingly profound theological utterances of Abraham Lincoln" with the "disappointingly predictable statements from the prominent clergy of his day." Yet such disparities in theological depth never prevented Northern clergymen, prominent or otherwise, from stridently backing Lincoln, a fact that Richard Carwardine explores at length in his distinguished new biography of the 16th president.
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Northern Protestants were an indispensable part of the Republican coalition that swept Lincoln into power and stood steadfastly behind him through the darkest days of the Civil War. Carwardine, an Oxford don and leading expert on American religious history, is unusually attentive to the often neglected alignment of Northern evangelicals with the emerging Republican Party. Lincoln, he explains, grasped that within the United States the most potent source of political power was public opinion, and that the deepest resonances of American opinion were religious. Even if Lincoln's personal beliefs never quite matched those of his supporters, he understood their faith intimately and spoke its language fluently. As a result, free-state Protestants, the heart and soul of the Republican coalition, clutched him to their collective bosom. (Indeed, complaints from Democrats about this alliance sound quaintly familiar; Republicans, they relentlessly complained, were "a religious Sect" possessed of "a holy zeal for its one idea.") "It is no overstatement," Carwardine writes, "to suppose that the combined religious engines of the Union—and the motor of evangelical Protestantism in particular—did more than any other single force to mobilize support" for Lincoln in the antebellum peace, and for the Union in the hour of war.
The central theme around which Carwardine's narrative revolves is power, and yet it was in his confrontation with thelimits of political power that Lincoln revealed his innermost strength, his characteristic moral virtue. Whether or not it was his intention, Carwardine's careful delineation of how Lincoln arrayed his prodigious physical, moral, and intellectual powers towards noble ends reads something like an essay out of Plutarch. Carwardine has produced a moral biography of Lincoln rivaled only by Lord Charnwood's.
Lincoln, for example, once advised a young officer to "quarrel not at all," for "no man resolved to make the most of himself" can afford "the loss of self-control." Carwardine finds in such "conscious striving for self-restraint" a temperance that informed Lincoln's entire adult life. Carwardine also astutely reconstructs Lincoln's sense of justice, with special care given to the disputes over slavery in the territories. Certainly the cultivation of these moral habits contributed much to Lincoln's greatness, but Carwardine devotes rather more attention to the remaining cardinal virtues: fortitude and prudence.
Cicero teaches that fortitude is the chief quality among men, and Carwardine presents it as the foundation of all Lincoln's later accomplishments. The requirements of hardscrabble frontier life equipped Lincoln with impressive physical strength, while the privations of his youth instilled in him a rare capacity for sustained labor. Moral courage, however, requires more than stamina. It requires a spirited determination to do right, of which Lincoln gave boundless evidence. As Joshua Speed, perhaps Lincoln's most intimate friend, once said, "no man could be stronger if he thought that he was right." Carwardine locates the "roots" of such "moral power" in Lincoln's religious faith. It is impossible to know with certainty what Lincoln believed in his heart of hearts, but Carwardine offers the most evenhanded presentation of evidence to date. Discerning a mid-life faith composed of "rationalist, Universalist, Unitarian, fatalist," and "residually Calvinist" elements, Carwardine proceeds to relate with admirable clarity how Lincoln's beliefs deepened in proportion to the severity of the challenges he faced.
What set Lincoln apart from other leaders of his day, however, was his consummate prudence. Lincoln possessed an innate ability to devise sufficient means to morally worthy ends, and Carwardine delves into the theme of prudential leadership in his concluding chapters, which examine the "purposes" and "instruments" of Lincoln's wartime actions. Historians have long commended the finesse with which Lincoln gradually rearticulated Northern war aims. After initially declaring a war to preserve the Union, and only later shifting his rhetoric towards emancipation, Lincoln masterfully secured the crucial support of both the border states and the Northern Democrats. But, Carwardine argues, there was another dimension to this rhetorical shift. By harnessing the war effort to traditional evangelical themes of sin and atonement, bondage and liberation, Lincoln appealed directly to the heart of mainstream Protestant orthodoxy, the most potent source of American nationalism. A major (and neglected) aspect of Lincoln's political prudence was thus his ability to channel the religious sensibilities of the Union. But here, as always, moderation tempered Lincoln's rhetoric; the same man who summoned a crusading zeal would concede in the hour of victory that "the Almighty has His own purposes."
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Each of these books makes a major contribution to our understanding of America's religious heritage, and each deserves the lavish praise it has received. Yet all three authors make an argument that perhaps says more about their modern-day sensibilities than it does about the objects of their study. They all take care to present Edwards and Lincoln as having eventually abandoned the idea that God had somehow set America apart from the rest of dreary human history. If ordinary Americans imagined themselves as a new Israel, the authors claim, better minds recognized the notion as sanctimonious vanity. Edwards, for example, speculated that only revivals in the New World could presage the millennium; Marsden finds the argument 'tortured' and implies that Edwards later abandoned it. Similarly, because Lincoln once alluded to America as an "almost chosen people," Noll concludes that Lincoln doubted "whether America was the people of God." Carwardine likewise writes that Lincoln "distrusted" the "certainty of moral superiority" and "acute millennial consciousness" of Northern evangelicals. But there remains considerable evidence that both Edwards and Lincoln shared with their contemporaries the sense that America was called from above to great and noble things. In a day when American exceptionalism is roundly decried, it is apparently inconceivable to these authors that the keenest theological minds this land has yet produced may have shared with so many of their compatriots a deep and heartfelt faith in America.