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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Egbert Coffin Smyth (1829–1904)

By Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

PROBABLY for most persons the influence of Edwards will longest survive through his wonderful personality. “From the days of Plato,” says a writer in the Westminster Review, “there has been no life of more simple and imposing grandeur.” There are four memoirs. The earliest is from Samuel Hopkins, D. D., a pupil and intimate friend. It “has the quaint charm of Walton’s Lives.” The second, by Sereno Edwards Dwight, D. D., is much more complete. He first brought to light the remarkable early papers on topics in physics, natural history, and philosophy. Dr. Samuel Miller’s, in Sparks’s ‘Library of American Biography,’ is mainly a brief compend. The latest Life is by Professor Alexander V. E. Allen, D. D. It endeavors to show “what he [Edwards] thought, and how he came to think as he did,” and is an interesting and important contribution to a critical study of his works. There is still need of an adequate biography, which can only be written in connection with a thorough study of the manuscripts. A more full and critical edition of Edwards’s writings is also much to be desired.

Edwards’s first publication (1731) was a sermon preached in Boston on ‘God Glorified in Man’s Dependence.’ The conditions under which it was produced afford striking contrasts to those attendant upon Schleiermacher’s epoch-making ‘Reden über Religion’; but the same note of absolute dependence upon God is struck by each with masterly power. A yet more characteristic and deeply spiritual utterance was given in the next published discourse, entitled ‘A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine’ (1734). These two sermons are of primary significance for a right understanding of their author’s teaching. All is of God; faith is sensibleness of what is real in the work of redemption; this reality is divinely and transcendently excellent; this quality of it is revealed to the soul by the Holy Spirit, and becomes the spring of all holiness. “The central idea of his system,” says Henry B. Smith, “is that of spiritual life (holy love) as the gift of divine grace.” All of Edwards’s other writings may be arranged in relation to this principle,—as introductory, explicative, or defensive.

When the sermon on the ‘Reality of Spiritual Light’ was delivered, the movement had begun which, as afterwards extended from Northampton to many communities in New England and beyond, is known as “The Great Awakening.” The preaching of Edwards was a prominent instrumentality in its origination, and he became its most effective promoter and champion, and no less its watchful observer and critic. Among the published (1738) sermons which it occasioned should be specially mentioned those on ‘Justification by Faith Alone,’ ‘The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,’ ‘The Excellency of Jesus Christ,’ ‘The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, applied to that uncommon operation that has lately appeared on the minds of many of the people of New England: with a particular consideration of the extraordinary circumstances with which this work is attended’ (1741). The same year (1741) appeared the sermon on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ Some five years previous, moved by the notice taken in London by Dr. Watts and Dr. Guise of the religious revival in Northampton and several other towns, and by a special request from Rev. Dr. Colman of Boston, Edwards prepared a careful ‘Narrative,’ which, with a preface by the English clergymen just named, was published in London in 1737, and the year following in Boston. The sermon on the ‘Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the True Spirit of God’ was followed by the treatise entitled ‘Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion, and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted’ (1742); and four years later, by the elaborate work on ‘Religious Affections.’ The latter sums up all that Edwards had learned, through his participation in the movement whose beginnings and early stages are described in the ‘Narrative,’ and by his long-continued and most earnest endeavor to determine the true hopes of the spiritual life which had enlisted and well-nigh absorbed all the powers of his mind and soul. It is a religious classic of the highest order, yet, like the ‘De Imitatione Christi,’ suited only to those who can read it with independent insight. They who can thus use it will find it inexhaustible in its strenuous discipline and spiritual richness, light, and sweetness. Its chief defect lies in its failure to discover and unfold the true relation between the natural and the spiritual, and to recognize the stages of Christian growth, the genuineness and value of what is still “imperfect Christianity.”

The “revival,” with the endeavor to discover and apply the tests of a true Christian life, brought into prominence as a practical issue the old question of the proper requirements for church membership. The common practice failed to emphasize the necessity of spiritual regeneration and conversion, as upheld by Edwards and his followers. The controversy became acute at Northampton, and combined with other issues, resulted in his dismissal from his pastorate. His meek yet lofty bearing during this season of partisan strife and bitter animosity has commanded general admiration. Before he closed the contest he published two works which, in the Congregational churches, settled the question at issue in accordance with his principles—viz., ‘An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God concerning the Qualifications requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church,’ and ‘Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated in a Reply to the Rev. Solomon Williams’s Book,’ etc.

The reply to Williams was written and published after Edwards’s removal to Stockbridge. The period of his residence there (1751–1758, January) was far from tranquil. His conscientious resistance to schemes of pecuniary profit in the management of the Indian Mission there, brought upon him bitter opposition. For six months he was severely ill. In the French and Indian war a frontier town like Stockbridge was peculiarly exposed to alarm and danger. Yet at this time Edwards prepared the treatises on the ‘Freedom of the Will,’ the ‘Ultimate End of Creation,’ the ‘Nature of Virtue,’ and ‘Original Sin.’ The first was published in 1754, the others after his death (1758), as were many of his sermons, the ‘History of Redemption,’ and extracts from his note-book (‘Miscellaneous Observations,’ ‘Miscellaneous Remarks’). Early in 1758, having accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey, he removed to Princeton, where he died March 22d.

That with enfeebled health, and under the conditions of his life at Stockbridge, he should have prepared such works as those just enumerated, is a striking evidence of his intellectual discipline and power. It would probably have been impossible even for him, but for the practice he had observed from youth of committing his thoughts to writing, and their concentration on the subjects handled in these treatises. A careful study of his manuscript notes would probably be of service for new and critical editions, and would seem to be especially appropriate, since only the work on the ‘Freedom of the Will’ was published by its author.

It is impossible in the space of this sketch to analyze these elaborate treatises, or to attempt a critical estimate of their value. Foregoing this endeavor, I will simply add a few suggestions occasioned principally by some recent studies, either of the originals or copies of unpublished manuscripts.

Edwards’s published works consist of compositions prepared with reference to some immediate practical aim. When called to Princeton he hesitated to accept, lest he should be interrupted in the preparation of “a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of a history.” It was on his “mind and heart,” “long ago begun,” “a great work.” The beginnings of it are preserved in the ‘History of Redemption’ posthumously published, but this was written as early as 1739, as a series of sermons, and without thought of publication. The volume of miscellanies, also published after his death, are extracts from his note-book, arranged by the editor. Nowhere has Edwards himself given a systematic exposition of his conception of Christianity. The incompleteness of even the fullest edition of his works increases the liability of misconstruction. It would not be suspected, for instance, to what extent his mind dealt with the conception of God as triune, or with the Incarnation.

His published works show on their face his relation to the religious questions uppermost in men’s minds during his lifetime. “He that would know,” writes Mr. Bancroft, “the workings of the New England mind in the middle of the eighteenth century and the throbbings of its heart, must give his days and nights to the study of Jonathan Edwards.” And Professor Allen justly adds, “He that would understand … the significance of later New England thought, must make Edwards the first object of his study.” Besides these high claims to attention, one more may be made. The greatness of Edwards’s character implies a contact of his mind with permanent and the highest truth—a profound knowledge and consciousness of God. Human and therefore imperfect, colored by inherited prepossessions, and run into some perishable molds, his thought is pervaded by a spiritual insight which has an original and undying worth. It is not unlikely that the future will assign him a higher rank than the past.

In one of the earliest, if not the first of his private philosophical papers, the essay entitled ‘Of Being,’ may be found the key to his fundamental conceptions. An exposition of his system, wrought out from this point of view, will show that he has a secure and eminent position among those who have contributed to that spiritual apprehension of nature and man, of matter and mind, of the universe and God, which has ever marked the thinking and influence of the finest spirits and highest teachers of our race.

Edwards was born October 5th, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut. He was the son of Rev. Timothy and Esther Stoddard Edwards; was graduated at Yale College in 1720; studied theology at New Haven; from August 1722 to March 1723 preached in New York; from 1724 to 1726 was a tutor at Yale; on the 15th of February, 1727, was ordained at Northampton, Massachusetts; in 1750 was dismissed from the church there, and in 1751 removed to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was called to Princeton in 1757, and died there March 22d, 1758.