*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 5th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A happy 318th birthday to Jonathan Edwards who was born on this day in 1703. There are few people more responsible for shaping early American evangelical Christianity for good or ill. Today on the show let’s break down 4 things you should know about the pre-Revolutionary New England pastor.
We might consider him an Enlightenment Puritan. Or perhaps the philosopher of British American Puritanism.
Once again for the people in the back: the Enlightenment was an intellectual and social trend in the Western world that stressed- to some extent: rationality, personal freedom, and individual fulfillment. It was not necessarily irreligious or religious and it looks different when we look at different places. Likewise, Puritanism isn’t a one-size-fits-all ideology with black hats and buckled shoes. Edwards marks a combination of pious enlightenment and modern puritanism which would shape a distinct New England theology.
Along with George Whitefield, he is among the architects of the First Great Awakening.
New England churches had been experimenting with what they called the “halfway” covenant. That is, you could be admitted to partial church membership and the Lord’s Supper if you were outwardly pious and desiring of a conversion. That is, Communion was seen as a “converting” ordinance. Edwards rejected this and for it, lost his pastorate.
The Great Awakening could be seen as a call for outward conversion experiences, the creation of places for such experiences to happen, and a promotion of these conversions in books written about how spontaneous the well-planned event was. While Whitefield was the preacher, Edwards was the theologian trying to deal with distinguishing “true” revival from “counterfeit”.
His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” is not what you may have been taught.
You would be hard-pressed to read this sermon on the realities of hell with modern eyes and not be a little taken aback. But this was not a sermon to the unconverted. Edwards would not have necessarily given this at a revival service for the unconverted- he is trying to remind his hearers, already committed Calvinists, that life and faith are tenuous, you should take it seriously, and genuinely strive to convert the unsaved.
While he condemned the brutalities of the slave trade, he himself owned slaves.
You shouldn’t be surprised that there are angry factions online and elsewhere trying to condemn Edwards into obscurity and those trying to defend him as a product of his time. This can get exhausting. Stop making people your “heroes”. Find heroic actions, but expect to find deviousness and self-serving ideologies just as quickly. Was he a product of his time? Well, LOTS of people were condemning slavery already, but Edwards held to a Puritan ideology that believed in a hierarchical society in which slavery could be permitted. And it served his accustomed lifestyle, so… it seems like we all can have a propensity for inconsistencies when they serve us.
Despite his retrograde and self-serving ideas about owning slaves, he did come around on Native Americans and spent part of his life after leaving the pastorate as a missionary to Native Americans.
He not only became a missionary, but he helped popularize David Brainerd- a contemporary and missionary to Native Americans. Edwards edited Brainerd’s journal and added his own reflections. This kind of missionary journal would take off in popularity helping to launch the explosion of missionary movements in the following century.
As a man who trusted the vocation of medical doctor and advances in the natural sciences, he was one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox in his new role as the president of (what would become) Princeton. The inoculations were riskier and he contracted smallpox from the inoculation and died in 1758. Born on the 5th of October in 1703 he was 54 years old.
The last word for today comes from Isaiah 43:
Don’t remember the prior things;
don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
paths in the wilderness.
The beasts of the field,
the jackals and ostriches, will honor me,
because I have put water in the desert
and streams in the wilderness
to give water to my people,
my chosen ones.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man like a spider hanging over an open flame- he is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by the man who is that flame, just kidding. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.