28 Mar

George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)

George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life has been hailed as “a magisterial biography” by the Wall Street Journal and as “the finest biography of Edwards” by Harry S. Stout.[1] And, indeed, Marsden’s work deserves this praise. Jonathan Edwards is a riveting story of the life, times, and theology of Edwards. Marsden argues that historians should incorporate Jonathan Edwards–the preacher, theologian, father, husband, and philosopher– into the larger story of American history. Like other prize-winning historians, Marsden implements a cultural-historical method that historians of American religion should emulate. However, his method cannot escape a review unscathed. Particularly, Marsden poses a challenge to historians in his discussion of “the point of historical scholarship” (502). Before turning to this challenge, we should recognize what Marsden does well as a cultural historian.

Rather than providing a tedious list of historical facts, Marsden presents Edwards’ life through his familial, pastoral, and intellectual relationships. This method of historical writing works well in several ways. First, it allows Marsden to present a plethora of primary sources written by Edwards, to Edwards, and about Edwards. These diverse resources help readers recognize Edwards as a multi-dimensional, eighteenth-century man who had eighteenth-century concerns. Edwards was a theologian, a logician, a critic of Arminianism, and a proponent of human depravity. Edwards was also a compassionate man concerned with the salvation of his family and parishioners.  As Marsden notes, “Edwards’s universe is essentially a universe of personal relationship. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creature’s responses” (503). This focus on relationships helps readers grasp how Edwards would have thought about his worldview and his relationship to God.

Although Marsden re-creates a plausible eighteenth-century worldview, he falls short of his goal of providing “relatively few interpretive intrusions” (5). Marsden interrupts his narrative innumerable times to explain terms, ideas, and historical figures, and to conjecture about moments in Edwards’ life for which historians have little or no evidence. Even so, most of these intrusions are necessary. They create a seamless narrative so that readers are not left wondering how Isaac Watts or the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” related to Edwards and the eighteenth century. These interpretive intrusions allow Marsden to analyze evidence, piece it together for readers, and produce a cohesive narrative of Edwards’ life and times. These are necessary intrusions in the narrative and are how good historians should do their work.

Even so, there are times when Marsden’s interpretive intrusions go beyond analysis to the elevation of Edwards as a larger-than-life figure. In contextualizing Edwards’ conception of good, evil, and justice, Marsden suggests, “that Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless other lesser entertainments” (137). In a narrative intended to situate Edwards in “real-life,” eighteenth-century British-America, this interpretive intrusion distorts Edwards’ world. Edwards would not have recognized his moral universe as one of entertainment or folklore. Edwards feared for his and others’ eternal souls. His recognition of the battle between good and evil were very real and imminent. To be sure, Marsden employs this comparison to catch readers’ attention. Nevertheless, this intrusion extracts Edwards from his eighteenth-century context, and elevates him to a mythological status of which Marsden warns his readers he will not do. While good historians should make interpretive intrusions, they must be mindful of the relevance of these intrusions to their historical subjects’ lives and times.

Perhaps the best methodological advice that Marsden gives to historians is that “objectivity is not neutrality” (5). Marsden suggests that historians should confess their faith community and the opinions they have of the faith communities they study. This enables historians to recognize and limit any bias towards their subjects. Objectivity is not neutrality, but a recognition of a historians’ time, place, and circumstances in relation to other people’s circumstances.

Marsden provides another methodological insight for historians in his description of the meaning of historical research. In Chapter 30 “The Transitory and the Ending,” Marsden suggests that “The point of historical scholarship should not be, as it so often is today, simply to take things apart, to destroy myths, or to say that what looks simple is really complex…We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past—both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings” (502). Most historians would agree with Marsden on these points. But, Marsden takes the point of historical scholarship one step further. He suggests that “one of the uses of being a historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential” (502). While historians should help people learn from history, Marsden’s attempt at theological guidance poses challenges for his historical project and for historians, in general.

Throughout his book Marsden warns readers that good historical scholarship should situate Edwards in his own time and his own terms. Marsden excels at this until the conclusion. Granted, Marsden does acknowledge that he steps out of his historical framework, “Excepting a few comments on the concluding pages, I have attempted to follow my working principle of explaining as best I can Edwards’ thought in it historical context, pointing out what I see as especially significant but also allowing readers to make most of their own critical judgments” (6). In the conclusion, Marsden blurs the boundary between his role as a historian and a theologian. Some fuzziness around boundaries is expected when one accepts the notion that “objectivity is not neutrality.” We all have particular interests in our subjects that, likely, developed from personal reflections and struggles. Books and papers reflect our own thoughts and feelings about particular subjects that we are drawn to. However, blurring the boundaries too much between historian, counselor, and theologian impacts the ways we use history and construct historical narratives.

Marsden begins to upend his historical framework in his analysis of Edwards’ death. Marsden presents Dr. William Shippen’s letter to Sarah that described Edwards’ “good death.” Marsden notes, “Although this account was written by a devotee to a bereaved widow in an era when it was conventional to give embellished accounts of how the saintly had ‘died well,’ it is also consistent with everything we know about Edwards. Edwards, despite some evident shortcomings, was a saint according to the highest Reformed spiritual standards to which he aspired” (495; italics mine). Edwards certainly would have understood himself to represent the highest standards of the Reformed tradition. But, Edwards never confirmed his election or sainthood. Marsden employs the deathbed narrative, a particular genre of eighteenth-century writing, to confirm his own notions of Edwards’ sainthood. On the surface, this appears to be a smooth transition from a historical account of Edwards to Marsden’s own comments. However, something disturbing is at work. Marsden employs the death bed narrative as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicals would have: to confirm the election of the dying. Marsden sweeps aside the deathbed narrative genre and its historical importance, and takes it as evidence of Edwards’ election just as Dr. William Shippen does. Reports of Edward’s demeanor, although no doubt sensationalized, mark Edwards as a confirmed saint for Marsden.

Marsden further skews his historical framework in the last paragraphs of the book when his voice intertwines with Edwards’ voice. Marsden extols Edwards’ theological “solution” as it is the way that “ultimately the vast majority of humans” can recognize “the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he created” (505). Thus, Marsden’s cultural-historical biography becomes a missionizing tool for the contemporary Reformed tradition. Marsden’s conclusion extracts the book from its eighteenth-century context in order to present his larger intention for writing a biography of Edwards: to resuscitate Edwardsian theology for Reformed communities. The larger purpose of Marsden’s book is transformed from historical inquiry to hagiography. In the end, Marsden’s good historical scholarship sounds more like theology than a bridge between the two.

These criticisms may seem trivial until one realizes how this use of history impacts the larger historical narrative. In the end, Marsden suggests that “As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural theologian. Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as part of the larger Christian tradition” (502). Thinking about “the larger Christian tradition,” impacts scholarship in ways that historians are now just beginning to understand. Placing Edwards within “the larger Christian tradition” supposes that there is a Christian tradition. It supports the notion that the Reformed tradition sustained and directed American religion throughout the nineteenth-century. It supports notions that “evangelicalism” is a thing that can be traced throughout American history and people. Marsden notes, “Edwards’ eighteenth-century Calvinistic evangelicalism is significant not merely as an early instance of a wider phenomenon, but also because it played a prominent role in subsequent American history. After the American Revolution, New England Calvinism with a deep Edwardsian imprint emerged as one of the most influential movements shaping the new American voluntary religious culture” (8). Placing Edwards within “the Christian tradition” of the devotee poses the risk of looking to the past to validate evangelicalism as a category of historical analysis. To be sure, Edwards was influential to nineteenth-century evangelicals. But, they appropriated Edwards and his theology in ways that Edwards himself would not have recognized and approved. Condensing history and theology runs the risk of tracing “evangelicalism” from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Looking for Edwards and his evangelicalism in American history masks transformations in how people employed and applied Edwards, and supposes that evangelicalism was one thing. The risk of merging historical frameworks with theological points of view is that the historical narrative will continue to support ahistorical views of evangelicalism as American religion.

Marsden no doubt provides a model for the way historians should do good historical scholarship. But, his conclusion brackets his cultural-historical methodology and elevates the theological intentions of his work over the historical and cultural aspects. Bridging the gap between history and theology impacts the ways scholars read evidence and construct historical narratives.

[1] Yale University Press, “Reviews” of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, Yale University Press Online, http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=9780300105964. (23 April 2012).