In April 1880, the Radical Club, a high-profile literary society for New England's intellectual elite, met for its latest confabulation. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes had offered to present a paper "on a somewhat interesting subject," the eighteenth-century Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. That hardly seemed a congenial topic for a group dedicated to the advance of liberal religion and freethinking inquiry. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as the club's oracle, had helped inaugurate the association in 1867 with a Transcendentalist paean to "the sacred books of every nation" and to the progressive, cosmopolitan faith of the future. Edwards was being set up to take the fall for the advance of religious universalism against evangelical provincialism.
Being proud and genteel New Englanders, the salon-goers covered up their patricide with flattery, duly noting Edwards's considerable intellect and pious reputation. Holmes even held out hope that there was some truth to the rumor that Edwards had left behind a manuscript confessing at last to a Unitarian creed; perhaps, he speculated, Edwards had secretly achieved a partial emancipation from the theological bonds that had so long hobbled him. Most in the audience, though, ignored that fancied olive branch. No good "ever came out of Edwards's philosophy," David Wasson, a convinced disciple of Emerson, claimed during the discussion. Edwards rolled the tortures of the damned "as a sweet morsel under his tongue"; he was, Wasson concluded, a coldhearted scoundrel. The hardly radical conclusion at which this club of Emersonians arrived came down to this: Edwards was of no lasting importance because he was not Emerson.
The sage of Concord was still the measure of the pastor of Northampton in the first major twentieth-century biography of Edwards, Ola Elizabeth Winslow's Jonathan Edwards, 1703–1758 (1940). For Winslow, the "tragic pity" of Edwards was that he remained "the prisoner of his own ideas" and lacked the imagination to step free of the Calvinist theological system—the whole of it, from double predestination to the imputation of Adam's sin to all humanity. With a little dexterity, though, the doctrinal idiom—"the arid stretches of theological quibbling"—could be peeled away; underneath was a religion of individual experience and mystical inwardness that just might satisfy the spiritual longings of latter-day romantics and twentieth-century seekers. If readers pried the "husk" of theology off Edwards, they would see the kernel of Emerson hidden within: "Forget the creeds and find God for yourself today and tomorrow," Winslow exhorted.
The most famous, controversial, and enduring twentieth-century biography of Edwards came nine years after Winslow's, when Harvard's Perry Miller attempted his own reclamation project. It is a testimony to the staying power of Miller's treatment that the University of Nebraska Press has now reissued his Jonathan Edwards, with a new introduction by Princeton's John F. Wilson, one of this generation's leading scholars of Edwards. Even as new biographies of Edwards for the twenty-first century are now appearing, Miller's eccentric rendering still shadows them, fifty-six years later, as a classic in American Studies.
Miller, a hard-drinking atheist who relished the stark realism of Reinhold Niebuhr's neoorthodoxy, enjoyed turning the tables on Holmes, Wasson, and company—on all those liberals who had so happily made the unusable Edwards so useful for their own self-congratulation. To hell with worrying about where Edwards fell short of Emerson, Miller chided: The eighteenth-century divine was every bit the seer and luminary that the writers of the American renaissance were. "The truth is," Miller claimed, "Edwards was infinitely more than a theologian. He was one of America's five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels." By comparison to Edwards, the Transcendentalists seemed transparently starry-eyed—"debauchees of dew," Miller had called them in one of his more notorious essays, "From Edwards to Emerson" (1940). Though also a close observer of nature, Edwards managed, in Miller's estimation, to overleap the gushing pantheism of the nineteenth century and cut to the existentialist chase of the twentieth. With an abiding sense of terror and depravity, Edwards was not a hellfire evangelist but a philosopher of "the meaning of meaning." Talk about carnivalesque inversions: Edwards now stood atop Emerson. He was no longer Winslow's Emerson in chains; he was America's Kafka.
Whether cast in favorable or unfavorable terms, all these Edwards-to-Emerson comparisons were a little bizarre, of course, and much of the subsequent writing on Edwards has concentrated on resituating him in the dense particularities of the eighteenth century, especially within the rise and spread of the evangelical movement in New England and the larger Atlantic world. The Edwards now in full view is the Edwards who faced (and often failed) the routine challenges of the local Congregational ministry, who helped forge the networks of an international Protestant awakening, who plotted out the history of the work of redemption and the place of revivalism in that divine scheme, and who assumed the presidency of Princeton to educate evangelical ministers, not spearhead the Enlightenment. It is the Edwards who hallowed as a model of evangelical dedication the self-abasing missionary David Brainerd—a melancholy young man kicked out of Yale College because
of his "wildfire party zeal" for New Light preaching (rather than for the partying passions that now earn the censure of college deans and Tom Wolfe). Edwards saved Brainerd from ignominy and obscurity, turning his diary into the hagiography of a chastened saint and an inspiration for one evangelical missionary after another in the nineteenth century and well beyond.
The Edwards of evangelical Calvinism is currently very much the Edwards of record. This is especially evident in George M. Marsden's definitive, Bancroft prize–
winning biography, which Yale University Press published in 2003. Marsden's work stretches to more than six hundred pages, but the only Emerson to gain mention is a young minister from Massachusetts, Joseph Emerson, who became infatuated with Edwards's sixteen-year-old daughter Esther in late 1748. The unrequited desires of Joseph get some play in Marsden's painstaking biography (Esther decides, sensibly, that true love should wait). Meanwhile, Ralph Waldo and his Transcendental Club compatriots are nowhere on the horizon.
Into this changed scene steps Philip F. Gura, William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with his biographical entry, Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical. Gura is understandably a little sheepish about offering a scaled-down biography only two years after Marsden's long-awaited behemoth. When Miller had offered his biography in the wake of Winslow's, he had simply shrugged off his competitor's contribution as a yeomanly effort—solid, thorough, reliable, and entirely beside the point. Edwards was a monumental intellectual, an artist in the world of ideas; his mind was all; the colonial world was a happenstance, an insignificant distraction on the order of youthful frolics.
Gura is hardly positioned to perform that hubristic gesture in relation to his even more proximate and commanding competitor. Nor is he inclined to try. A winsome scholar of American literature and music, with a collector's knack for the serendipitous discovery (he gained considerable attention a few years ago for finding—on eBay, no less—what looks to be only the second-known photograph of Emily Dickinson), Gura lets Marsden's work stand as the authoritative biography. Offering his own volume as a more modestly framed "consideration" of Edwards, he largely hews to the neoevangelical line on Edwards. "America's most famous and successful evangelical" is the label Gura firmly affixes to his subject at the outset. (How George W. Bush would feel about playing second fiddle to Edwards, Gura does not speculate. In any case, one always has a sense of wishful naïveté about such superlative claims on behalf of Edwards—as if concentrating long and hard on his agile, exegetical mind is enough in itself to serve as a corrective to the American evangelical movement's long-standing tendency to anti-intellectualism.)
Even with the evangelical story line carefully and rightly emphasized, Gura still creates some room for his own reflections, including a subtle reengagement with Miller's more literary and artistic insights. Perhaps this vein in Gura's work has genetic—or tribal—sources: at Harvard, Gura was a student of Alan Heimert's, who was, in turn, a student and successor of Miller's. So, not surprisingly, Emerson—Ralph Waldo, not Joseph—makes a reappearance, a cameo in which Gura places the soon-to-be-finished critical edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards on a level with the now completed edition of the Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. These two ventures, Gura suggests, are the most heroic scholarly endeavors in American cultural history of the last generation. Now, that is a grand claim (not to mention, a telling comparison); only a scholar raised in the "from Edwards to Emerson" home of Perry Miller would feel fully comfortable making it.
Gura follows Harriet Beecher Stowe (as well as Miller) in suggesting that the Edwards worth considering is the Edwards who is "both a poet and a metaphysician." He points to Edwards's understanding of "spirituality" as possessing, once "liberated" from its eighteenth-century vocabulary, a transcultural and transhistorical significance. "The marvel is that his work is so deep and broad that it can transform the understanding of personal religious experience across generations, denominations, and even cultures," Gura avows. "This is the Edwards whom we must recover," the one who serves as "the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality."
Gura redraws the boundaries that the interlocutors at the Radical Club had etched so clearly at their meeting in 1880, placing Edwards within the pale of Emerson's religious universalism rather than outside it. That assembly of liberal Christians and post-Christians had explicitly rejected Edwards not only as a theologian but also as a mystic. As James Freeman Clarke, a respected scholar of comparative religions at Harvard, had concluded that day, Edwards's "mysticism" was simply not "in accordance" with "Concord mysticism." Sure, Clarke conceded, Edwards had been "a powerful thinker" and "a Calvinistic saint," but his spirituality, like his metaphysics, had "produced no lasting results." Gura turns the tables on that sort of Transcendentalist presumption. Edwards's spirituality matters, and it does so apparently on terms that liberals can hardly gainsay—as part of the rich variety and universality of religious experience.
Still, Clarke's dismissive conclusion, however skewed, is worth a second look as a warning. How helpful is it to try to save Edwards for twenty-first-century readers through assimilating his understanding of religious experience into the expansive vocabulary of liberal cosmopolitanism that swept through the nineteenth century and remains very much with us today? When Edwards relates his desire to be "alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness" in order to abstract his soul from the world in devout meditation, it is tempting to read such longings as part of a universal human quest after God. But it is tempting to do so precisely because the Emersonian or Transcendentalist sensibility has become so pervasive: "Can any one doubt," Emerson asked in a lecture in 1862, "that if the noblest saint among the Buddhists, the best Mahometan, the highest Stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian . . . could somewhere meet and converse, they would all find themselves of one religion? . . . Could these converse intimately, two and two, how childish their traditions would appear!" To lift up Edwards as a bearer of a universal spirituality is to take him on Emersonian terms. It is to savor the sweets of Edwards's solitude through Thoreau's tongue.
To be sure, it is fascinating to examine the spiritual horizons of Edwards from the democratic vistas of the next century, but certainly as much to illuminate the different trajectories of evangelical Calvinism and liberal universalism as to discover their soulful affinities. Take one tiny comparison. When Edwards's beloved Brainerd is walking by himself one Sabbath morning in 1738, he pauses to assess his own situation in relation to that of the animals: "From the view I had of my sin and vileness, I was much distressed all that day, fearing the vengeance of God would overtake me. I was much dejected, kept much alone, and sometimes envied the birds and beasts their happiness, because they were not exposed to eternal misery as I evidently saw I was."
Now, flip ahead a little more than a century to that scion of Emerson, Walt Whitman, and his parallel (or, rather, perpendicular) musings:
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid
and self-contain' d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep
for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their
duty to God.
Whitman, who even more than Emerson lifted up "spirituality" as the essence of religion, traveled an irreducibly different road from Brainerd. Placing Edwards's piety within a discourse that nineteenth-century liberals and romantics especially favored and made their own—the universality of spirituality, mysticism, and religious experience—is a move that would have made the evangelical Edwards bristle, if not weep once more for our sins.
Perhaps quarreling about the relationship of Edwards to Emerson is old-fashioned,
if not impertinent. After all, Gura offers a sharply honed biography of Edwards, sculpted down with a supreme discipline befitting its evangelical subject and yet fleshy enough to offer a full sense of Edwards and his times. Precise in his discernments, just as Edwards was when evaluating the religious affections of the converted, Gura gently cracks open Miller's old door, mostly kept shut of late. In the resulting shaft of light, Gura no longer spies Miller's Edwards, "a prefigurement of the artist in America," but he does glimpse a spiritual Edwards who is more small c "catholic" than big C "Calvinist." That is a somewhat different Edwards than we have now come to expect. Still, can this catholic Edwards ever compete in the American religious marketplace with the evangelical Edwards? The chances of that, sad to say, appear to be very slim. n
Leigh E. Schmidt teaches in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. His book Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality will be published this summer by HarperSanFrancisco.