The Fading Legacy of Jonathan Edwards

Last weekend we attended a family wedding reception in New England. Checking things out beforehand on MapQuest, I was ecstatic to discover that we would be just fifteen miles from Northampton, Massachusetts, the one-time home of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), America’s greatest-ever theologian. That’s where we discovered the vestiges of a colonial romance, and also learned a lesson about how history sometimes moves on.

To review the life of this Puritan theological giant, my church history colleague Jim Smith recommended that I read Elisabeth Dodds’ Marriage to a Difficult Man (1971), which I did on our flight from San Diego. The book traces the story of this remarkable genius who, with his equally-exceptional wife Sarah, raised a large family during the Great Awakening and contributed so much to that formative religious movement in colonial America. Edwards thought deeply and wrote creatively about stock Calvinist concerns like free will and original sin, but also about revival, religious affections, philosophy, science and aesthetics. And he did so in ways that earned the respect of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, and continue to be studied and appreciated even today. Meanwhile his wife Sarah created a hospitable home environment to which numerous visitors were drawn, including at one time the renowned British evangelist George Whitefield.

But Edwards was also a principled preacher, and his insistence on evidence of genuine conversion as a prerequisite to church membership eventually got him fired in Northampton. He was exiled further west to Stockbridge, on the margins of colonial settlement, where he attempted, with the help of translators, to minister to native Indians who understood very little of what he had to say. In this remote setting, and amid the tensions of an unresolved French & Indian War, he wrote some of his most important theological treatises. Eventually he was vindicated by an appointment to the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), but tragically he died within a week or so of a smallpox immunization gone horribly wrong.

We rolled into leafy Northampton late Saturday morning, all set to drink deeply of its rich Edwardsian heritage. It was a bit deflating to discover that the town has pretty much moved on. We did find his church on a downtown corner, now undergoing renovations and covered in scaffolding. And I did manage to buy an Edwards T-shirt at the tiny local historical museum (half price because they weren’t selling well), one that sports a large head-and-shoulders image of Edwards in a curly white wig. But by and large Edwards, and the movement he represented, has been forgotten. Instead, Smith College, one of America’s most elite women’s colleges, now dominates the community. Shops along the attractive main streets have a bohemian feel, and Northampton, we were told, is one of the liberal communities in Massachusetts.

Edwards is buried at Princeton, New Jersey. But I remembered that the great Puritan missionary to the Indians, David Brainerd, who died a broken-down young man in the Edwards home in 1747, was buried right here in Northampton. And so was Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ teenage daughter Jerusha, who had fallen in love with Brainerd, nursed him until he died, and then passed away shortly afterwards of a broken heart.

We walked to the cemetery on the edge of town as storm clouds gathered. All around was an ugly chain link fence, so we walked about a half mile to the far end to get in. We entered just as rain began to pour down. A cemetery going back to colonial times amasses a lot of graves, and we had no map to guide us to the ones we sought. It was like hunting for needles in a haystack. But my wife Kate has eyes like a hawk. She can spot a four-leaf clover without breaking stride (and to prove the point, did it again later that same day at Mount Holyoke). Eventually she found our pilgrimage destination under a fine red maple in the oldest part of the graveyard. I came running over to where Brainerd and Jerusha have lain side by side for over 250 years—their resting places noted in inscriptions almost erased by the elements. Next to them to one side is the grave of Henry Lyman (1809-34), one of America’s early foreign missionary martyrs; on the other is a small memorial stone laid in their honor by Thomas Chalmers, the Victorian leader of the Free Church of Scotland. But there were no contemporary markers or acknowledgments, for all this is seemingly irrelevant to twenty-first century Northampton. We felt more like idiosyncratic archaeologists than tourists.

Walking back to our car, I pondered how religious fervor can fade away—how the vitality of genuine spirituality can erode like the inscriptions on those colonial tombstones. I felt the same way a few years ago in Istanbul, walking around that Turkish Muslim city and remembering that it was once, as Constantinople, the center of Christendom, and that in its suburbs of Nicea and Chalcedon landmark Christology was hammered out. I remember when I first noticed how the carved crosses on the ornate metal doors of Hagia Sophia—the high church of the Christian world for centuries—had been viciously ground off by the new occupants of the city. Today you are hard-pressed to find a Christian anywhere.

In many parts of Asia today there is a youthful enthusiasm for Christianity. As I sense the autumnal odors of Christianity in America, I wonder how vibrant faith can best be sustained. Transmission of faith from one generation to the next is far from automatic. Back in Jonathan Edwards’ day, New England was blessed by repeated waves of revival. Edwards’ grandson Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, was in the forefront of the Second Evangelical Awakening in his generation. Certainly history needs to repeat itself; otherwise this land may be reduced to a moonscape of smug, spiritually-amnesic communities. Without doubt each new generation desperately needs its own epiphanies.


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