Jonathan Edwards: A Gallery — The Mind Shapers
While Edwards learned how to preach from Puritan sermon manuals, he learned most from the “Connecticut River Valley School of Preaching.” This informal school had a faculty of two: Timothy Edwards and Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan’s father and maternal grandfather, respectively.
The young Edwards’s grandfather wielded an impressive influence. Dubbed the “Pope of the Connecticut River Valley,” he was held in such veneration that in his old age (tradition has it) a crude highway was built from Boston to Northampton to transport him to Harvard commencements.
Boston born and Harvard educated, Stoddard arrived as the second minister of the Congregational church at Northampton in 1672, holding the post until his death in 1729. Edwards joined his grandfather in 1727 as an apprentice and associate, a relationship cut short by Stoddard’s death.
In the history of the Northampton church he traced in his Faithful Narrative, Edwards recounts five seasons of “harvests,” or revivals, that contributed to the growth of that church. By the time Edwards arrived as associate minister, it had grown to be the largest church in New England outside of Boston—and Northampton had become a model Puritan town. As Edwards ascended to the pulpit and, over time, experienced his own “harvests,” he saw these movements as but further waves of the revivals enjoyed during his grandfather’s tenure.
Stoddard’s “affectionate” preaching—aimed at moving the whole person, including heart, soul, and mind—had contributed to these harvests. And this preaching left its mark on his young associate. It was the same sort of preaching that Edwards had heard, growing up, from his father, who ministered in East Windsor, Connecticut. As Edwards learned what the Puritans called “the art of prophesying” from these examples, he developed a respect for the power of bare rhetoric—of verbal imagery and metaphor. He learned to move congregations not by theatrics but by ideas brilliantly and vividly expressed.
Edwards did not, however, follow in his grandfather’s footsteps entirely. Stoddard had handled church membership in the New England Congregationalist tradition of the Half-Way Covenant. This policy allowed for the baptism of children to parents who had not professed Christ and a fully open communion for both regenerate and unregenerate participants.
Initially Edwards followed his grandfather’s practice. Eventually, however, he became convinced that the Half—Way Covenant was both unbiblical and unwise. His subsequent campaign against the policy led to his dismissal as Northampton’s minister in 1750.
Visitors to Northampton will not find the house in which Edwards lived. A Roman Catholic church stands on the location. Stoddard’s house, however, remains. Now a private residence, its impressive and expansive presence dominates the small hilltop overlooking the town, a lasting testimony to the watchful presence of the town’s erstwhile “Pope.”
Edwards was no sheltered, isolated colonial Puritan, interested only in the dogma of the old theological writers. In his reading and writing, he engaged the brightest minds of his day and of the past—not only in theology and philosophy but also across a wide array of disciplines. His eager, omnivorous mind interacted with the thought of Isaac Newton; the Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith; and George Berkeley, among many others.
Standing out in this panoply of conversation partners was the British philosopher John Locke.
John Locke was the quintessential Enlightenment thinker. He is best known for developing an empirical approach to philosophy—that is, one in which truth is believed to derive chiefly from experience. In his famous image, each person is born with their mind a tabula rasa, or blank slate, to be filled up with data gathered through the senses and refined by thoughtful reflection.
By the 1710s Locke’s writings dominated the universities in England and were slowly making their way to her colonies.
Edwards’s first contact with Locke came in 1718 or 1719 while a student at Yale. A rare copy of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) had crossed the Atlantic. Edwards could barely contain his enthusiasm. His reading of Locke gave him more pleasure “than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure.”
Years later, Edwards would say of Locke, “How greatly distinguished is the speech of some men of great genius.”
Specifically, Locke’s stress on lively ideas and learning by experience influenced Edwards. In one of his early sermons, “A Spiritual Understanding of Divine Things,” Edwards observes, “It is not he that has heard a long description of the sweetness of honey that can be said to have the greatest understanding of it, but he that has tasted.” To know the thing truly, Locke argued and Edwards followed, one must experience it.
Yet, Edwards did not always follow Locke. For example, Locke compartmentalized the human self into separate faculties, such as the intellect or mind and the volition or will. Edwards, while using these same category terms, instead viewed the self as a unity, centered in the “affections,” which undergird and unify the intellect and the will, and guide our lives as a ship’s rudder. Edwards’s discussion of the nature of this key concept (which makes frequent reference to Locke) occupies the first section of his Religious Affections.
References to Locke’s writings pepper the writings of Edwards. CH
By Stephen J. Nichols
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #77 in 2003]
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