Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Evangelical

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

Benjamin Franklin has of late been enjoying some of the celebrity that attended him in life. Doorstop follows doorstop; each tome celebrates the canniest and most pragmatic of the Founders as the first great thinker of America. Franklin deserves his fame, but as Philip F. Gura’s new biography, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (latest in a series of “American Portraits” published by Hill and Wang), reminds us, a mind of unparalleled brilliance preceded Franklin in the colonies, and it is in Edwards’s life and work to which we might more profitably look for clues about our present condition—a period of holy wars, great and small, foreign and domestic, “cultural,” “spiritual,” and actual.

“Historians of the United States,” notes George Marsden, another Edwards biographer, “have been prone to give much more attention to Benjamin Franklin than to Edwards as a progenitor of modern America.” This neglect of Edwards, the author of the 18th-century “Great Awakening” that launched American evangelicalism, explains why conventional histories of the United States cannot account for the ongoing religious fervor of the nation. Although the Christian right has lately attempted to claim Franklin as a forebear—a collection titled American Destiny: God’s Role in America trumpets three apparently pious bon mots of Franklin’s without mention of Franklin’s equal enthusiasm for the sensual life and for a Christless deism—the legacy of his ideas remain staunchly secular. And yet the nation does not. Where does such religiousity come from?

Certainly not ideas, Franklin’s or those of any of the Founders. Religious life in America is for the most part as anti-intellectual as George W. Bush’s great defense of the faith: “If you don’t know, I can’t explain it.” Christ thrives in America not so much as an idea or a deity as through what historian Perry Miller called in The New England Mind, his 1939 classic account of Puritan piety, a “mood.” A feeling, a conviction, a sentimental commitment to manifest destiny. And for that we are, indeed, indebted not to Franklin, but to Edwards

Edwards pastored the Northampton church that became the spiritual heart of the first of many religious revivals to sweep the colonies and, later—right down to today—the entire nation. But while he is responsible for the most famous sermon of fire-and-brimstone, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he was not a pulpit pounder. Rather, he was a writer. Early on, he concluded that his congregation would be better served by whatever thoughts he could conceive during long hours shut in his study than by pastoral housecalls. Which is why, Gura observes, there is much irony in the fact that Edwards’s most potent legacy lies not in his many volumes of metaphysical theology, but in “his earlier writings, on the nature and meaning of personal religious experience.”

No text better illustrates that than the long essay that first brought him trans-Atlantic fame, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls. In it, Edwards brings an almost anthropological scrutiny to the revival over which he had recently presided, events of such energy that the text’s editors at the time—more prominent men than Edwards, who was still in his 20s—observed that “Thus a nation shall be born in a day.” But the editors also express surprise at the two case studies chosen by Edwards to illustrate the benefits of such fevered faith—those of a young woman dying of what seems to be anorexia, and a four-year-old girl.

Such figures were so far beneath the notice of most of the period’s heavyweight thinkers that Edwards risked being dismissed as a trivialist. But Edwards, like Franklin, was possessed of a cleverness rooted in the natural world. He especially liked spiders. He is famous for a teenage study in which he remarked that “Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider, especially with respect to their sagacity and admirable way of working.” Later, as a young man, he would remind himself to “[r]emember to act according to Prov. 12:23, ‘A prudent man concealeth knowledge.'”

And he did as much in his “Faithful Narrative” of a dying woman and a little girl, carefully weaving a web of logic and argument beneath the surface of a story that quickly attracted a popular audience drawn not by its intellectual density so much as its terrifying portrait of sin and its poignant account of redemption. Edwards’s ideas, notes Gura, were entirely orthodox, strictly Calvinist through and through; what was new, he argues, was the narrative vocabulary with which Edwards made a powerfully compelling case for the immediate—and unmediated—reality of an encounter with God as the only reliable manifestation of what he called “true religion.”

In so doing, Edwards staked out a political position as well a spiritual one, both of which are remarkably familiar even 260 years later. Edwards, one of the best-read men in the New World, defined religion not according to the values preached in Boston and New York, cities he considered corrupt and overrun by rich liberals, but by those he found in the heartland of the day, the small towns along the Connecticut River. He celebrated a religious devotion of “affections” rather than works. And he decried “envy” and the “party spirit,” by which he meant not “frolics” (also of great concern, especially when they involved, as they often did in a period much less chaste than we tend to imagine, “both sexes” and “nightwalking”), but rather the politics of the unquiet poor, that which true believers of the present moment revile as “class warfare.”

Gura writes as a self-declared believer in the “true virtue” modeled by Edwards. Whether he is also an evangelical (as is Marsden and many other historians of Edwards) is unclear, but Gura is not shy about his belief that we should look to Edwards, not the deist Founders, for lessons from the past. “If,” he concludes, “we believe that someone such as Benjamin Franklin has more to offer us, we add only more proof to Edwards’s sense of the infinite distance between saint and sinner.”

That is, if we accept the evangelical conception of sin that so obsessed Edwards. The man revealed by Gura—and in his own writing, much of it only now available to our republic of “envy” through a massive publishing project undertaken by Yale University Press—helped craft a religion that is on the personal level intense and revolutionary, but deeply conservative—disinterested, even—when it comes to larger problems of inequity. Sound familiar?

Scholars of religion suggest that the United States may now be undergoing a third (or a fourth, depending on your definition) Great Awakening. The public sphere is more openly engaged by religion than it has been for a century. It’s worth asking hard questions about the roots of this religion, and whether it is well-suited to a democracy based on elections rather than a belief in a God-chosen elect, predestined to higher office, if not salvation.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).