Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Misunderstood Figure from History

Today marks the 305th anniversary of the birth of one of history's more interesting figures, the greatest of the American Puritans, Jonathon Edwards.

Rev. Edwards is now remembered mostly for his most enduring sermon, Sinners in the Hands of Angry God, about which public high school students continue to be mistaught to this day. It is not uncommon for teachers of those students, following their curriculum guides, to ask students to imagine the famous minister shouting his vivid phrases about spiders hanging by a thread over a fire at his congregation. In fact, he did no such thing. Scholarly works on Edwards life and thought, both secular and Christian, have not been in short supply at any point in American history, but particularly since a famous biography by Yale University historian Perry Miller written in the 1930's, and so such errors in school textbooks are inexcusable. Rev. Edwards invariably read his sermons in a soft monotone, only occasionally looking up at the back wall of the church, and rarely using any gestures at all. While his use of words was vivid, most modern churchgoers would consider his pulpit style to be unforgivably dull.

More recently, George Marsden has written a brilliant biography of the Puritan divine.

Before he reached the age of 21, the young Puritan compiled a remarkable list of 70 resolutions. It is amazing that they were put together by such a young man. Here are a few.

1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.
6. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.
13. Resolved, To be endeavouring to find out fit objects of liberality and charity.
14. Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge.
15. Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.
16. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any one, so that it shall tend to his dishonour, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
25. Resolved, To examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and so direct all my forces against it.
31. Resolved, Never to say any thing at all against any body, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of christian honour, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said any thing against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution.
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.

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