Jonathan Edwards and Sam Adams: two 18th-century Americans I'd like to interview in heaven. Two new biographies are preparing me (or you) for that opportunity.
Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America's Theologian, edited by Gerald McDermott (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), includes essays by 14 writers, but McDermott's own are the best. He explains how "Edwards linked head and heart, experience and understanding" as he made an "unshrinking assessment of evil." Edwards emphasized experience over theory: "The spiritual knowledge gained in true conversion is . . . as different from intellectual knowledge as the taste of honey is different from the mere intellectual understanding that honey is sweet."
Countering the assumptions of those who have read only one Edwards sermon, the frequently-anthologized "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," McDermott explains that the theologian "was obsessed with God's beauty, not wrath. . . . Edwards taught that our eyes are opened when we are captivated by the beautiful love and glory of God in Christ, when we see this love most powerfully demonstrated in Christ's sacrificial love for the undeserving. Then we feel forced to abandon love for self as the central principle of our lives and turn to the love of God."
McDermott notes that Edwards thought a study of history "provides the most penetrating and enjoyable access to divine mysteries." One of the contributors, Yale's Harry Stout, emphasizes that with his declaration that Reformation leaders saw "systematic theology as the queen of the sciences. Edwards would substitute history." Princeton seminary's Sang Hyun Lee similarly notes that Edwards saw "Christian practice as participation in God's activity of enlarging his internal beauty in time and space." Such an understanding cuts against any "downgrading of the temporal world," for "history is the realm where God's beauty (love) is enlarged and extended."
Edwards saw the Bible as a supernatural revelation of God's intentions and concluded from it that sin was not an add-on but an integral part of God's plan: In Stout's summary, "Redemption required the fact of sin to generate the need for salvation . . . creation was the means to a greater end. Since God created the world as his stage to dramatize redemption, the 'end' of creation could not possibly be, say, the happiness of his creatures, as 'rationalists' and 'deists' were claiming. It had to be God's own self-glorification."
Ira Stoll's Samuel Adams: A Life (Free Press, 2008) tells of the leader who fomented a revolution that-unlike those in France and Russia-did not end in a bloodbath and dictatorship. One major reason: the character of Adams, whose "religious tranquility" made him one "of the few who never lost their balance." (That's how 19th-century orator Edward Everett put it.) Some called Adams "the last Puritan," and Stoll quotes Harvard historian Perry Miller's note that the Puritan characteristic "most difficult to evoke" was a "peculiar balance of zeal and enthusiasm with control and wariness." That's exactly what a strong belief in Christ is likely to generate.
Adams understood the danger of compartmentalizing private and public life: "He who is void of virtuous Attachments in private Life, is, or very soon will be void of all Regard for his Country. There is seldom an Instance of a Man guilty of betraying his Country, who had not before lost the Feeling of moral Obligations in his private Connections." Benjamin Church, an early patriot who jumped to the British side, was an example: Before he "was detected of holding a criminal Correspondence with the Enemies of his Country, his Infidelity to his Wife had been notorious."
Adams' concern after the revolution was that Americans would become re-Europeanized. He asked, "Can our People expect to indulge themselves in the unbounded uses of every unmeaning & fantastick Extravagance because they would follow the Lead of Europeans, & not spend all their Money?" Since that's a great concern today, Adams' biblical radicalism is more relevant than ever.