Reverend Jonathan Edwards

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(Host) Two hundred and fifty years before Senator John Edwards of North Carolina became a vice presidential candidate, there was Reverend Jonathan Edwards. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.

(Gilbert) Perhaps America’s most important and original theological and philosophical mind was the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. A giant in Puritan Calvinist orthodoxy and Protestant theology, he was a major fire and brimstone fellow.

If Senator John Edwards is an attractive candidate for his optimism and positive message, Reverend Jonathan Edwards was known in his day for just the opposite – for his gloom and doom. While Americans seem to insist that their politicians be optimists who proclaim it “morning in America,” we’ve long been drawn to religious leaders who’ve told us just how bad we are – especially if the remedy isn’t too onerous.

Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703, the son and grandson of Congregational ministers. He studied at Yale, and served a church in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1728 until 1750, when he was dismissed due to a controversy about who could be a member of the church and who could take communion. (He wanted more stringent requirements.)

It was during this period – during the religious revival called the Great Awakening – that he preached his most famous sermon with the memorable title “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Later he became minister to congregations of Indians and whites and ran a boarding school for Indian boys in what was then the frontier town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

There he wrote his last major works. Their titles give one a sense of the issues he wrestled with: Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, End of Creation, and True Virtue.

Some see Edwards as a bridge-figure between the past and the future – in some ways the last of the medieval theologians, in others the first modern American philosopher-theologian.

In 1758 he became president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but less than five weeks after his inauguration, he died as a result of a smallpox inoculation.

The colonial Jonathan Edwards never ran for public office, but one of his eleven children gave birth to America’s second vice president – Aaron Burr.

There’s an old political joke about two brothers – one went to sea, the
other became vice president, and neither was heard of again. Often, but not always, vice presidents, let alone vice presidential candidates, are quickly forgotten like even the most influential eighteenth-century theologians in a secular age. Only time will tell how long Senator John Edwards’s fame will last.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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