Mark Twain once said that Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a resplendent intellect gone mad. Twain, however, would be surprised to see a century later an impressive renaissance in Edwards studies. During the last few years alone many works have appeared dealing with Edwards’ thought. Yet what has been missing in this great renaissance was a new, modern biography of Edwards. The last one appeared over sixty years ago: Ola E. Winslow’s Pulitzer prizewinning Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758: A Biography (1940). But now, at last, a new biography of Edwards' life and times has seen the light of day.
George M. Marsden took upon himself an important mission of great proportions, something very few scholars would dare — writing Edwards’ life based upon the “revolution in Edwards studies” (p. xvii) of the last decades and the new findings and insights developed by modern studies. The outcome is very impressive indeed, both in the wide range of new sources and materials used by Marsden and in his great ability as a historian and biographer. Never before has Edwards’ life with all its complexities — moments of happiness and agonies, social tensions, political, ideological and theological struggles — been given such careful examination and thorough scrutiny. And never has Edwards as “a real person” with all his “weakness and strengths” (p. 10) been so closely depicted.
Following closely the long and complex details of Edwards' life and of his family, Marsden has depicted the New England theologian “in his own time and his own terms” (p. 2). He has illuminated Edwards’ life and thought “in terms of his own eighteenth-century outlook” (p. 503), keeping in view all the time “Edwards as a person, especially as a person in a family setting” (p. 10). Hence, this is not a theological or an intellectual biography (p. 6). Rather, Marsden defined his task primarily as that of “a cultural historian” (p. 502) whose goal is to understand “Edwards as a person, public figure and a thinker in his own time and place” (p. 6) and thus, eventually, to close “the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians” (p. 502).
By providing a magisterial synthesis of Edwards’ daily life and the development of his thought, Marsden’s biography is now definitive, and it will remain so for decades to come. Students of American history, cultural historians, and historians of religion will find this book essential to any possible understanding of the most important American philosopher and theologian to write before the era of the Civil War and of American provincial society before it was engulfed in the events leading up to the American Revolution.
Avihu Zakai is a professor in the department of American studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Re-Enchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
Copyright -- Organization of American Historians. Used with permission.