Reclaiming Jonathan Edwards for Political Progressivism
October 1988By Michael Nelson
Michael Nelson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. A former editor of The Washington Monthly, his articles have appeared in the Journal of Politics and Harvard Business Review, among others. His books include Presidents, Politics, and Policy (with Erwin C. Hargrove) and Presidential Selection (with Alexander Heard). He is a political analyst for WSMV-TV in Nashville.
Am I alone in having grown up with this image of Jonathan Edwards? a wrathful Puritan, preaching a narrow, intellectually primitive Calvinism, smugly assuming his own place in the ranks of Gods predestined elect, with eternal damnation awaiting most of his parishioners, even as he insisted that they toe the rigid moral line in the here and now; still worse, a man of privilege and status who, to justify the social order of his day, blithely equated New England Puritans with Gods new Chosen People, thus advancing a doctrine that led, in the short run, to vile treatment of the Indians and, permanently, to a morally arrogant messianic strain in American foreign policy.
Certainly that is the image of Edwards the scholarly community has sustained through most of this century. Literary critics and progressive historians such as Carl Van Doren and Vernon L. Parrington have tended to dismiss him as irrelevant to our day or even to his own. The epilogue to Henry B. Parkess 1930 book, The Fiery Puritan, charges, for example, that if Edwards had never lived, there would be today no blue laws, no societies for the suppression of vice, no Volstead Act.
In truth, Edwardss life and thought were vastly different from the caricature. He was a man of the establishment, yes, but one who defied and was brought down by the establishment, both ecclesiastical and financial. He was a man of religion, but he probed the frontiers of avant-garde physics and psychology. He was an orthodox Calvinist even though he doubted his own salvation and feared the flames of Hell. He was an intellectual who, in the hierarchy of values, placed the impulses of the heart above the reasoned judgments of the mind. He was from birth a comfortable and prosperous man who, late in life, moved to the barren outer reaches of the frontier to work among the Indians.
Above all, Jonathan Edwards was an early 18th-century conservative who by his thought and by his personal courage has much to teach those of us who profess to be late 20th-century political liberals. For Edwardss lifelong labors resulted not only in brilliant books and essays but in the leading event of American colonial history, the First Great Awakening. The Awakening was marked by widespread and often frenzied religious conversions, which alone makes it something from which many modern liberals recoil. Such a response is utterly foolish. Written in the record of 18th-century revivalism is the nexus that, in American culture, has undergirded every important period of lasting reform, the nexus between religious transformation, personal kindness, and social progress.
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