Typically, students’ exposure to Jonathan Edwards begins and ends with his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). By limiting what students read from Edwards, we create an image in our students’ minds, as we do with any author we teach, specifically in a literary surgery course, that portrays the eighteenth century theologian as nothing more that a Calvinist preacher who espoused damnation and possible salvation. However, Edwards provided us with much more than this simplistic view that usually accompanies any mention of his name in class. A closer examination of Edwards paints a picture of a man who can be seen as a link between the Puritan ethos of authors like John Winthrop and Mary Rowlandson to the more secular and Enlightenment writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
Today, I want to briefly highlight a couple of ways that we can show this link to students by pointing out some of Edwards’ other writings which provide a broader view of the man himself. This expansion begins with one of the first pieces that Edwards wrote: “The Spider Letter” (1723). Edwards wrote the letter at the age of 20 and submitted it to the Royal Society of London in hopes of getting it published. “The Spider Letter” shows Edwards scientifically examining nature and the world around him by watching the way a spider spins its web and swings through the air. As Edwards turns his scientific eye towards how the spider spins its web, he also relates the process to God. In one of the corollaries, he writes, “Hence the wisdom of the Creator in providing the spider with that wonderful liquor with which their bottle tail is filed, that may so easily be drawn out so exceeding fine, and being in this way exposed to the air will so immediately convert to a dry substance that shall be so very rare as to be lighter than the air, and will so excellently serve to all their purposes” (5). While empirically observing the spider’s actions, Edwards still relates what he sees back to God’s designs, unlike someone like Franklin who would relate it to natural phenomena.
Thinking about “The Spider Letter,” recall that in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Edwards references spiders twice in his sermon. He writes,
Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling Rock. (96)
Later, he comments on God’s grip being the only thing that keeps us from falling to our eternal damnation: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked” (97). In both of these instances, Edwards references the natural attributes of spiders (in the first instance) and the human reactions to the insects (in the second instance). Thinking about these references, though, in relation to his “The Spider Letter,” opens up a discussion with students about how science and religion collided in the seventeenth century, even within someone like Edwards.
Another area of correlation with Edwards and someone like Franklin arises in his personal writings. In 1722, Edwards wrote 70 resolutions that he sought to enact in his life to make him a better person. However, he feels that he can not achieve these goals without the help of God. He writes, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable and to his will, for Christ’s sake” (274). Edwards’ resolutions range from not gossiping to taking time at night to reflect upon what sins he may have committed that day. This self-reflective nature, of course, comes out of Puritanism, and as John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema state, “Edwards’ world [early to mid-eighteenth century] was to a great extent the one made by the Puritans,” even though that world was starting to change (vii).
Like Edwards, Franklin’s autobiography (1791) contains a section where Franklin lists thirteen virtues that will hopefully lead him to moral perfection. Unlike Edwards’ resolutions, though, these virtues do not have a basis in spirituality or in seeking the help of God. Rather, they are virtues that can be accomplished, as laid out by Franklin, without the help of a deity. His virtues include items like temperance and frugality, and his thirteenth virtue, humility, states that he should try to imitate Jesus and Socrates. With this, Franklin removes his pursuit of moral perfection from the spirituality of Puritan self-reflection and improvement by turning it into a secular endeavor; however, he maintains the practice by continuing to reflect upon whether or not he achieved the virtues and tracking his process.
These are just two brief examples of how we should rethink the ways that we present Jonathan Edwards to our students. If you are interested in moving beyond what I have briefly outlined here, look at the ways that Robert Lowell describes Edwards in his poem “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” and bring that discussion out to Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” and mewithoutYou’s spider trilogy off of Brother, sister (2006). Examining Edwards as a conversation with these texts will open up questions about how, and why, we should possibly read Edwards as an early Transcendentalist. This comes up in numerous writings by Edwards, and specifically in his Personal Narrative (c. 1739). With spiders, we could also highlight the role that gravity plays not only in “The Spider Letter” but also in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Thinking about Edwards’s resolutions, we can draw links for students from John Winthrop’s and Michael Wigglesworth’s self-reflection, to Edwards, to Franklin, and then beyond into the twentieth century with Jay Gatz’s outline for his own advancement in The Great Gatsby (1925). This path leads its to think about Puritans, the Protestant Work Ethic, and the American Dream in a continuum that moves from a religious to a secular way of thinking. Highlighting this trajectory, reinforces for students that everything we read works in conversation with everything else.
Make sure to visit the Jonathan Edwards Center’s website for more information.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Edwards, Jonathan. A Jonathan Edwards Reader. Eds. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkea. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.