Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) I
Bill Long 9/8/05
Reading George Marsden's 2003 Biography
Like the demons cast out from the Gadarene demoniac, so the difficulties of writing biography are Legion. One has to contend with issues of scantiness or abundance of sources, of balance between the story of the individual and the context in which s/he lived, of how much weight to give specific facts from the subject's life, of how much importance and validity to give personal recollections written several years after the fact. If the subject has recently died and family members still live, there are issues concerning how much the family wants to control the legacy of the deceased by doling out or withholding material from the biographer. Then there is the problem of organization and composition. How do you write a seamless narrative when the sources themselves may witness to great gaps in the story of a life? Then, there is the problem of perspective. You generally don't write a biography of someone unless you feel deep sympathy with the subject. To what extent does this sympathy or admiration preclude or limit honest assessment of the subject? All in all, I think biography is probably the most difficult prose category to master.
Marsden on Edwards--First Thoughts
Thus I was delighted when I learned that George Marsden had written a biography on the great Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards. I first became a "Marsden fan" about 25 years ago when I read his ground-breaking Fundamentalism and American Culture, in which he successfully placed the fundamentalist movement in the cross-currents of social and theological debate from the end of the 19th century until about 1930. Marsden demonstrated at the time what I was looking for in a Christian historian: one who was faithful to the subject he was studying but who also believed in the faith he was portraying. He could thus be critical and faithful at the same time. Subsequent works have made him a leader in the "Christian scholarship" movement and have illumined the history of the leading Evangelical seminary in America: Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. All in all, Marsden has produced such a collection of stellar work that he easily merits a place in the pantheon of significant Evangelical historians of our age.
I was also excited to see Marsden's biography because of two other reasons, one personal and one field-specific. From a personal perspective, I fell in love with Edwards' writing 30 years ago when I was a divinity student in MA. My Evangelical professor (Richard Lovelace) had done his doctoral work on Edwards; my very Liberal pastor (Joseph Williamson) had done his doctoral work on Edwards. I took seminars from the former and listened to sermons of the latter, and studied the works of Edwards assiduously myself. The grandeur of his language, the genuineness of his piety, the rigor of his scholarship and the breadth of his learning "hooked" me, and I have been quoting Edwards ever since, even if I no longer read him with regularity. Thus, in reading the biography of Edwards I felt as if I was coming home after a very long trip to far-off lands.
With respect to the "field" of Edwards studies, Marsden's biography is also timely. Published on the 300th anniversary of Edwards' birth, the biography also takes into consideration the longstanding Yale University Edwards publication project. 22 of 27 volumes of Edwards' works were published by the time this biography was released. There is perhaps no other multi-volume publication of the complete works of any other American thinker that enjoys such consistently high-quality scholarship as these Edwards volumes. Thus, Marsden has at his fingertips a plethora of information not available to other biographers in earlier times.
With all these resources at his command, and with the deafening applause of reviewers ringing in my ears, I sat down to work through this volume. My impression, after reading the first four chapters, however, is that Marsden, though seemingly fully conversant with his sources, had trouble knowing how to "set the context" for studying Edwards. The dual contexts that were difficult for him to present were the immediate New England historical context and the broader 17th-early 18th century international intellectual context. Both are crucial to a sympathetic grasp of Edwards and, in both, Marsden doesn't move with the sure-footedness of a skillful biographer. Space only permits one example of each of these two areas.
1. Setting the Historical Context
Marsden is most at home when he sets the religious context for a movement. He tells of Edwards' father (the Rev. Timothy Edwards) and his ministry at East Windsor (CT), that of grandfather Solomon Stoddard at Northampton, and the difficulties created by the realities of the Indian Wars and, especially, the attack on Deerfield (MA) in 1704. Yet, not a word is heard about the towns in which this ministry took place, their population, inhabitants, church membership, role of the church in the town or even the extent of the so-called awakenings that periodically seemed to rush through the area. No emphasis was placed on trying to discern the social structure or power relations in the towns. Not a word is said about the founding of Yale which occurred only about 15 years before the young Edwards attended it. Nothing is said about the intellectual climate at Yale, what Edwards studied, or the nature of the curriculum.
We receive some hints about the latter only in chapter 4, after Edwards had completed his undergraduate and graduate work at Yale, had ministered in NYC for what Marsden says is eight months (even though Marsden says it was from August 1722 - May 1723), and had returned to the East Windsor to live at home for a while. But why do we learn about what Edwards was supposed to have read at Yale as a 14 year-old when his return as a 19 year-old is mentioned? No clue here.
But there is a much more serious defect in Marsden's setting the intellectual "background" of Edwards' life in ch. 4. He seems confused as to whether his role as biographer is to give a sort of index of leading continental thinkers around 1700, to give a summary of some of their leading ideas, to show the ways that their ideas were genetically related to each other, to show how they contributed to the intellectual world which Edwards knew, to show that they influenced Edwards' thought or to show how Edwards' writings were indebted to the climate or some specific writers. In other words, names are given, works are reviewed, some of Edwards' youthful ruminations are presented, but no order or sense of a living intellectual tradition or wrestling is presented. And then it dawned on me. Marsden, for all his tremendous insight on the period from 1870-1930, and his commitment to and knowledge of the Reformed theological tradition, is basically out of his element when trying to describe the complex world of religion, philosophy and the rise of modern science. He just isn't up to this formidable task.
Even though his treatment is useful and, at some points, even brilliant (when describing Edwards' early development of a sense of the sweetness of Christ), Marsden's first four chapters don't move with the kind of skill or comfort of a good biographer. He may be head and shoulders above earlier biographers, as all seem to say, but he doesn't consistently allure. I hope the book gets better as I proceed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long