Five years after publishing his definitive biography on Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, George Marsden is back with a shorter volume on Edwards's life, aptly titled A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. However, this is not simply an abridgment of the larger work. Rather, Marsden has constructed a new narrative in hopes of making the study of Edwards attractive to "church study groups and to students in college courses in American history or American religious history" (x). The result is a wonderful, engaging introduction to the life and work of Jonathan Edwards.
The majority of the new material in this volume is found through the juxtaposition of Edwards's life with the life of Benjamin Franklin, in which Franklin serves as a sort of contemporary foil to Edwards. He forsook the religion of his Puritan forebears, viewed the pursuit and accumulation of wealth as the primary goal of human life, and was thoroughly entrenched in Enlightenment science and thought. Edwards, on the other hand, fervently defended the old religion, saw the glorification of God as man's highest and chief end, and was also abreast and interested in the new thinking and ideologies that were making their way to the American colonies. Unlike Franklin, however, Edwards does not elevate the Enlightenment emphasis on human reason to preeminent status. Instead, he uses reason and scientific method to confirm what God teaches through Scripture and in nature.
With the details and minutiae of Edwards's life and thought left to his larger work, Marsden here sweeps through the grand drama of his subject's life, painting Edwards as a man who tirelessly held on to the old Puritan religion he inherited, despite new ideas and trends in religion coming over from Britain and the European continent. Edwards's resolve would inevitably lead to strife with his extended family, other clergy, and his own congregation, although he would experience times of great joy and sweetness as in the awakenings of 1734-35 and 1740-42, and in seeing the piety and devotion of his wife and eleven children.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this shorter biography, other than the parallels between Franklin and Edwards, is the way in which Marsden uses events in Edwards's life to talk about the larger social and cultural issues of eighteenth century New England. These issues are certainly addressed at great length in the larger work, but here the rise of American individualism, relationships with Native Americans, the issue of slavery, in addition to the various religious issues-these are all covered in a bite-sized, yet revealing manner. These then lead to the crescendo of the work, the ever-important "so what?" question.
The last chapter of the book, "What Should We Learn from Edwards?", well-worth the small price of the book on its own, explores both the American cultural significance of Edwards, as well as the the religious impact of Edwards's influence on later evangelicalism. Before the revolution of 1776, Marsden argues that Edwards was deeply involved in an earlier revolution that would shape the future of American Christianity, a revolution we are still seeing the effects of today. Marsden concludes this work by examining the lasting theological insights that Edwards pursued and which are shared and treasured by a number of religious traditions today.
Jonathan Edwards was truly a remarkable figure in American history, and a figure that we would do well not to forget. Though a Puritan preacher from the pre-American republic days may seem distant and passé to us today, Marsden presents an Edwards that has much yet to say. Succeeding in the goal he had for this book, this volume is a wonderful jumping off point for those who have never read anything on Edwards, especially church groups and American history students. In addition, this book can serve as an excellent refresher and short reference volume for those who are involved in scholarly pursuits. Very highly recommended.