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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A wonderful introduction to or refresher on Jonathan Edwards9 Jan. 2009
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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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An Excellent Overview of Edwards Life and Influence6 Jan. 2009
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Ask those who love biography and ask those who admire Jonathan Edwards and you will find the jury split on which biography best tells the life of Edwards. Some will vote for Iain Murray's Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography while others will opt for George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Most will say, rightly, that you cannot go wrong with either one; both are excellent and both are well worth reading.
Several years after the publication of his full-length, award winning book, Marsden has written A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. He explains the book's existence in this way: "Prior to being asked to write that major biography, I had already told my friends at Eerdmans that some day I would write a life of Edwards for them. So with the cooperation of both publishers, I agreed that after I wrote the more definitive biography for Yale, I would write something shorter for Eerdmans. The happy outcome is that, having already published a much longer, closely documented work, this book could be kept brief without any scholarly apparatus." Thus this book, written for a wider audience, comes unencumbered by footnotes, citations and references. It is not an abridgment of the previous work but is "a fresh retelling in which I have tried to include just what is most essential and most engaging." Throughout, Marsden compares Edwards with none other than Benjamin Franklin. And, indeed, their lives do run in near parallel for some time. Though there are obvious differences between the two, there are also remarkable similarities.
I suppose it may be polite to offer a "spoiler alert" here, but I'm assuming most people know that Edwards is going to die at the end of the biography. That is, after all, the way most biographies end. In a section headed with "An Interrupted Life," Marsden offers a beautifully-written look at Edwards' final days and the almost inexplicable fact that God took him while he still had so much to accomplish. "In Princeton Edwards moved in with Esther and his two young grandchildren, Sally and Aaron Jr., in the attractive president's home (still standing near the original Nassau Hall in Princeton's campus). He preached a few times in the college chapel, set a few lessons for students, and was officially installed as president in mid-February. That was all." That was all, for smallpox was spreading through the region and Edwards made the fateful decision to be inoculated against it. He subsequently contracted a secondary infection and succumbed to the disease in March of 1758. He was just fifty-four years old. Marsden writes "Almost all his life he had been preparing for this moment. He had often preached to others about how they should be ready for death and righteous judgment at any minute, and he had disciplined himself with a regimen of devotion so that he would be prepared. In the weeks when he was wasting away he must have wondered why God would take him when he had so much to do. But submission to the mysteries of God's love beyond human understanding was at the heart of his theology."
As he reflects on the life of his hero, Marsden pauses to ask some interesting "what if" questions regarding the timing of Edwards' death. What if he had lived long enough to see the American Revolution? What if he had, as Franklin did, lived all the way to 1790? Would he have let go of his British loyalties and sided with the revolutionaries? Probably he would have. Would the growing understanding of America's enslavement to the king open Edwards' eyes to the evils of slavery? Had Edwards lived to the days of the Revolution, would he be remembered more widely? Might he have scrawled his signature the Declaration of Independence?
The book's final chapter is a masterpiece of reflection, asking simply "What should we learn from Edwards?" Here Marsden lays out some of the most important lessons from the life of this great theologian, a towering figure in early American history.
While A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is in no way a replacement for Marsden's more substantial biography, it is a wonderful supplement to it (or to Murray's volume if you prefer). Though there is obvious and unavoidable overlap between the books, each has different emphases and each has its own strengths. I'd suggest that the best way to reconcile these is to read and enjoy both volumes. This little biography is a must-have addition to any library.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Okay15 Oct. 2012
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This was an okay read. Marsden does a good job of getting the setting down for Edwards which I think can be the biggest pitfall when presenting a not in full biography as Marsden did in his full biography of Jonathan Edwards. So there I am pleased with the book. However, the biggest problem I have with this book is that I don't feel like I ever met Edwards or really saw him stand out as he should have. There's a lot of pulling in other big names to provide context to the world Edwards was a part of, but I felt that Edwards was getting lost in the world. It seemed more of an account of the period rather than the man. I know Edwards is a big name in the Puritain world (almost post-Puritain) but this book hardly made me want to pick up any sermon or book other than the scientific look of God's performance of miracles in Edward's New England area, "A Faithful Narrative Of The Surprising Work Of God". If I didn't know that Edwards was an important figure and went solely on this book, I don't think I'd be impressed to read anything about him. Again, good establishment of the setting of the era so it will help when you read Edwards work. Final Grade - C-
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Absoutely Wonderful, an Ideal Short Biography24 Nov. 2008
Joel S. Frady
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This work by eminent scholar George Marsden is not an abridged version of his larger biography of Edwards but is a new work intended to provide access to Edwards' story for everyone. Marsden does a masterful job of showing how Edwards' life flowed into the larger story of America. The often forgotten truth that this nation was founded not only in the midst of Revolution but also Revivalism helps us see how America can be simultaneously so religious and materialistic. The final chapter of the book, where Marsden uncovers the significance of Edwards today, is well worth the price of the whole book. Marsden's premise that Edwards is the Jefferson of America's religious awakening and Whitefield its Washington is compelling. Edwards' impact on our culture continues today in the movement of Reformed evangelicalism characterized by humble God-centeredness and intellectual rigor. 5 Stars without a doubt.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Profoundly Moved23 Jun. 2010
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A couple of preliminary thoughts. I first heard about Jonathan Edwards (JE) as a college freshman when someone referred to his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." During my sophomore year I was called into the Dean's office because a large number of us were discovering the doctrines of grace and the administration was very concerned. In that meeting one student referred to the venerated JE as a Calvinist but we were patronizingly informed by the Dean (who was also a History prof!) that while JE did dangle sinners' feet over the fires of Hell, he definitely was NOT a Calvinist. Ahhemmm!! Do I need to write further about that the truth of that statement?
George Marsden is an Emeritus Professor of History at Notre Dame and is a first class historian with evangelical Presbyterian convictions. He writes about Edwards not only with a critical historian's mind, but also with a sympathetic theologian's heart.
The first thing I must praise about this biography is that Marsden simply writes well! His narrative moves along smoothly, unencumbered by footnotes, technical jargon, and unnecessary digressions. In 2003 Marsden wrote a large critical biography of JE so he knows whereof he speaks, but he also knows that only Edwards specialists will read that tome. People who love JE's writings and theology desire to know more about the man and his ministry - and Marsden does not fail us in that regard.
A good historian always sets a life in its historical context. Marsden does so for JE by evaluating the remarkable spiritual "awakening" that the preacher witnessed and recorded as part of the larger movement of "international pietism" spawned in the wake of the Protestant scholasticism that emerged after the Reformation. The German August Wilhelm Franke, the British Wesleys and Whitfield, and the Presbyterian Tennent family of Log College fame are all integrated into the narrative. Even Cartesian individualism is mentioned as a non-religious factor in this movement that stressed a person's individual relationship to the Lord.
Another effective aspect of Marsden's approach is how he places JE over against Benjamin Franklin in both parallel and contrasting roles. These two young men desired in vain to live in New York in the year of 1723. Each also responded to his strict Calvinist background but diverged in radically different paths. In my opinion the author's use of this effective "foil" is one of the most effective contributions of this short but powerful volume. Later in the book Marsden compares and contrasts JE's biography of David Brainerd, emphasizing his total sufficiency in God, with Franklin's Autobiography, emphasizing total self-sufficiency.
I learned that JE actually pastored four churches and it was during his first brief pastorate in New York City that he wrote his famous Resolutions, at the tender age of 18!
Edwards can be viewed as a pastor, an evangelist, a revivalist, a writer, a theologian, a missionary, and a college president (the last for only two months before his death in 1758). One should not forget that he was also a faithful husband and father of eleven children (ten surviving).
Some things I learned or had affirmed in this book that I hope will piqué your interest to read it yourself.
1. His greatest sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was not preached at his Northampton church but at another Massachusetts congregation and the cries and moans of the hearers were so great and disruptive that JE did not get to the second point of his sermon on the merciful forgiveness of God.
2. His most famous writing for a hundred years was not the "Sinners" sermon but his "Advice to Young Converts" written at the height of the second great revival under his ministry. It was printed as an extended tract in great numbers up until the Civil War.
3. Most of his books originated as series of sermons in his church. Only during his fourth and last pastorate as a missionary to the Indians did he compose The Freedom of the Will and a few other theological treatises.
4. Not only did JE write a life of the missionary, David Brainerd, but the young missionary died of tuberculosis in JE's home attended by his daughter, Jerusha. The story of their love is told with a poignancy that is worthy of their special relationship. Jerusha died two years after Brainerd and the Edwards buried her beside him.
5. JE encountered severe controversy and opposition at every point in his life. The emotional reactions displayed during the three "awakenings" or "revivals" were met with severe opposition, leading to the creation of the New Light and Old Light Presbyterians. His change of approach (from his grandfather's practice!) to requiring a profession of faith for communion led to his dismissal from his beloved church. His ministry to the Indians in Stockbridge literally unraveled in the face of a number of problems, including severe opposition from relatives!
As I reflect on this life, I offer one correction and one question. My correction is about the way in which JE is often called "America's greatest theologian." This is meant as a compliment, but I think it is a disservice to him. Except for two brief months at the end of his life, JE was never a professional theologian nor academic. He was a pastor, and his theology was not crafted in the classroom but in the crucible of the care of souls in a local church. Marsden considers his best work to be "A Divine and Supernatural Light" which was preached and written at the height of the Great Awakening. Academic theology was foreign to JE.
My question is: Why do we who share JE's theology of grace never experience awakenings and revivals like he did? If manifestations of repentance were displayed in our meetings like those under Edwards and Whitefield, we would condemn them as excessive emotional outbursts - just like their opponents did! I have been in theologically sound and mostly Calvinistic congregations for all my ministry and I have never seen such things. If I did, I honestly would not know how to handle them, because I have been conditioned to resist such manifestations. Therefore, which side would I have been on if I had been present during Jonathan Edwards' leadership of the Great Awakening? How about you?
Despite the rebuke that this book delivered to me, or perhaps because of it, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards now enters the list of "Books That Have Influenced Me."