Jonathan Edwards was probably the most impressive American intellectual of the 18th century. Not the best known, which would be Benjamin Franklin, or the most influential, which would be James Madison, but the individual with most impressive intellect and purely intellectual achievements. Edwards' reputation today suffers because he was on the losing side, so to speak, of a pair of particularly important developments in American life. In the Great Awakening that inaugurated modern American religous life, Edwards was an outspoken proponent of revivalism, but the ultimate emergence of a more democratic and less organized form of Protestantism ran counter to his essentially conservative form of Calvinism. Edwards' conservative Calvinism led him also to oppose the rationalistic philosophy and theology of the Enlightenment that came to be such an important element of American life. One of the great virtues of this outstanding biography is that it gives readers a vivid and unanachronistic understanding of how this powerful intellect ended up reaffirming doctrines that were coming to be regarded as outmoded by so many of his contemporaries.
Marsden shows Edwards' development as the son and grandson of learned Puritan clergymen, his immersion in the complicated theology of his branch of Calvinism, and his encounters with new intellectual currents emanating from Europe. Marsden does a particularly good job of connecting Edwards' thought with the interesting circumstances of his social position. Edwards was a child of the Puritan establishment of Colonial New England. Edwards grew up at the apex of a rural society whose social organiztion was based on deference, with social position shaped by personal and family relationships to an extent largely unknown in modern society (though there are exceptions; see George Bush). He was embedded in a strongly patriarchal family structure, with religion occupying a central position in society that would have been unusual even in contemporary Europe. Edwards also inherited an intense sense of being part of a larger British and Protestant world. The colonial New England of Edwards' time was not, however, impervious to outside influences. The Puritans placed great emphasis on education, particularly for clergy, and by Edwards' youth, many Puritan clergy were familiar with intellectual developments in Europe. Edwards was influenced by Locke's epistemology, was familiar with the work of Newton and later assimilated Newton into his theological work, and had a more positive view of the natural world than his 17th Puritan forebears. He remained connected with European intellectual trends throughout his life. It clear that he read Hume's Treatise at a time when it was ignored by most European intellectuals.
The combination of his Puritan heritage and receptivity to new ideas makes Edwards a peculiarly transitional figure. His life's work was to defend the sophisticated but demanding Calvinist theology and eschatology of his ancestors. In so doing, he would incorporate Newton and borrow ideas from Locke, Hutcheson, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. He was an advocate of the Great Awakening that broke the fragile unity of New England Protestantism but but was unsympathetic to its increasingly influential anti-establishment elements. Edwards produced a number of impressive treatises defending his views, though he did not live long enough to complete all his projected theological works. If he had lived longer, he would have been the most systematic theologian since Aquinas.
Marsden's biography is not just an account and exploration of Edwards' ideas. Given the limited documentation about Edwards' personal life, this is also the story of Edwards' family life and pastoral work. It is remarkable that a man who produced thousands of pages of written work was also an active minister serving a substantial congregation. Edwards also devoted a good part of each day to contemplative activities.
This book is valuable also because it casts light on many important features of American history. Marsden's goal is to tell Edwards' story in a way that will illuminate Colonial America in the first half of 18th century. This book is instructive about religion, family life, education, Native American relations, and colonial politics. For example, there is a brief but very interesting section on Edwards' attitude towards slavery. This is an ambitious and superb piece of scholarship.