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Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Paperback]

George M Marsden
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

3 Aug 2004
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a towering figure in American history. A controversial theologian and the author of the famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, "he ignited the momentous Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. In this definitive and long-awaited biography, Jonathan Edwards emerges as both a great American and a brilliant Christian. George Marsden evokes the world of colonial New England in which Edwards was reared--a frontier civilization at the center of a conflict between Native Americans, French Catholics, and English Protestants. Drawing on newly available sources, Marsden demonstrates how these cultural and religious battles shaped Edwards's life and thought. Marsden reveals Edwards as a complex thinker and human being who struggled to reconcile his Puritan heritage with the secular, modern world emerging out of the Enlightenment. In this, Edwards's life anticipated the deep contradictions of our American culture. Meticulously researched and beautifully composed, this biography offers a compelling portrait of an eminent American.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; New edition edition (3 Aug 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300105967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300105964
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 175,380 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

A magisterial biography. -- Wall Street Journal

A thorough, dispassionate, and enlightening book ... Outstanding. -- Paul Johnson, Sunday Telegraph

A triumph of scholarship, but also of readability… -- Robert E. Brown, Times Literary Supplement

In this conscientious and eloquent biography, pious Jonathan Edwards comes to unruly life with all his unresolved complexity intact… -- Thomas D'Evelyn, Christian Science Monitor

Marsden puts Edwards back where he belongs… and makes a convincing case for his greatness. -- Garry Wills, New York Times Book Review

Superb and engrossing. -- Robert D. Richardson, Washington Post Book World

The finest biography of this towering figure. -- Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

About the Author

George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written numerous books, including "The Soul of the American University "and" The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship."

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!!! 23 Jan 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Every review I have read of this biography rates it highly. Everyone I have spoken too who has read it speaks highly of it as well. As for my opinion, this is an extraordinary and wonderful book. It is superbly written and is a thrilling account of one of the world's greatest theologians. It has changed my life in giving me a new appreciation of the sheer great goodness of God, challenged me to worship and stretched my thinking. Buy it and enjoy the book,Edwards and above all, Edwards' God.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  62 reviews
126 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding 16 Aug 2003
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Christian Biography 21 Jun 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What's most surprising about Yale's latest attempt at an Edwards Biography is how thoroughly Christian it is. Having extensively studied the 18th century Puritan, I've long been baffled by just how many of his biographers have attempted to make Edwards, to quote G. Marsden, "over in their own images" (p.2). In so doing, some of these books have made his Orthodox Christianity, which was truly the centerpiece of his life and thought, strangely and eerily quiet. Some biographers have tried to separate Edwards' religious convictions from his genius. Marsden doesn't. Any biographer who wishes to write honestly about Edwards must necessarily write much on Edwards' faith and his God. Marsden does. These things were truly the centerpiece of his life and so therefore should be the centerpiece of any book about his life.
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! Everything You Want in a Good Biography 4 Dec 2003
By Brian G Hedges - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This excellent study on the greatest theologian/philosopher in American history is everything you would ever want in a good biography. George Marsden writes with an objective eye and at an even pace in this thoroughly researched, yet popularly written biography on Edwards. Much attention is given to the intellectual development of Edwards, and Marsden helps us see Edwards against the backdrop of the age in which he lived. There is also considerable focus on the Great Awakening, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. No one can understand Edwards without understanding something about the controversies in which he was enmeshed; and again, Marsden gives an objective account which is not unsympathetic to Edwards, but does not fail to recognize his feet of clay either. Towards the end of the book are several chapters introducing Edwards most important theological books, such as Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, History of Redemption, and The End for Which God Created the World. The book is carefully documented and indexed, but for all the detail it is an absolutely delightful read! I highly, highly recommend this book.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece 3 Nov 2006
By Tim Challies - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I came to realize not too long ago that, for a man of such importance, I knew shockingly little about Jonathan Edwards. I had some knowledge of the basic outline of his life and teachings, but knew little beyond that. Having heard so many positive reviews of George Marsden's recent biography of the man, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I turned to this book to learn more about this giant of the faith. I was richly rewarded. And if ever I have felt inadequate to the task of summarizing a book in just a few short paragraphs, this is the time.

Whether we are aware of it or not, most contemporary Calvinists are deeply indebted to Edwards. His defense of Calvinism in works such as Freedom of the Will have made a deep and lasting impact on Reformed theology. It did not take me long to realize that much of what I believe, much of what I have taught to others and much of what has been passed down to me originated with Edwards. A lifelong student of the Bible, he wrestled with the great doctrines of the Scriptures and expounded them for countless generations of other Christians. Truly his impact can hardly be exaggerated.

I have sometimes found that biographies can become bogged down with examinations of the most minute details of a person's teaching. When I have been looking for the story of a person's life I have instead found a thorough examination of the person's thought and writing. I was pleased to see that, by and large, Marsden does a good job of incorporating Edwards' teaching into the story of his life, rather than examining them as separate entities. A possible exception to this is in three of the final four chapters where he focuses on Edwards' major theological treatises, but even here he summarizes them in a brief but satisfying way. He provides the framework of what made Edwards' teaching unique without becoming bogged down with details. The book strikes that delicate balance between describing and explaining the subject as a father, pastor, revivalist and theologian. The biographer, while clearly holding Edwards in high esteem, seems objective and honest with his subject's shortcomings and failings.

As I read about Jonathan Edwards, I could not help but draw comparisons to some of the great pastors and theologians who have lived since, but especially of John Piper who, in so many ways, is an Edwards to this generation. Piper has been so profoundly impacted by Edwards and, as I understand it, considers himself a teacher who brings before this generation the great work of men like Owen and Edwards. From what I know of his teaching and his life, he certainly does seem to exemplify the teachings and the ideals of his historical hero. Much of what has come from the mouth and the pen of Piper came first from the pen of Edwards.

Edwards is a towering figure in the history of the church and one whose impact will continue to be felt, I am sure, until the Lord returns. He lived a life that seemed both too difficult and too short. And yet he wasted scarcely a moment, dedicating his life to the great cause of defending and expounding biblical truths. This book surely presents Edwards as he was--a man who, though certainly flawed and sinful, was used greatly by God. Though he may have been brilliant in intellect, what makes Edwards such an important figure is his love for the Lord and his dedication to knowing Him more. These are ideals we can all imitate and all strive towards. Like any good biography of a follower of Christ, this one makes me long to mimic those aspects of the man that set him apart.

Praise for this book has been near-universal. I am glad to add my esteem for it as well. Jonathan Edwards: A Life is a great and stirring biography. It is a masterpiece.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marsden Truly Understands Reformed Theology 22 July 2005
By J. Redding - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I echo the other favorable reviews. A couple of things really struck me as I read this remarkable book about Edwards. One, this book deals not only with Edwards, but with the early 1700's in America, one of the most important turning points in world history. During Edwards' lifetime, rapid changes were taking place in the way people (Christians and non-Christians) thought about God and the world. This transition laid the groundwork for the American and French revolutions, and for the modernism and post-modernism of today. Although this book focuses on Edwards, it explains that remarkable period of time better than any I know of. George Marsden has an incredible ability to bring in huge amounts of information about the people, events, way of life, and worldviews of the early 1700's, and yet tell the story in a way that (as others have said) reads like a novel.

Two, Marsden understands Reformed/Calvinistic theology very well. This is vital to an understanding of Edwards because his life was first and foremost about his love for and understanding (logos) of God (theo). It is clear that Marsden, an historian, has spent a lot of time studying theology in general and the writings of Edwards in particular.

Particularly masterful is Marsden's discussion about the underlying theological assumptions held by both sides in the Lord's Supper controversy that eventually resulted in Edwards' removal from the pastorate at Northampton. He convincingly argues that the dominant theological view in the 1700's -- and which had begun to change during Edwards' lifetime -- was the result of a framework that saw little difference between the church and the community. To Solomon Stoddard (Edwards' grandfather and predecessor), the church and the community as a whole were virtually the same thing, much like OT Israel. The town of Northamptom was a "covenant community" where everyone had been baptized, and they all attended the one and only church in town. Thus, reasoned Stoddard, you must allow them to take communion unless there was a radical renouncement of the faith. To Edwards, on the other hand, the church was a group of people who were "holy" or "called out" from the world. And because of this view, just like Augustine's as expressed in the City of Man/the City of God, Edwards could not allow clearly unregenerate people to partake of the Lord's body and blood. This is just one example of the way that Marsden displays his deep grasp of Reformed theology.

The book was a pleasure to read. It shows Edwards for who he truly was: an intensely devout follower of Jesus Christ, a prolific writer, an orthodox theologian, a loving husband and father, an incredibly principled man, and probably (as some encyclopedias have called him) the greatest mind America has ever produced. And yet, he was a sinner who struggled with depression, pride, biases, and cultural assumptions of his day, and who made many, many mistakes and miscalculations.
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