When All Else Fails, Blame the Puritans. Really? An Interview with Dr. Kenneth P. Minkema by Paul Louis Metzger

Edwards
Jonathan Edwards, Creative Commons

The following is an interview with Dr. Kenneth P. Minkema, Executive Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and of the Jonathan Edwards Center & Online Archive at Yale University, with an appointment as Research Faculty at Yale Divinity School.

Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): Dr. Minkema, thank you for your willingness to be interviewed for this blog post on the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. Let’s start with the title. On a few occasions since being here in New Haven, I’ve noted the expression “Blame the Puritans.” It was in the context of conversations like why one can’t purchase alcohol at liquor stores in the area after 6 pm on Sundays, or things like that. Puritans seem to get a bad rap, even (especially?) in New England, which was a Puritan bastion historically. We often see the Puritans as ‘puritanical.’ How fair do you think this assessment is?

Kenneth P. Minkema (KPM): Actually, until fairly recently, one could not in Connecticut purchase alcohol at liquor stores on weekdays past eight o’clock, and on Sundays not at all—a vestige of the old ‘blue laws,’ as they were called. But then, I agreed with that particular restriction, and was sorry to see it changed.

Yes, it’s easy to blame groups in the past for perceived benightedness, and the Puritans are common targets, especially because the image created of them too often amounts to caricature—a sin just as prevalent today, sadly, in the caricatures we conveniently fabricate of people who are different from ourselves or who live by a code or scripture with which we don’t agree. The Puritans sought to create a holy community, and in doing so established laws and habits that today strike us as oppressive, especially because utopian aspirations all too often end in conflict, division, hypocrisy, and oppression. That was the fate of the Puritan movement, and therein they showed they were human like everyone else. But it must be said they set the bar high for themselves and their posterity. Idealists do that, in the process making themselves convenient targets for cynics and the apathetic, though that is not to deflect the questions of economic, social and racial justice that a study of colonial New England elicits.

Even so, we don’t really know the Puritans. They were neither solely the witch-hunters in steepled hats nor the quaint founders of Thanksgiving. They were partly these, but also much more. They were people of the earth, rustic, sensual, agrarian; they enjoyed the pleasures of life like anyone else. Perhaps the image we have of them as repressed folk comes through later filters. Certainly the Puritans’ Victorian descendants were at once more and less prudish. And by the early twentieth century, when faith in modern American democracy and progress was strong, H.L. Mencken could caustically define Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

PLM: Not only do I fear our society oversimplifies and caricatures Puritanism generally, but also I believe we tend to straightjacket Jonathan Edwards. For example, when I was in high school and college taking American literature classes, the only work from Edwards that I recall being selected for our reading lists was his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” No doubt, such works as Amy Plantinga Pauw’s The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards helped to correct some of the reductionistic perceptions in certain quarters. Edwards was certainly a masterful theologian and philosopher. Robert Jenson’s America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards reflects upon the vital contributions of Edwards in such spheres, as does George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. What are some ways in which you would encourage readers of this post to expand their understanding of Edwards and his contributions to thought and life?

KPM: I hope that a lot of people have read Amy’s and Robert’s thoughtful books, but probably many, many more have read George’s biography, and that’s a good place to start when it comes to Edwards. He’s done a masterful long version of the biography (Yale Press) as well as a “short life” (Eerdmans) for those with other things to do. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott (Oxford), is an excellent digest of the major themes in Edwards’ thought and life and how they are a valuable resource for today. There’s also a work that’s recently appeared, A Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway) that provides an efficient entrée. In addition, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) is now available.

But don’t just read about Edwards—read him in his own words. That’s what’s most rewarding. As someone who has worked a long time with the Edwards project, and have found each piece he has written in some way challenging or original, may I say that I hope that folks engage the volumes in the Yale Edition, whether in print or online (edwards.yale.edu), or in the anthologies we’ve published, A Jonathan Edwards Reader and The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (Yale). Through these editions, you can have the benefit of the work of generations of scholars who have produced, from the original manuscripts, meticulous versions of Edwards’ own writings as well as the very best commentary on them.

PLM: Looking ahead, you oversee the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University Divinity School. What do you envision being the contribution to the divinity school and university as a whole? It is worth noting that Edwards graduated from Yale College in 1720, and there is a college named after him (Jonathan Edwards College) at Yale University.

KPM: One major accomplishment, for which the Edwards Center can’t pretend to take credit—well, maybe some credit–is that Yale seems finally to have accepted Edwards as one of its own. Sure, some of that manifests in poking fun at him, but that happens anywhere there are teenagers living together, whether just a handful or in their thousands. So, the mascot of Jonathan Edwards College here at Yale is–you guessed it–a spider.

But seriously, I hope that the presence of the Edwards Edition and Center has contributed to the reinvigoration of the teaching and research of religious history at the university and at its divinity school, and particularly to an appreciation for the Reformed tradition. When I arrived here in 1989, where giants in the earth such as Latourette, Bainton, and Ahlstrom had taught, the teaching of history was at a low ebb. The staff of the Edwards Edition and Center helped to maintain the teaching of history by offering graduate seminars, independent readings on Edwards and related topics in Reformed thought and experience, hiring students as interns and editorial assistants, and offering a resource center for both students and visiting scholars. Happily, YDS now has a full contingent of historians once again, and perhaps that’s one explanation for why the school is producing more graduates who are going on to academic careers in history and related disciplines than to ordination. We also offer a summer course each June that is open to the public, so I invite readers of this blog to join us!

Finally, whatever the Edwards Center has contributed to the life and current vibrancy of Yale Divinity School, it needs to be said that YDS has been the making of the Edwards Center. Since 1987 the school has provided a home to the project, at no cost, and has provided all manner of support, including larger, newly renovated offices that include a reading room for students and visiting researchers. We are truly thankful for this persevering benevolence.

PLM: What are areas of import for the church and broader culture (including New England!) where you hope people would find Edwards a welcome voice for human flourishing? If it is the case that Edwards was a progenitor of various social movements in this country, perhaps we would do well to reconsider his import, not simply questioning him but questioning certain present-day ‘orthodoxies’ of a more secular assortment. So, where should we find Edwards a welcome voice?

KPM: Edwards appeals to scholars from many disciplines and backgrounds, but the great majority of his readers come from within the Church, broadly defined, since here too believers from across a broad spectrum come to Edwards with a variety of questions, and appropriate him in myriad ways. Of course he is a treasure trove for apologetic and constructive theology of all kinds, on many doctrines. Given Edwards’ own life experience and writings, he has much to say today on issues relating to the nature of revivalism and conversion, and relatedly about spirituality, prayer, and devotional life. Other topics of interest include Edwards on church growth, pastoral counseling, education, youth ministry, and so on, especially for those on the world evangelical scene. The strongly aesthetic element in his thought points to the role of music and the arts in church life. These are just a few of the areas in which Edwards has a voice, historically and contemporaneously.

PLM: What are some current research initiatives the Jonathan Edwards Center is overseeing?

KPM: The Edwards Center is doing a lot with sermons currently. We are publishing lengthy sermon series by Edwards in which he provides extended treatment of biblical passages, such as the three volumes on Matthean Parables, and forthcoming volumes on the Church (Wipf & Stock). Digitally, we have our Global Sermon Editing Project, through which users can volunteer to be trained to edit sermons by Edwards.

Beyond continuing to develop primary texts for publication, we also sponsor the publication of important secondary work on Edwards, both old and new. Our Classics in Edwards Studies Series  (Wipf & Stock) makes available landmark monographs in American religious history that have gone out of print, and our New Directions in Edwards Studies Series (Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht) publishes innovative work by upcoming scholars. Finally, we have an online journal, Jonathan Edwards Studies, that comes out twice each year and is available free through our website. This offers interpretive articles, documents, and reviews reflecting the very latest research.

We also regularly host visiting scholars, often with an international flavor. For example, we currently are hosting an Australian scholar who is working on Edwards as a mentor; a Korean scholar who is translating Edwards’ treatise “Justification by Faith Alone”; and a Polish scholar who is examining Edwards’ views on spiritual gifts.  

PLM: In closing, what would you encourage readers interested in pursuing research on Edwards’ life and legacy to investigate? Are there areas of pressing need in Edwards studies, including neglected works by Edwards requiring greater attention? Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

KPM: There’s a lot going on, but let me highlight a few areas. With the availability, for the first time, of the full range of Edwards’ biblical commentaries, his role as an exegete is receiving much fruitful attention, though much remains to be done there. Another topic is Edwards as a missionary and his role and influence in Euro-Native relations, which is facilitated by the recent completion of all of the sermons Edwards preached to the Indians. More theologically, I would point to three discussions. First, is his doctrine of God and creation, which is leading to interesting debates on whether or not Edwards was a “panentheist” and on his view of the nature of created matter. Second, is his conception of God as Beauty, which harks back to his aesthetics, referred to  before. Finally, a coterie of young scholars is exploring what can be deemed the more mystical aspects of Edwards, for example, on participation of the soul in God, or communion with God, which extends into topics such as theosis, divinization, and the beatific vision.

Obviously, it’s an incredibly rich field. Should anyone have questions arising from anything I’ve raised here, or about other things, I invite them to email me at ken.minkema@yale.edu.

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