On most accounts, Jonathan Edwards is considered one of America’s greatest intellectuals and spiritual influences. Here I am reminded of historian George Marsden’s claim that American history “recounted without its religious history of Edwards is like Moby Dick without the whale.”
I have been residing in one of Edwards’ stomping grounds this spring, New Haven, Connecticut. Edwards graduated from Yale University and served as a tutor here. The divinity school at Yale houses a center in his honor and a college at the university bears his name. I have been working on a book project that has provided occasion to study Edwards. So, when I heard that the Overseas Ministries Study Center, where I serve as Senior Mission Scholar in Residence, was offering a Jonathan Edwards tour, I jumped at the opportunity. I will highlight key impressions the Edwards tour made on me in three posts, beginning with this one.
Edwards has always been a mysterious and extremely complex figure, who is sometimes shrouded in misrepresentations. The only work I recall reading of Edwards in my youth was his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was a selection in my American Literature course. Regardless of what one makes of this sermon, and no matter how powerful the imagery, in no way does it sum up the rich variety of writings in Edwards’ corpus. Still, for the purposes of this brief series of posts, which will focus on the Jonathan Edwards tour, one image from that sermon will serve as a unifying thread: the spider.
I will return to the image of the spider found in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in my second of three posts. For now, however, I wish to draw your attention to Edwards’ “Spider Letter,” which was written in 1723 (when he was 20). Our tour guide took us to what he called the “Spider Field(s),” where Edwards would go as a boy. Edwards was fascinated with spiders, as many children are. But few children grow up reflecting on spiders at great length, though Edwards did.
According to our guide, even as a child, one could find traits in Edwards’ precocious mind that would remain throughout his life, and not simply his fascination with spiders. Two qualities manifest themselves in this letter: first, Edwards exemplified the keen observational and analytical skill of a natural scientist; second, Edwards modeled at the same time the towering reach of a metaphysician. While gifted in the former discipline, Edwards’ passion was directed toward the latter vocation. As the editors of A Jonathan Edwards Reader note, “The young Edwards’ explorations of the natural, material world were, from the start, merely entry points to a larger, invisible world.”
There is certainly a need for rigorous consideration of the natural realm as a distinctive enterprise unsoiled by metaphysical intrusions that discredit objective inquiry. However, there is also a need to search for threads that connect the natural and moral domains without collapsing them, and to pursue existential questions pertaining to why we exist that cannot be analyzed like an insect trapped under glass. Edwards’ quest might seem misguided to some, but at least one advantage he has over us today is that his world was not ripped apart, but whole, like an intricate and dazzling spider web. What kind of web would you construct between the natural, moral and existential spheres, and how aesthetically pleasing do you find it?