Mark Noll’s account of Edwards’s role in the undermining of the Puritan “sacred canopy” in New England, in his recent book America’s God , is an important analysis of one phase in the rise of American religion. According to Noll, the pattern goes something like this:
1) The Puritans had a unified vision for New England society, one that linked together individual salvation with public institutions of church and state. The dominant metaphor was “covenant.” Individuals were in covenant by regeneration and church membership, and the community as a whole comprised a covenanted community.
2) Edwards’s ecclesiology and sacramental theology broke down this synthesis. The covenant, he believed, was internal, and only those who had internally experienced the covenant of grace could rightly participate in the outward practices of the church. Though Edwards was politically concerned, by internalizing the reality of the covenant he robbed New England of its basic organizing political and social idea, and did not replace it. After Edwards, there was no all-embracing reality that linked God, the individual, the church, and the society.
3) Edwards left a vacuum of public rhetoric and religion, which was filled by concepts of republican virtue. By the revolutionary period, the overarching social and political vision was not formed by biblical teaching or metaphors, but by ideas drawn from political theory — freedom and virtue, the nation as the carrier of divine purposes in the world, and all the other elements of American civil religion.