Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is widely recognized as the greatest theologian America has yet produced. He wrote epochal books and preached sermons that still echo in our cultural memory from the Great Awakening. One of the least important things he ever wrote is a fun bit of juvenilia known as “Of Insects,” a descriptive essay about spiders which can be seen soaring through the air. Recent scholarship has established the date of this letter as 1723, when Edwards was 20. But for generations, readers believed Edwards’ biographer (and great-grandson) Sereno Dwight who reported that the letter had been written when Edwards was only 12!
The image of a pre-teen Jonathan Edwards roving the woods of colonial New England solving The Mystery of the Flying Spider, like some kind of Puritan Encyclopedia Brown, struck me right in the funny bone. So a long time ago (maybe 1991?) when I was teaching art to middle schoolers, I did a cartoon adaptation of Of Insects, which I now present for your amusement and edification.
Jonathan Edwards’ Of Insects
Of all Insects no one is more wonderful than the Spider especially with Respect to their sagacity and admirable way of working.
These Spiders for the Present shall be Distinguished into those that keep in houses and those that keep in forests upon trees bushes shrubs &c and those that keep in rotten Logs for I take em to be of very Different kinds and natures;
there are also other sorts some of which keep in rotten Logs hollow trees swamps and grass.
Of these last every One knows the truth of their marching in the air from tree to tree and these sometimes at five or six rods Distanss sometimes,
nor Can any one Go out amongst the trees in a Dewey morning towards the latter end of august or at the beginning of september but that he shall see hundreds of webbs made Conspicuous by the Dew that is lodged upon them reaching from one tree & shrub to another that stand at a Considerable Distance, and they may be seen well enough by an observing eye at noon Day by their Glistening against the sun
and what is still more wonderfull: i know I have severall times seen in a very Calm and serene Day at that time of year, standing behind some Opake body that shall Just hide the Disk of the sun and keep of his Dazling rays from my eye and looking close by the side of it, multitudes of little shining webbs and Glistening Strings of a Great Length and at such a height as that one would think they were tack’d to the Sky by one end were it not that they were moving and floating,
and there Very Often appears at the end of these Webs a Spider floating and sailing in the air with them, which I have Plainly Discerned in those webs that were nearer to my eye and Once saw a very large spider to my surprise swimming in the air in this manner, and Others have assured me that they Often have seen spiders fly, the appearance is truly very Pretty And Pleasing
and it was so pleasing as well as surprising to me that I resolved to endeavour to Satisfy my Curiosity about it by finding Out the way and manner of their Doing of it, being also Persuaded that If I could find out how they flew I could easily find out how they made webs from tree to tree, and accordingly at a time when I was in the Woods I happened to see one of these spiders on a bush, so I went to the bush and shook it hoping thereby to make him Uneasy upon it and provoke him to leave it by flying and took Good Care that he should not Get off from it any other way,
So I Continued Constantly to shake it, which made him severall times let himself fall by his web a little but he would presently creep up again till at last he was pleased however to leave that bush and march along in the air to the next but which way I Did not know nor Could I Conceive but Resolved to watch him more narrowly next time so I brought him back to the same bush again and to be sure that there was nothing for him to Go upon the next time I whisked about a stick I had in my hand on all sides of the bush that I might breake any web Going fromit if there were any and leave nothing else for him to Go on but the Clear air, and then shook the bush as before but it was not long before he again to my surprize went to the next bush
I took him off upon my stick and holding of him near my eye shook the stick as I had Done the bush whereupon he let himself Down A little hanging by his web and I Presently Percieved a web Out from his tail a Good way into the air. I took hold Of it with my hand and broke it off not knowing but that I might take it out to the Stick with him from the bush, but then I Plainly Percieved another such a string to Proceed Out of his tail
I now Concieved I had found out the Whole mystery.
I repeated the triall Over and Over again till I was fully satisfied of his way of working which I Don’t only Conjecture to be on this wise viz they when they would Go from tree to tree or would Sail in the air let themselves hang Down a little way by their webb and then put out a web at their tails which being so Exceeding rare when it first comes from the spider as to be lighter than the air so as of itself it will ascend in it (which I know by Experience) the moving air takes it by the End and by the spiders Permission Pulls it out of his tail to any length
and If the further End Of it happens to catch by a tree or any thing, why there’s a web for him to Go over upon and the Spider immediately percieves it and feels when it touches, much after the same manner as the soul in the brain immediately Percieves when any of those little nervous strings that Proceed from it are in the Least Jarrd by External things;
and this very way I have seen Spiders Go from one thing to another I believe fifty times at least since I first Discovered it:
but if nothing is in the way of these webs to hinder their flying out at a sufficient Distance and they Dont catch by any thing, there will be so much of it Drawn out into the air as by its ascending force there will be enough to Carry the spider with it, or which is all one now there is so much of this web which is rarer than the air as that the web take with the spider shall take up as much or more space than the same quantity of which if it be equall they together will be in a perfect equilibrium or Poise with the air so as that when they are loose therein they will neither ascend nor Descend but only as they are Driven by the wind, but if they together be more will ascend therein,
like as a man at the bottom of the sea if he has hold on a stick of wood or any thing that is lighter or takes up more Space for the Quantity of matter than the water, if it be a little piece it may not be enough to Carry him and Cause him to swim therin but if there be enough of it it will Carry him up to the surface of the water,
if there be so much as that the Greater rarity shall more than Counterballance the Greater Density of the man and if it be Doth but Just Cause to balance, Put the man any where in the water and there he’ll keep without ascending or Descending; tis Just so with the Spider in the air as with the man in the water, for what is lighter than the air will swim Or ascend therin as well as that which is lighter than the water swims in that,
and If a spider has hold on so much of a web that the Greater Levity of all of it shall more than counterpoise the Greater Gravity of the spider, so that the ascending force of the web shall be more than the Descending force of the spider the web by its ascending will necessarily Carry the Spider up unto such a height as that the air shall be so much thinner and lighter as that the lightness of the web with the Spider shall no longer prevail.
Now Perhaps here it will be asked how the spider knows when he has put out web enough and when he Does know how Does he Get himself loose from the web by which he hung to the trees I answer there is no occasion for the spiders knowing, for their manner is to let out their web untill the ascending force of their web And the force of the wind has upon it together with the weight of the spider shall be enough to break the web by which the spider hung to the tree for the stress of all these Comes upon that and nature has so provided that Just so much web as is sufficient to break that shall be sufficient to carry the spider.
And this very way I very frequently have seen spiders mount away into the air with a Vast train of Glistening web before them, from a Stick in my hand and have also shewed it to others and without Doubt they Do it with a Great Deal of their sort of Pleasure.
Corollary: We hence see the exuberant Goodness of the Creator who hath not only Provided for all the Necessities but also for the Pleasure and Recreation of all sorts of creatures And even the insects and those that are most Despicable
There remains a difficulty of how when they Are Once Carried Up into the air how they Get Down again or whether they are necessitated to Continue til they are beat Down by some shower of Rain without any sustenance which is not probable nor Agreeable to Natural Providence. I answer there is a way Whereby they May Come Down again when they Please by only Gathering in their Webs into them again by Which way they may Come Down Gradually and Gently, but whether that be their Way or no: I Cant say but without scruple that or a better for we Alwaies find things Done by nature as well or better thanwe can imagine beforehand.
One thing more I shall take notice of before I Dismiss this Subject Concerning the End of Nature in Giving Spiders this way Of flying Which though we have found in the Corollary to be their Pleasure and Recreation, yet we think a Greater end is at last their Destruction
and what makes us think so is because that is necessarily and Actually brought to Pass by it and we shall find nothing so brought to Pass by nature but what is the end of those means by which it is brought to pass. and we shall further evince it by and by by shewing the Great Usefullness of it,
but we Must shew how their Destruction is brought to pass by it I say then that by this means almost all the spiders Upon the Land must necessarily be swept first and last into the Sea for we have Observed already that they never fly except in fair Weather and we may now observe that it is never fair weather neither in this Country nor any other except when the Wind blows from the Midland Parts and so towards the Sea, so here in newengland I have Observed that they never fly except when the wind is westerly and I Never saw them fly but whenthey were hastening Directly towards the sea
and the time of the flying being so long even from the Middle of August to the Middle of October tho their Chief time here in newengland is in the time as was said before towds the Latter End of Aug, And the beginning of Sept, and they keep flying all that while towards the sea must needs almost all of them Get there before they have Done and the same indeed holds true of all other sort of flying insects for at that time of Year the Ground trees and houses the Places of their Residence in summer being Pretty Chill they leave em whenever the sun shines Pretty Warm and mount up into the air and Expand their Wings to the sun
and so flying for Nothing but their Ease and Comfort they Suffer themselves to Go that way that they find they Can Go With Greatest Ease And so wheresoever the Wind Pleases and besides it being warmth they fly for and it being warmer flying with the wind than against it or sideways to it for thereby the wind has less Power upon them.
and I very well Remember that at the same time when I have been viewing all the spiders with their webs, In the air I also saw vast Multitudes of flies many of ‘em at a Great height all flying the same way with the spiders and webs, Directly seaward and I have many times at that time of Year Looking westward seen Myriads of them looking towards sunsetting flying Continually towards the sea and this I believe almost every body Specially of my own Country will Call to mind that they have also seen; and as to Other sorts of flying insects such as butterflies, Millers, Moths, &c.
I Remember that when I was a boy I have at the same time of year Lien on the Ground upon my Back and beheld Abundance of them busy All Flying southeast which I then thought was Going to a Warm Country so that without any Doubt almost all of all manner of aeriall insects And also spiders which Live upon them and are made up of them are at the end of the year Swept up and Wafted in to the sea and buried in the Ocean, and Leave Nothing behind them but their Eggs for a New stock the Next year
Corollary: hence also we may behold and admire at the wisdom of the Creator and be Convicned from Providence there is exercised about such little things, in this wonderful Contrivance of Annually Carrying of and burying the Corrupting nauseousness of our Air,
of which flying insects are little Collections in the bottom of the Ocean where it will Do no harm and Especially the strange way of bringing this About in Spiders (which are Collections of these Collections their food being flying insects) which want wings where by it might be Done;
and what Great inconveniences should we labor Under if there were no such way for spiders and flies are so Exceeding Multiplying Creatures that If they Only slept or lay benummed in Winter and were raised again in the Spring which is Commonly supposed it would not be many years before should be as much Plagued with their vast numbers as Egypt was…