Booknote: Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden
mpollack at law.uoregon.edu
Wed Jun 23 10:27:15 PDT 2004
I I am putting in my bit to underline the Con Law importance of this book. According to many social historians, the Great Awakening was one of the definitive movements of 18th century North America. Yet many analyses of the background of the US Constitution ignore it in preference to the more elitist, rationalist Enlightenment. For a more accurate understanding of the complexities of the 1780s world, Con Law experts need to understand the strong place of religion in everyday life.
I look forward to reading this intriguing book.
Visiting, Univ. of Oregon, Law
mpollack at law.uoregon.edu
----- Original Message -----
From: Robert Sheridan
To: conlawprof at lists.ucla.edu
Sent: Wednesday, June 23, 2004 9:41 AM
Subject: Booknote: Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden
Conlaw is for people who need to get to the bottom of things and lawyers are people who need to do that. But once you find yourself at conlaw bedrock, you find it rests on a mass of cultural magma that goes far down indeed.
Needing to know more about the cultural antecedents to the founding of the nation, I've just completed reading the new biography of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden (Yale U. Press, 2003, 600 pp including notes).
Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the last great Puritan, was born in Connecticut in 1703 (that's Cotton Mather territory) and died in Princeton in 1758 of smallpox inoculation; he was president of Princeton. His daughter Esther married Aaron Burr, the previous president of the College of New Jersey which was founded in Newark and moved to Princeton. Their son, Aaron Burr, Jr., was the fellow whose good friend was Alexander Hamilton, whom he shot, as he was fond of saying.
Since it is often observed that the Puritan influence in this country is great and persistent, I was interested in seeing what the Puritans actually believed and then what became of them. Did they just die out, or into what did they transform themselves? How has their influence manifested itself? Given our situation in the world today, do we still show Puritan influences? How does this work its way into constitutional law?
A life of Edwards would provide background and context. Marsden places Edwards in a time and place "when there was a substantial cultural overlap between the late medieval-Reformation outlook, preserved largely intact in Edwards' Puritan heritage, and the world of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment," and observes that "Edwards saw the immense challenges to a rigorous God-centeredness in the modern era."
The Puritans were a dissenting group of English Protestants who followed the belief of the Swiss theologian, John Calvin. A key tenet of Calvinist belief was that God so controlled the world that everything in it was pre-ordained down to the flight of the smallest sparrow. That made it sort of immaterial whether a person behaved well or badly, because God must've caused the bad behavior as well as the good. Not only that, but good behavior and faith in God were not enough to earn one's way into heaven. According to Edwards, you had to be born again. God held you by a string over the pit of Hell.
Edwards fomented the first broad, significant revival in the Connecticut River valley, 1735. If you recall seeing on television, which is my experience in this, audience members coming to the stage to receive a laying on of hands after which they collapse in a faint into the arms of assistants standing there to catch them, you'll have an idea of what it means to be 'revived' with the spirit or light of the Lord. Edwards sent an account of his experience to London and outbreaks of such behavior soon became a phenomenon there. Itinerant preachers from London and Scotland, which was becoming the leading intellectual center of the day (the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume) soon came to New England to conduct revival meetings here. They'd borrow a pulpit and congregation and soon have the parishioners swooning in ecstasy, revived, reborn, 'awakened.'
The problem this led to was that 'reborn' parishioners soon rebelled against their pastors who had not undergone the same experience. Why should the saved obey the unsaved pastor?
Meanwhile students at Harvard and Yale, the important divinity schools of the day, Yale having broken from Harvard to perpetuate Puritanism, rebelled against their school presidents, ministers all. The first "Great Awakening" of 1741-1742 was a milestone of new religious thinking and practice in the new world, part of an international revival movement. Soon a division arose between those newly saved who accepted the New Light versus the Old Lights. Meanwhile, the descendants of the Puritans were becoming less like the stereotypical strict and obedient Puritans and more like the free-thinking "I'll decide for myself" Americans whom we all know and love.
Puritans, after all, had rejected the authority of the Anglican bishops. Protestants, after all, were in rebellion against Catholicism since Martin Luther. Puritans saw themselves as reformed, as in Reformation. They called their church here "Congregational," to stress that they were self-ruled by the congregation, not by bishops. Meanwhile, Roger Williams broke from orthodox puritanism, founding Providence, Rhode Island, by rejecting infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. Hence the origin of the Baptist church in America, said to be the largest church in America. Does the born-again movement play a role in presidential politics today? Southern Baptist Texas vs. Boston, New England?
The Puritan influence? Look around you. The Ivy League schools are products of the Puritan need to educate in order to understand God's light.
Puritan society was in constant transition between the old communal economy (communal grazing, e.g. Boston Common) gave way to property owning and the grasping Yankee peddler-trader. Puritans were the first to follow their missionaries and settle western lands (western Massachusetts and Connecticut), negotiating land from the Indians, as the market economy, capitalism, grew and took hold.
Puritans eventually rejected their own Calvinism in favor of scientific reason following Galileo, Newton, the Royal Society, etc. Edwards' influence was nevertheless strong. Mark Twain, who thought Edwards "a splendid intellect gone mad," commented that he was still contending with Edwardsean theology that Twain had first encountered on the Missouri frontier. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," Marsden points out, is a lampoon of the dramatic collapse of New England Calvinism. Another commentator, Joseph Conforti, calls Edwards "a kind of white whale of American religious history.
Calvinism succumbed to strong forces, yet Edwards foresaw deficiencies in successor 'modernist' thinking, such that in the 20th century, despite the Enlightment, the scientific revolution, etc., we produced the bloodiest century ever, along with the threat of total nuclear destruction. Edwards began with belief in God and reasoned from that as the premise, while the modern thinking began with reason and tried to find a place in it for God, coming up with Deism, the remote impersonal God favored by Thomas Jefferson and compatriots. Meanwhile, the morality which guided Edwards life tended to fall by the wayside.
Does this have anything to do with conlaw? Only if you want to see it. Those rebellious New Englanders were rebelling long before 1776...
I thoroughly enjoyed entering an area of history that I'd been in the dark about, through the mind of a leading participant . Marsden, who at one point referenced himself, I thought, as a member of a faith community, is an excellent guide through the theological thickets that turned the Puritans into Americans over the generations, Blue and Sunday closing laws and all. Perhaps not incidentally, the Puritans were not as sexually constricted as we caricature them to be. Their practice of bundling (sleeping at the girlfriends' with her parents' permission, in her bed, more or less fully clothed, perhaps with a bundling board to provide a fig-leaf) contributed mightily to their increase in number, I'm reasonably confident.
Sex and power, religion and morality, what could be better in a book.
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