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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 77 > A Mind on Fire

A Mind on Fire
Throughtout his eventful life, America's theologian was driven by a vision of the beauty in God's sovereignty.
Stephen R. Holmes | posted 1/01/2003 12:00AM

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A battered file box, deep in the basement of Yale University's Beinecke Library, contains a startling memorial to the final years of Jonathan Edwards's life.

In other similar boxes, stacks of notebooks contain in their neat pages crisp rows of Edwards's spidery handwriting. Their content is remarkable: profound, vivid, masterfully argued, piercingly clear—the fruit of a lifetime of fervent thinking about the nature of God, humankind, and the world. But their physical form is unremarkable.

Not so the notebooks contained in this box. One after another is stitched together from a riot of scrap paper: Half a page of a friend's letter, left blank under the signature. The wide margin of a Boston newspaper. Several large sheets with semi-circles cut out of them.

Across these makeshift pages runs Edwards's cursive script—tiny, cramped. It crawls from edge to edge of the paper, even between the lines of newsprint, wasting no fraction of white space.

These notebooks date from the great theologian's Stockbridge phase—the period between 1751 and 1758. Ejected from his comfortable Connecticut Valley church after 21 years of loyal service, Edwards eked out these years with his wife and seven of their children at a mission church on Massachusetts's western frontier. There, paper was presumably scarce, expensive, or both.

Some of the sheets sewn together in the Stockbridge notebooks were off-cuts from the manufacture of paper fans, which his children decorated and sold to add a few dollars to the family coffer. The other scraps would once have landed in the rubbish pile—but they could not be wasted any more.

In thriving Northampton, the pastor-theologian had enjoyed the resources of a prominent pastorate in a major New England town (though his salary, as he complained, was not always paid on time). Now he wrote his most influential intellectual works on such scraps, between preaching to a small congregation, catechizing converts among the Housatonic Indians and other tribes, and championing these Native Americans' rights against the area's powerful merchants.

The Freedom of the Will, True Virtue, Original Sin—how often, as he scratched out the ideas for these great treatises on the pages of his patchwork notebooks, was his work interrupted by worries about whether there would be vegetables and meat enough for the week's meals, or how he would afford the wood necessary to mend a fence?

Born again through beauty

Timothy and Esther Edwards had 11 children. Jonathan, the fifth, was the only son, born October 5, 1703. If, in New England, to be a minister was to be an aristocrat, he came from good stock. Timothy, a third-generation New Englander, served his East Windsor parish faithfully and ably; Esther's father was Solomon Stoddard, whose decades of ministry in Northampton added luster to an already noble New England family.

What we know of Edwards's childhood suggests that he was religiously serious even then, although he judged himself unconverted: the building of little dens in the woods is hardly unusual behavior for a young boy, but using them to hold prayer meetings alone or with friends certainly is!

Edwards describes his own conversion as an event that was not fundamentally intellectual (that is, about understanding the gospel in any better way) or even moral (that is, about desiring to follow Christ), but aesthetic: doctrines of God's absolute sovereignty, which had appeared "repugnant" to him, suddenly seemed beautiful. Both the defense of Calvinism as an essential part of Christianity, and conceptions of beauty, became lasting features of his theology, which suggests how significant this event was in his life.

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