On the Massachusetts frontier in April 1753, a famous preacher, known for his belief in an angry and highly selective God, sat in his Stockbridge study, writing a letter. In it, he described his neighbors, a group of unconverted Indians, as excelling "in religion and virtue."
Surprising? This doesn't fit the stereotype of the preacher, Jonathan Edwards. But during this period, Edwards was assembling a "Catalogue" of hundreds of notebook pages filled with evidence that pagans had received knowledge about God the Redeemer both from the Jews and from traditions going back to Noah's sons.
Whence this open-mindedness toward those who had not heard the name of Christ? The explanation starts with the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers of the East and the New World, who had discovered not just spices and trade routes but also "heathen" who exhibited better morals than most European Christ-ians.
Edwards vs. the monstrous God
Seventeenth-century geographers estimated that only one-sixth of the planet had heard the gospel, so, according to hyper-Calvinists of the day, at least five-sixths of the world's population was doomed to hell.
Beginning with Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the deists, those self-appointed guardians of a reasonable religion, suggested that the Calvinist god responsible for this scenario was a monster. These deists succeeded at popularizing the disjunction between the heathen who were damned but morally good and the Christians who were saved but morally bad.
Edwards, disturbed by deist use of non-Christian religions to attack God's goodness and justice, worked hard to learn about these religions. He sought out and read travelogues, dictionaries, and encyclopedias of religion available in his time. The books cited ...