Great thinkers like Jonathan Edwards can be hard to approach. Many who have read him are convinced that the Northampton divine has much to offer the church today. But he seems to float somewhere above us—severe, austere, out of reach. What a shame! He is surely one whose teachings transcend his own time.

There's no denying that, unlike John Wesley, his colleague in the transatlantic awakening, Edwards can seem distant and forbidding. But some of this is a factor not of who he was, but of the distance between our world and his. We see him through a glass darkly.

In search of the "real Edwards," CH spoke with George Marsden, whose biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, is being published in 2003 by Yale University Press. Marsden helped us see beyond our misconceptions to the precious legacy of this imposing man.

Was Edwards a "cold fish"? He refused to do regular pastoral visitation, he seemed more comfortable with his books than his people, and eventually he pushed his ideals on his congregation so hard that they tossed him out.

There is some basis for the stereotype. Edwards was a serious person, particularly serious about matters of salvation. When he wrote letters to his children, almost invariably the first thing he said was, "You are away from home, and it is possible you might die, and we hope that you will care for your eternal soul—that would give us great joy," or words to that effect. There's not a lot of chit-chat about family news.

When his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., was 10 years old and away on a missionary trip to learn Indian languages, Edwards wrote him a letter. The week before, the elder Edwards had fallen off a horse and been badly injured. But in this letter, he never mentions that to his son. You would think ...

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