Thunderstorms & Flying Spiders
Puritans were "people of one Book," right? Not Jonathan Edwards. He was a person of two books: the Bible and the book of nature. Nature was the showplace of God's glory and the reflection of his beauty.
In his Personal Narrative, the great theologian recalls of his days as a young Christian in love with God: "I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things." Hardly the austere Puritan.
To be fair to the Puritans, during the first, killing winters they had spent in New England, its howling wilderness had seemed to offer little in way of glory and beauty. By Edwards's day, that landscape had become at least partly tamed. It was easier, now, to look out one's window or stroll one's fields and see the hand of a benevolent God at work all around.
But even in this gentler age, young Jonathan stood out among his Christian contemporaries for the theological intensity of his love for nature.
Saved in "God's country"
In one sense, it all started at his conversion, around the age of 17. "The appearance of everything was altered … " he remembered in his Personal Narrative. "There seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything." After his conversion, "God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind."
Edwards was especially captivated by the power and majesty of thunderstorms. Whereas before his conversion, they had terrified him, now he found them "sweet":
"I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm. And used to take the opportunity at such times, to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightning's play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder … leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing, or chant for my mediations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice."
His appreciation for nature had deep roots. He had grown up in "God's country" itself—the lush Connecticut River Valley (see p. 3)—riding horseback and walking along the riverbanks.
As a fifteen-year-old student at Yale, Jonathan's scientific curiosity about nature bloomed. Isaac Newton's Optics captivated his imagination, leading him to meditate on God's intimate involvement in the workings of the natural world. He wrote essays on atoms, light rays, rainbows, and other topics in "natural philosophy."
Solving a webby puzzle
Working in the mold of the Enlightenment "gentleman scientist," Edwards wrote his first piece for publication. This was not a sermon or a theological treatise. Rather, it was a scientific essay he sent in 1723, in the form of a letter, most likely to the Honorable Paul Dudley, associate justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts. Dudley was a member of the British Royal Society who contributed often to its Philosophical Transactions.
The letter concerns New England's "flying spider," known for "marching in the air from one tree to another, sometimes at the distance of five or six rods, though they are wholly destitute of wings." With the probing scientific mind Edwards would later apply to the religious experiences of those swept up in the Great Awakening, he set out to observe and explain the spider's ability to "fly."
It flies, he discovered, by excreting two webs. The first anchors it to its starting point, and the second sails through the air to a branch or some other object. The spider then releases the first web and retracts the other.
Characteristically, Edwards sought in this spidery mode of propulsion lessons about God. First, he saw "the wisdom of the Creator in providing of the spider," and second, "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, even the insects."
God's type of world
Illustrations from nature permeate Edwards's sermons. When he wanted to communicate God's character to the Mohicans and Mohawks gathered on the plains of the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, he declared, "God's goodness is like a river that overflows all of its bounds." In another sermon at Stockbridge he likened the Bible to the sun: "We invite you to come and enjoy the light of the Word of God, which is ten thousand times better than [the] light of the sun."
These illustrations were part of a larger habit of typologizing. Edwards often looked to the visible, physical, and earthly to illustrate the invisible, spiritual, and divine.
One of the most intriguing of Edwards's typological writings is his "Images and Shadows of Divine Things." Here he interpreted trees, rivers, stars, and other natural objects as spiritual types. He saw, for example, a cat playing with a mouse as "a lively emblem of the way of the devil with wicked men." The difficulties encountered in climbing a mountain reminded him of the challenges faced in the Christian life.
Edwards stood in awe of the beauty of God's creation. For him it provided meaning in life, even in the midst of pain and misery. In a short essay, "The Beauty of the World," he wrote, "The reason why almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life: because they cannot bear to lose the sight of such a lovely and beautiful world."
Through his writings on nature, Edwards reminds us, even in our technological age, to explore the mysteries of the natural world and to see the stamp of the Creator's wisdom, beauty, and goodness on his entire creation. He helps us to see the invisible God in the visible world.
Stephen J. Nichols is an associate professor at Lancaster Bible College. This article is adapted from Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (P & R Publishing, 2001).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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