Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sinking so exceedingly

Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important of American philosophical theologians, was born 310 years ago today. He was a major figure in the revivalist movement of New England in the 1730s and 1740s - the so-called First Great Awakening - but fell out with his own congregation and went to minister at a Massachusetts mission outpost. Many of his sermons and essays were published, and old editions of his collected works, readily available online, tend to include a diary he kept when still a young man.

Edwards was born on 5 October 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, into a large family; and, having been tutored by his father and sisters, entered Yale College aged 13. He worked as a pastor in New York, before returning to Yale as a tutor. He took a position, in 1737, as associate pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, Massachusetts. The same year he married Sarah Pierpont, and they had 11 children.

After Stoddard’s death, Edwards took over in sole ministerial charge of the large Northampton congregation, and began to criticise the moral ills of New England society, not least in published sermons and essays, such as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. He went on to produce many more tracts inspiring and supporting the revivalist movement, not least The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1742), and A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746).

According to Yale University’s web page on Edwards: ‘Perry Miller, the grand expositor of the New England mind and founder of the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, described Edwards as the first and greatest homegrown American philosopher. If the student penetrates behind the technical language of theology, Miller argued, “he discovers an intelligence which, as much as Emerson’s, Melville’s, or Mark Twain’s, is both an index of American society and a comment upon it.” Although nineteenth-century editors of Edwards “improved” his style out of embarrassment for his unadorned, earthy, and earnest language, today Edwards is recognized as a consummate and sophisticated rhetorician and as a master preacher.’

In 1750, after a long-running dispute with his congregation, Edwards was dismissed by the church in Northampton for trying to impose strict qualifications for admission to the sacraments. According to Yale again: ‘His dismissal is often seen as a turning point in colonial American history because it marked the clear and final rejection of the old “New England Way” constructed by the Puritan settlers of New England. [. . .] Ironically, then, the colonial theologian who best anticipated the intellectual shape of modern America also was its first victim.’

in 1751, Edwards went to the mission post of Stockbridge, on the western border of Massachusetts, where he pastored a small English congregation, and wrote many of his major works, including A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will. In late 1757, he was lured back to mainstream society with the presidency of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) - because, according to Princeton, he was considered ‘the most eminent American philosopher-theologian of his time’. He died but a few months later. For further biographical information see Wikipedia, the Jonathan Edwards Center website (Yale University), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, or the Desiring God website.

Edwards has no claim to fame as a diarist, but his collected works do include some pages of a diary kept largely in his youth. A first section is made up of fairly regularly entries from December 1722 to September 1723; and a second section has frequent entries between October 1723 and June 1724, then intermittent entries to June 1725, one single entry in 1726, one in 1734, and finally three in 1735. The diary can be found in The Life of President Edwards by S. E. Dwight published by Carvill in 1830 (and in other general compilations of Edwards’ works) at Internet Archive, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and Googlebooks.

15 January 1723
‘About two or three o’clock. I have been all this time decaying. It seemed yesterday, the day before, and Saturday, that I should always retain the same resolutions to the same height. But alas! how soon do I decay! O how weak, how infirm, how unable to do any thing of myself! What a poor inconsistent being! What a miserable wretch, without the assistance of the Spirit of God! While I stand, I am ready to think that I stand by my own strength, and upon my own legs; and I am ready to triumph over my spiritual enemies, as if it were I myself that caused them to flee: when alas! I am but a poor infant, upheld by Jesus Christ; who holds me up, and gives me liberty to smile to see my enemies flee, when he drives them before me. And so I laugh, as though I myself did it, when it is only Jesus Christ leads me along, and fights himself against my enemies. And now the Lord has a little left me, how weak do I find myself! O let it teach me to depend less on myself, to be more humble, and to give more of the praise of my ability to Jesus Christ! The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? The occasion of my decaying, is a little melancholy. My spirits are depressed, because I fear that I lost some friendship the last night; and, my spirits being depressed, my resolutions have lost their strength. I differ to-day from yesterday in these things: I do not resolve anything to-day half so strongly. I am not so perpetually thinking of renewing my resolutions as I was then. I am not half so vigorous as I was then; nor am I half so careful to do every thing with vigour. Then, I kept continually acting; but now, I do things slowly, and satisfy myself by thinking of religion in the mean time. I am not so careful to go from one business to another. I felt humiliation about sun-set. What shall I do, in order that I may, with a good grace, fall into christian discourse and conversation? At night. The next time I am in such a lifeless frame, I will force myself to go rapidly from one thing to another, and to do those things with vigour, in which vigour would ever be useful. The things which take off my mind, when bent on religion, are commonly some remarkable change or alteration - journeys, change of place, change of business, change of studies, and change of other circumstances; or something that makes me melancholy; or some sin.’

17 January 1723
‘About three o’clock, overwhelmed with melancholy.’

1 January 1724
‘Not to spend too much time in thinking, even of important and necessary worldly business, and to allow every thing its proportion of thought, according to its urgency and importance.’

2 January 1724
‘These things established, That time gained in things of lesser importance, is as much gained in things of greater; that a minute gained in times of confusion, conversation, or in a journey, is as good as minute gained in my study, at my most retired times; and so, in general, that a minute gained at one time is as good as at another.’

3 January 1724
‘The time and pains laid out in seeking the world, is to be proportioned to the necessity, usefulness, and importance of it, with respect to another world, together with the uncertainty of living, and of retaining; provided, that nothing that our duty enjoins, or that is amiable, be omitted, and nothing sinful or unbecoming be done for the sake of it.’

6 January 1724 [At Yale College]
‘This week has been a very remarkable week with me, with respect to despondencies, fears, perplexities, multitudes of cares, and distraction of mind: it being the week I came hither to New-Haven, in order to entrance upon the office of tutor of the college. I have now abundant reason to be convinced of the troublesomeness and vexation of the world, and that it will never be another kind of world.’

7 January 1724
‘When I am giving the relation of a thing, remember to abstain from altering either in the matter or manner of speaking, so much, as that if every one, afterwards, should alter as much, it would at last come to be properly false.’

2 September 1724
‘By a sparingness in diet, and eating as much as may be what is light and easy of digestion, I shall doubtless be able to think more clearly, and shall gain time; 1. By lengthening out my life; 2. Shall need less time for digestion, after meals; 3. Shall be able to study more closely, without injury to my health; 4. Shall need less time for sleep; 5. Shall more seldom be troubled with the head-ache.’

12 September 1724
‘Crosses of the nature of that which I met with this week, thrust me quite below all comforts in religion. They appear no more than vanity and stubble, especially when I meet with them so unprepared for them. I shall not be fit to encounter them, except I have a far stronger and more permanent faith, hope, and love.’

30 September 1724
‘It has been a prevailing thought with me, to which I have given place in practice, that it is best sometimes to eat or drink, when it will do me no good, because the hurt that it will do me, will not be equal to the trouble of denying myself. But I have determined to suffer that thought to prevail no longer. The hurries of commencement and diversion of the vacancy, has been the occasion of my sinking so exceedingly, as in the last three weeks.’

The Diary Junction

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