Marsden's Edwards XX
Bill Long 10/10/05
Finishing the Course
As I pen my last essay on Marsden's biography of Edwards, I do so with gratitude, humility and not a little regret. Though I can't bid farewell, as did Edward Gibbon, to a companion that has accompanied me for two decades, I can say that Marsden's work was my most engaging biographical read in many a year. He finishes the book with confidence and aplomb, describing the last days of Edwards, Edwards' reception after his death and Marsden's own valedictory remarks on the writing of history from the perspective of one who shares the faith of his subject. In this last essay I would like to relate only one or two things about Edwards' last days before closing with personal comments on intersections between my work and Edwards' labors.
One Last Glimpse
Aaron Burr, Sr. died in Fall 1757, and the Princeton Trustees selected Edwards to succeed him as President. Edwards left Northampton and arrived in Princeton in January 1758. One small vignette Marsden gives is priceless. Edwards got to spend some time with his daughter, Esther Burr (widow of Aaron), and her two small children, Sally and Aaron Jr. The boy was only 19 months old, and here is how his mother described him:
"Aaron is a little dirty noisy boy, very different from Sally in almost every respect. He begins to talk a little, is very sly and mischievious. He has more sprightliness than Sally and most say he is handsomer, but not so good tempered. He is very resolute and requires a good governor to bring him to terms" (p. 493).
This of the future Vice-President and killer of Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Edwards preached a few times in February and requested that his family be inoculated against smallpox on February 23. Progressive medical people were in favor of such inoculuations but in this case it backfired on the President, killing him on March 22. Edwards had just lost his father, at age 89, about seven weeks previous to this, and within the year his daughter Esther and his wife Sarah would also die. Princeton, the graveyard of Presidents (Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr) had claimed another one of Colonial America's distinguished sons and several members of his family.
Last Works and Words
Edwards left two great unfinished works at his death: (1) a history of the work of redemption; and (2) his harmony of the Old and New Testaments. Hundreds of MS pages of both survive though not enough is known, especially of the former, to be able to say exactly what his conclusions were going to be. Marsden makes the plausible suggestion that these two works would also have a sort of polemical flavor to them, the former because biblical authority had been called into question in the English-speaking world for about 60 years by this time and the latter since the "modern" work of secular history-writing was making inroads both in France and England. In other words, by writing a 'harmony' of the Bible, in which he would demonstrate the truth of biblical prophecy and the "types" of Christ in the Bible, Edwards would be standing against the proto-critical reading of the Bible which would widen into full-blown criticism in 19th century Germany. Again, by sketching a history of the work of redemption, in which he was committed to demonstrating the providential work of God in guiding the church through history (up to the role the Edwards thought Princeton would play in God's plan), Edwards was trying to stand against those who would explain historical development by rational or natural factors alone. Edwards would be an apologist until the end.
My Life--A Secular Edwardsian Life
I have almost fully discarded the theological tradition of Reformed or Evangelical Protestantism in which I was nurtured, even though the tradition is deeply embedded in me and I often see the world through the images and language of that tradition. I do not believe in the OT "prophecies" or in biblical "typology." I don't believe in telling a historical story by reference to providential intervention in that story. I don't worry about original sin or concern myself at all regarding whether or not my will is free. I don't believe that religious revivals, if such things exist, are really good things.
But there are some things that I cannot escape, and I freely confess them here at the end. The two things that shape me most significantly as I face the world each day are the biblical text and the richness of history. They shape me not simply because I am "inclined" to study them or have found them interesting in the past or have a mind that rivets on detail as well as grand theory and can recall things with precision. The Bible and history shape me because I was once an "Edwardsian" type of Christian and spent all my time grooving my mind in biblical and historical mastery. So deep were the furrows of my biblical and historical mastery that I knew the texture of the biblical text, and could recite not simply the contents of any chapter of the Bible on request but could tell you nuances and themes and cross references and meaning of passages--all from memory.
I got a later start in historical mastery because I was so busy internalizing every word of the Scriptures, but once I began to feast my soul on the millions of details and larger themes of the Western tradition, I couldn't stop learning. I had to be able to describe not simply each century in my mind, but be able to tell myself convincingly what the characteristic and unique features of each decade of Western history were. I wanted to be able to differentiate not simply the 1510s from the 1520s, which I believed that any good beginning historian should be able to do, but the 1710s and the 1720s in several cultures; the 420s from 430s in Rome, the 1100s and 1110s in medieval Europe, the 1890s and 1900s in Europe and America.
In short, I wanted to be able to sink deep roots into historical meaning and events as well as to make the phrasings and stories of the Bible my internal possession. Each day I rise and do more of it. And, I can truthfully say, that my inclination to do so comes from Edwards, or the tradition that inspired him. Maybe my life, focused as it is on research and writing, is, in the final analysis, something akin to an attempt to finish the unfinished work of Edwards, though in a secular vein. Who knows whether he, if alive in our day, would have done the same.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long