Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden
Historical Biography as Exquisite Art
I have heard this book highly praised by anyone who has read it. It’s been called “one of the best biographies ever written.” I’ve read a fair amount of Edwards, and decided it was time to get the full picture of his life. What an incredible experience!
Marsden says, “one of my goals has been to understand him as a real person in his own time.” (p. 2) He succeeds marvelously. I am guilty of gross historical inaccuracies in my thinking. I generally read my own circumstances back into the events of the past in more ways than I can even begin to realize: geography, population, theology, politics, education, etc. Marsden brings 18th century New England alive, and it is very different from what we are used to. In particular, he highlights the Englishness of pre-revolutionary New England, in contrast to our own Americanism. They had family based hierarchies. Boston was the hub, New York was just getting going. Schools that we view as ancient (Princeton) were just being born. The western edge of Massachusetts was the western edge of the “civilized world”! People were literally being kidnapped and killed by Indians, and the wars with the French were a constant tension. After reading this biography, I feel like I know the history of the period like I never have before. I understand the founding era of our country like I never have before. Combined with The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, I feel like I have a grasp of the facts, not just the popular simplifications of today.
More important than early New England history, though, is that I now know Edwards, and he is inspiring. Marsden portrays him in all his depths. The depth and development of his thought is explored at length, in particular his philosophy and his theology. I was stretched intellectually by this treatment of Edwards’s intellect. But this is not at all at the expense of the depth of his heart and his affections. I was moved to rapturous worship reading this biography. Edwards combined deep thinking about God with equally deep love and delight in God, and this shines through.
The events of his life are given full detailed treatment all the way through. Even if you are familiar with most of the key events, this brings them to life like no conference message can. His character is displayed. He was a great christian, but he was also a sinner. This is no hagiography. The good shines forth brilliantly, and the sin (which Edwards himself deeply lamented) is shown as well.
Lastly, I must comment on Marsden’s writing, which overlaps with his scholarship as well. This is an example of historical biography as exquisite art. Reading this book was at times a deeply aesthetic experience to be savored the whole way through. This is one of those books where 50 pages in you wish the book was twice as long, and realize that you will need to take care to relish every page.
On so many levels, these and others as well, this book is a masterpiece. It’s as good as everyone says it is — one of the best books I have ever read.