JONATHAN EDWARDS’S LEGACY

IN HIS 1949 BIOGRAPHY of Jonathan Edwards (republished in 2005 as a University of Nebraska Press Bison paperback edition), Miller went as far as to claim: “He was one of America’s five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels. He was much more a psychologist and a poet than a logician,” who treated themes of “the will, virtue, sin…as problems not of dogma but of life.”

FOR MILLER, the life and tragedy of Jonathan Edwards was nothing less than “a prefigurement of the artist in America”: “New England of 1730-40 is not the first or the last society to awake unexpectedly to the realization that its practice has become hopelessly sundered from its ethos. American history is a succession of such realizations. But in America or elsewhere, the lot of the analyst who calls attention to the inconsistency is not pleasant.”

W. T. STACE makes the same point when he writes that, instead of blowing our trumpets about “how great and fine and noble we are, how America is the greatest nation that ever appeared on the earth, how we are leading the world to a brighter day, [and] how idealistic we are, we should look at some of the dark places in our lives and see where we go astray. And of course to do this is not likely to be a popular way of proceeding.”

TO ZOOM IN more closely on their contention, we may turn to another of the essays from Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, “Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening.” Despite popular American myths that grew up around them in subsequent generations, “The Puritans were not rugged individualists; they did indeed believe in education of a sort, but not in the “progressive” sense; they abhorred freedom of conscience; and they did not believe at all in democracy.”

ANALYZING THE NOTION of democratic individuality as an expression of human rationality, W. T. Stace distinguishes “…a true and a false individualism. That kind of individualism, sometimes called “rugged,” which consists in selfishly grabbing everything you can, trampling on other people’s rights, and destroying their happiness, is the false kind, and no part of democratic theory.”

IF PERRY MILLER admired the religious integrity of Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwardsmost thoroughly engaged his intellectual attention. Far more than simply the greatest theologian and most incisive philosophical reasoner of his time, historian Miller writes: “He is the child of genius in this civilization; though he met the forces of our society in their infancy, when they had not yet enlarged into the complexity we now endure, he called them by their names, and pronounced as one foreseeing their tendencies.”


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