(Opinion): Forgotten theologian's story told

by Russ Pulliam

Jonathan Edwards, who ranks among the foremost of American Protestant theologians and philosophers, might have been surprised to see a 600-page book on his life come out of the University of Notre Dame.p. But his Notre Dame biographer, history Professor George Marsden, sees common ground between Edwards and the university. Notre Dame’s origins can be traced to Roman Catholic missions serving the Indians in the pioneer period of the Midwest. Edwards spent most of the last decade of his relatively short life in a mission to Indians in a pioneer area of western Massachusetts.p. Edwards’ life certainly deserves Marsden’s new and thorough biography. He was born 300 years ago today and tends to be remembered now only for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which is included in literary anthologies. But Marsden, an evangelical Protestant bringing theological diversity to Notre Dame, tells a much bigger story than a sermon calling for repentance and conversion to Christ.p. Edwards had a great deal of influence in the period building up to the Revolutionary War, helping to lay the foundation for the American experiment in freedom and representative government.p. What makes Edwards so unusual is how he ranks as a top performer in several fields. Edwards is often tapped as the greatest of American theologians and usually is put in the top tier of American philosophers. As a missionary to Indians, he earned a spot in the history books both for his defense of justice for the Indians and for his publication of the diary of David Brainerd, which became an inspiration to several generations of missionaries.p. Edwards and wife, Sarah, had 11 children, and his descendants include a vice president of the United States (Aaron Burr), three U.S. senators, 13 college presidents and 65 college professors. His death at age 54 came just after he had assumed the presidency of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University.p. “He was more well known in the 19th century,” says Marsden. “In the early 19th century, there were debates about who was more influential, Edwards or (Benjamin) Franklin.”p. Public knowledge of Edwards’ accomplishments declined as ignorance of religious faith grew. “The essence of America is know-how and pragmatism. There are wonderful aspects of America that grow out of that,” Marsden says. “There are other sides to America. A lot of Americans do practice a traditional religious faith. But in the public culture, that faith tends to be downplayed or forgotten. Religious faith is considered to be a private matter, but in fact it has lots of public implications.”p. Marsden’s capacity for research and balance is reflected in favorable reviews from The Washington Post, Commonweal magazine and The New York Times.p. From the more conservative side of the spectrum, White House staffer Tim Goeglein, a Fort Wayne native, has read the book with appreciation. “George Marsden’s book shows that we had a generation of Founders before 1776 who remain fundamental to America’s political, cultural and theological foundations. Jonathan Edwards is first in that line,” he said.p. Goeglein sees the book as important in the discussion of faith in the public marketplace of ideas. “The book shows that faith and reason are compatible and not at war,” he said. “Faith and reason meet in harmony in this extraordinary individual.”p. With support from the left and the right, Protestants and Catholics, the book brings a refreshing perspective to bear on a neglected figure in American history.p. Pulliam is associate editor of The Star. Contact him at 1-317-444-6001 or via e-mail at russell.pulliam@indystar.com .

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