New England Theology Revisited



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Jonathan Den Hartog

A passel of Edwardseans walk into a colloquy...it's almost a set up for a joke.

When the review copy of After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology, edited by Oliver Crisp and Douglas Sweeney, landed in my mail from the Colorado headquarters of RiAH (also known as Paul Harvey's office), one of my first reactions was "There are a lot of Edwardseans here." By that I mean there are many chapters in this edited collection--17 to be precise. These chapters cover a large numbers of Edwardseans. Further, the book is filled with scholars who have spent years studying not only Edwards himself but his theological heirs.

Cover for 
After Jonathan Edwards
The New England Theology is the designation for the extended system of theological reflection, which through much of the 19th century claimed a heritage back to Edwards. The movement had largely lost steam by the end of the 19th century, and even much scholarship has not taken the later generations of Edwardseans seriously, dismissing them as theological hair-splitters. In Joseph Haroutunian's classic formulation, they marked the decline from piety to moralism.

As Crisp and Sweeney make clear in their introduction, they aim for a "rehabilitation" of the New England Theology. To them, "the theologians of the New England school were creative contributors to a living American tradition of theological reflection" (5). Not only was New England Theology a unique American theological contribution, but it possessed serious intellectual weight.

The recovery of these Edwardseans has followed the recovery of Edwards as a formidable intellect in his own right--a recovery aided by the Edwards Papers Project at Yale. Earlier works covering the development of this theological tradition included Allen Guelzo's encyclopedic Edwards on the Will, which was not only about Edwards but about Edwardseans on the Will, and Sweeney's earlier study of N.W. Taylor and the New Haven Theology. Still, with the growing body of Edwards scholarship has come the scholarly interest in reconsidering where his ideas took subsequent generations.

The first section of essays considers several of the major themes of the Theology. Allen Guelzo contributes a new essay considering their ideas, not only on the Freedom of the Will, but also on Original Sin. Paul Helm in a subsequent article returns to the issue of the Will and presents a second interpretation, comparing Edwards to other Reformed thinkers on the subject. James Byrd traces the significance of the concept of Benevolence, disinterested and otherwise. Oliver Crisp discusses the new theory of atonement--specifically the Moral Government view--in the tradition.



A second concern is how the theology was expressed by leading lights of the tradition. Peter Jauhiainen offers an overview of Samuel Hopkins's theology. Gerald McDermott paints an insightful picture of Nathanael Emmons. Emmons ended up on one hand repudiating much within the Reformed tradition while simultaneously turning most of the Beecher family against Calvinism. David Kling describes two Edwardsean evangelists in the Second Great Awakening: Edward Dorr Griffin and Asahel Nettleton. Although I knew of both, Kling's article helped me understand each of them more. Douglas Sweeney unpacks the debate between the Taylorites and the Tylerites. (For the record, that would be the controversies between followers of N.W. Taylor the New Haven pastor and theologian and Bennet Tyler, who claimed Taylor had innovated too much.) Sweeney makes the helpful point that rather than minute haggling, the Taylor-Tyler debates actually demonstrated the health and vigor of the movement in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, the very health that could generate such debates led to fracturing that did put the movement onto the path of extinction. Speaking of ending points, Charles Phillips offers a look at Edwards Amasa Park as "The Last Edwardsian."

Let me pause and observe that this section deserves much praise for its clarity. The authors of these pieces do an admirable job of making complex theological matters as accessible as possible. For those wishing a manageable treatment of such American thinkers, these are outstanding selections. These essays could also prove a golden resource for graduate students preparing for exams and trying to make sense of high-level concepts.

The final section deals with the reception of Edwards and the New England Theology, not only in America but abroad. Domestically, Charles Hambrick-Stowe begins by tracing the significance of the Theology for Congregationalism. Mark Noll offers a fascinating accounting of the fate of Edwards's reputation among Presbyterians in the nineteenth century. Noll helpfully distinguishes at least three competing reformed camps, each of which treated the Edwards legacy differently--the Old School Presbyterians committed to upholding Westminster standards, New School Presbyterians upholding Calvinism while adjusting it to American realities, and Congregationalists willing to modify received tradition pretty dramatically. Noll then adds the extra layer of Edwards's reception and use among Scottish Presbyterians, where Edwards proved to be a fruitful conversation partner for multiple theologians. Finally, Noll demonstrates that many Presbyterians in the 19th century departed from Edwards because of their own framework of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, which clashed with Edwards's idealism.

Darryl Hart offers a final domestic reflection, on the growing interest in Edwards among evangelicals over the last fifty years. This piece brings the work almost up to the present while suggesting the not-always-easy relations between evangelical piety and philosophical rigor. Edwards combined the two, but modern advocates have found it a difficult sell.

This final section also demonstrates Edwards's international reputation. Michael McClymond offers a fascinating interpretation of how Edwards was read--and often dismissed--in Britain, Germany, and France. By contrast, Michael Haykin shows that Edwards was quite popular among English Baptists, who built on Edwards to develop their own activist piety and push to international missions. Anri Morimoto suggests that Edwards has had a growing appeal over the past several decades in East Asia--especially in South Korea, but also in Japan and China.

I would note that this international turn builds on a move previously made in Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad. Edwards scholars have grown quite interested in the receptions of Edwards, as Edwards has gone from merely an American theologian to a figure for the rest of the world. And, if Mark Valeri is right, this was very much in tune with Edwards's own concern to stay abreast of the eighteenth century republic of letters--a strategy he passed on to his students Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins, and from them to the New England Theology as a whole.

A final strength of the book is the postscript which Sweeney and Crisp offer. Here, they suggest areas for further research, which could be a gold mine for a graduate student looking for a thesis or dissertation topic.

Although an edited collection will inevitably have gaps, I was struck by several of them. The editors did admit that there is much less scholarship on the reception of Edwards by African-Americans and women. Although Lemuel Haynes and Sarah Osborne were mentioned, it would have been nice to hear from people like John Saillant and Catherine Brekus to see how figures they have studied might triangulate into this conversation. The other glaring gap was the limited treatment of Timothy Dwight, who receives scattered mentions, but not sustained attention. Dwight, Edwards's grandson, attempted to theologize in line with Edwards. Although Dwight, due to poor eye-sight, was not the most original of thinkers, he still reiterated and advanced important Edwardsean concepts in the early republic from his influential post as president of Yale.

Still, this collection will be useful for anyone studying 19th-century theology, whether in history, religious studies, or theology. The descriptions of the advocates for and ideas of the New England Theology are models of making difficult concepts clear. Further, the essays make clear that Edwards's influence continues to be felt, not only through American culture, but increasingly world-wide.

1 comments:

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