B.A. 1720, M.A. 1723
The “angry God” limned with such vivid menace in 1741 by Jonathan Edwards can cause a smile among American studies majors today. Robert Lowell’s poetic portrait imagines the great divine still dyspeptic even in heaven. But Edwards’s views on human depravity were already losing ground in his own time and place, as more and more New England churches began to accept good intentions as sufficient proof of righteousness.
Edwards managed to inspire hundreds of conversions during a wave of enthusiasm in the early 1740s known as the Great Awakening. But he was soon embroiled in controversy with his Northampton congregation as well as his college. Banished to the outpost of Stockbridge in 1751, Edwards preached in more simplistic terms to white and Indian congregations but lived mostly for his voluminous writing, including an ambitious attempt to integrate predestination doctrine with the empiricism of Locke and Newton, whom he had first studied at Yale.
Edwards’s ambitious publications brought recognition beyond New England. He was appointed to be the third president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) in 1759 but died of smallpox just after taking office. Scholars have called him “the last medieval American” and one of the country’s major thinkers. More than two centuries after a theological rift with his alma mater, the ongoing Yale edition of the Edwards papers (40 volumes so far) provides a symbolic homecoming and a worthy tribute to a preacher who said of himself, “I think I can write better than I can speak.”