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Book Review – Jonathan Edwards within the Enlightenment: Controversy, Experience, & Thought

Book Review

By Brandon Crawford

John T. Lowe and Daniel N. Gullotta, eds. Jonathan Edwards within the Enlightenment: Controversy, Experience, & Thought. New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Series, Vol. 7. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020. 337 pp. $106.00

This latest volume in V&R’s New Directions in Edwards Studies series explores Edwards’s complex relationship with the Enlightenment. The book’s sixteen chapters are broken into five categories: Historiography, Controversies, Society, Experience, and Theology. Most of the chapters are written by new scholars in the field. In several instances, this work represents an author’s first academic publication.

The chapters are consistently excellent. They are well-researched and well-written. They also provide a valuable preview of emerging Edwards scholarship. The renaissance in Edwards studies began with examinations of his philosophical and theological writings. Then, attention moved into Edwards’s sermons and exegetical writings. Among today’s emerging Edwards scholars, it seems that interest is now moving into Edwards’s thought on social and cultural issues. Here we find chapters addressing Edwards’s thoughts on slavery, race, gender, children, witches, war, and more.

If the book has a key term, it is “transitional” or “transitional figure.” In nearly every chapter, the author concludes that Edwards exhibited patterns of thought characteristic of both Reformed scholasticism and Modernity. For example, Edwards defended the right of a clergyman to hold slaves, but he opposed the international slave trade; he believed that children are inherently depraved, but also extolled their potential; he was a staunch defender of the existing social hierarchy, but also made significant contributions to the rise of populism; he believed in the reality of hell, but he defended the justice of hell with Enlightenment principles.

The book also suggests that some of Edwards’s social views may have changed over time. For example, before moving to Stockbridge Edwards could not seem to identify any redeeming qualities in the Native Americans; however, after spending some time in Stockbridge, his views moderated as he found evidence of biblical wisdom in some of their native beliefs and practices.

Given the nature of this volume, there will be times when readers would like to learn more about a particular topic, but will be denied the opportunity—a single chapter is rarely enough space to do justice to a groundbreaking topic. Hopefully, these chapters will serve as catalysts for book-length treatments of some of these topics. Some chapters also have an inordinate number of typographical errors. One wishes that the copyeditors had been more thorough. These issues aside, this is a groundbreaking volume that demands attention from all serious students of Jonathan Edwards.