How A Repressive, Dour, Wig-Wearing Puritan Liberated Marilynne Robinson


Do I Look Like a Liberator of 21st Century Humankind? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the latest issue of Humanities, the magazine for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Nobel Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson discusses how Jonathan Edwards, that repressive, dour, powder wig-wearing killjoy Puritan, popularly known for his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” liberated her.

The essay, titled (brace yourself), “Jonathan Edwards in a New Light: Remembered for Preaching Fire and Brimstone, He Was Actually One of the Great Intellectuals of His Era,” is striking most notably because Robinson is known as an unashamed Calvinist who actually reads, loves, and frequently writes about Calvin, while she’s been relatively silent about Jonathan Edwards. This essay demonstrates she’s more than a one-note, albeit highly literate, Calvinist.

Here’s some excerpts:

I know this sounds improbable on its face. We are told that it is modernity that liberates, and Puritanism, with its famous defense of predestination and its all-devouring work ethic, that we ought to be, and perhaps never are, liberated from. I have always been unperturbed by these criticisms.


Jonathan Edwards provided me with a metaphysics that made the phenomenal world come alive for me again and that seemed to me to undercut every version of determinism, including even predestination, without obliging me to accept an alternative.

Robinson concludes the essay:

Edwards’s vision….taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

Read Robinson’s essay on Jonathan Edwards here.

Jonathan Edwards and the Famous Dueling Death

It sounds like the title of a Hardy Boys mystery.

I’ve combed through Marsden’s hefty Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and surprisingly couldn’t find any reference to it.

Aaron Burr, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, was the third vice president of the United States. At File:Hamilton-burr-duelthe time, dueling was a fairly common practice.

He and Alexander Hamilton (a former Secretary of the Treasury) and Burr (then the sitting vice president) were involved in a political dispute. They met outside Weehawken, NJ for a duel. Both men fired shots, with Burr hitting Hamilton in the leg. Hamilton eventually bled to death.

I originally read about this deadly duel in a fascinating book by Roland Bainton called Yale and the Ministrynow out of print. (Bainton was also the author of the still popular and excellent book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.) Reading about the incident, I discovered a Wikipedia page devoted to this famous duel (which of course I knew nothing about), which they describe as one of the “most famous personal conflicts in American history.”

Then it dawned on me: in a roundabout way, Jonathan Edwards, by means of his grandson Aaron Burr, was involved in a famous deadly duel.

So next time you need a little Jonathan Edwards trivia to impress your friends while at the local watering hole, now you have it.

Recent Post at TGC and The Aquila Report

At the risk of sounding self promoting, my post on taking my daughter to Yale was published at The Gospel Coalition and The Aquila Report (the former more broadly yet solidly evangelical, the latter robustly confessional and Presbyterian).

And at the risk of feigning modesty, I’m very humbled, encouraged and surprised.

What I Wish I Said (or, Confessions of a Traumatized Father on Sending His First Child to College)

It finally happened.

Last week, standing beside our van parked in front of her dorm on College Street at Yale University (a Hallmark card moment if there ever was one), it was my fateful turn to say goodbye to our oldest child as she transitions to college.

I tried summoning up some words of wisdom, or even something profound to say. It’s not like this moment caught me (an admittedly slow learner) by surprise. “This is it,” I thought, heaving a weary sigh instead of taking a deep manly breath. “Better make this count.” I was ready.

So how did it go down? Here’s the dramatic play-by-play:

Her: “Bye, Dad.”

Me: “Bye, _________ I love you.” [Name withheld to protect the innocent or easily embarrassed.]

Her: “I love you too.”

[Insert potentially obligatory forced hugs.]

So what happened? Is this really all that I could muster? The first of our five precious children transitioning to college (and not just any college, mind you, but [ahem] Yale, which is, in spite of our seemingly pervasive virtual connectedness, a world away from Minneapolis), and I had nothing but a mere “goodbye” and “I love you”? Adding insult to injury, by training and profession I’m a pastor with a deep appreciation for Jonathan Edwards, the namesake of my daughter’s college. One would think loquacious Puritan-laced vocabulary would naturally fall like fresh dew from my lips. But no. One could chalk it up to fatigue due to the long drive, or the many hours spent acquiring things for her dorm room, or simply the trauma that comes with letting go (or trying to let go) of my first child as she embarks on this next biggish step in her life. But I had no words.

And then, hours later while emotionally torturing myself, I remembered.

I remembered visiting Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College (my daughter’s assigned college, hereafter JE) the afternoon before our goodbyes for the first time. Unashamedly, I was like a giddy school child, wandering the vacant halls wide-eyed at all of the Edwards paraphernalia. In the copy room I stumbled upon two large cardboard boxes. I reached in and beheld a treasure of very plain 50/50 poly-cotton grey sweatshirts with the front green-emblazoned, quite simply, “Jonathan Edwards.” Trembling, I discreetly tucked one of them under my arm and left the room, which my loving wife then made me rightfully return. I e-mailed a faculty member with begging words to acquire one of them as a lasting memento. Her searing reply? The sweatshirts are for the custodians. The custodians?! No disrespect to the custodians, but I would have really appreciated one of those sweatshirts during frigid Minnesota winters. Instead, I’ll have to wait to get my JE gear later in the year as a Christmas present. Or better yet, maybe I could be an honorary JE custodian for a day. (Please?)

But back to my story. While descending the main stairwell in JE, I came upon the following Edwards quote etched in a not-so-

je_statementdiscreet 10 x 4 feet thick glass placarded on the wall for all to see:

I believe that the whole universe, heaven and earth, air and seas,…be full of images of divine things, as full as a language is of words; and that the multitude of those things that I have mentioned are but a very small part of what is really intended to be signified and typified by these things: but that there is room for persons to be learning more and more of this language and seeing more of that which is declared in it to the end of the world without discovering all.

(From Edwards’ Typological Writings, p. 152.)

So what’s the takeaway? If I could modify my parting words to my daughter, along with “goodbye” and “I love you” I would also tell her to remember. Remember Edwards’ words of divine things, of persons “learning more and more of this language and seeing that which is declared in it to the end of the world.” I would tell her that this will be my ongoing prayer for her during her years at Yale. In short, by God’s grace may my daughter become the person Edwards describes: one who has the room to learn, see, and, more importantly, love this divine language, and the Giver of it, “more and more.”

Even at Yale.

[Previously: Yale, Jonathan Edwards, and My Daughter]

Japan + Jonathan Edwards = A Surprising Work Indeed

My oldest daughter, who is much smarter than her father, just forwarded me the latest monthly e-mail newsletter from Yale University. Honestly, I thought it was a joke, something straight out of The Onion.

I’m glad I was wrong.

The headline of one of the sections? “Global interest in Jonathan Edwards spurs new interest in Japan.” Japan? Jonathan Edwards? Together?

Yes. And it only gets better.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

For the American revivialist (sic) and philosopher who wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton in 1737it would no doubt be equally surprising that the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan recently announced establishment of the Jonathan Edwards Center Japan, affiliated with the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University….

The Jonathan Edwards Center Japan will serve as a research, education and publications hub for study of Edwards and early American history and develop links with the academic community in Japan, including, but not limited to, Sophia University, a private research university in Tokyo.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), pastor, revivalist, Christian philosopher, missionary, Yale College graduate, and president of Princeton University, is regarded by many as North America’s greatest theologian. He is the subject of intense scholarly interest because of his significance as an historical figure and the profound legacy he left on America’s religious, political and intellectual landscapes.

“Our plan is to pay sustained critical attention to Edwards’s and early American historical thought,” said Edwards scholar Anri Morimoto, a professor at International Christian University. “Jonathan Edwards was an important American theologian and, more specifically, America’s greatest contributor to catholic and philosophical theology.”

Kenneth Minkema, executive director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, observed,  “The establishment of the Jonathan Edwards Center Japan at International Christian University is a significant expansion of Edwards and early American history scholarship and will serve widely both academia and the church.”

This is an astonishingly encouraging development. The last I checked, Japan is a 1% Christian nation. Who would have ever predicted that interest in Jonathan Edwards would result in a university in Tokyo, along with the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, together creating a research center solely devoted to his thought? I’d like to think that Edwards himself would be surprised at this new development, but I’d probably, and gladly, be proven otherwise.

Many thanks to the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University for their strategic partnership to make The Jonathan Edwards Center in Japan become a reality.

[Also seeYale, Jonathan Edwards, and My Daughter]

Yale, Jonathan Edwards, and my daughter

Recently, my oldest daughter was informed which college she’ll attend while at Yale. This is the place she’ll live, eat, go to the library, form most of her friendships, etc., so this is no small news.

Modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, Yale has 12 colleges. Purportedly, incoming freshman are chosen a specific college at random. So Imagewhere did my daughter get assigned? Jonathan Edwards College.

On the whole, I have great admiration for the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards (a well known 18th century pastor and theologian) so I’m giddy with excitement regarding my daughter’s assignment. Seriously, I almost wet myself when she told me the news. Good thing there was a bathroom nearby.

Yale publishes The Works of Jonathan Edwards, an exhaustive (and expensive) multi-volume set. Yale also is home to the Jonathan Edwards Center, the one place to go for research, education, and publication on all things Edwards.

There’s no shortage of Edwards material to read, but if you’re looking for a place to begin on a very general level, I highly commend three accessible books.

The first book is A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, by Notre Dame historian George Marsden. The title, rather than referring to his life span or height, instead is a slim volume (especially in comparison to Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life), providing a helpful snapshot of Edwards. Start here.

The second book is A Jonathan Edwards Reader (various editors). It covers a variety of material from his sermons, letters, metaphysical works, and other topics.

The final book is The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (various editors), providing ample breadth of Edwards’ preaching (which is far from arid or erudite).

If you view Edwards as a wig-wearing, joyless, scowl-faced man who wore dull-colored clothing and primarily understood God as vengeful and violently vindicative of humanity (i.e. his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”–these books are especially for you. Read them, if only to get a better sense of Edwards’ significant historical influence on the United States. Yes, he was a deeply religious man, and he was not without his blemishes. Who is? But he was a great man, and a towering intellectual. (Deeply religious and intellectual? Scandalous!) Yale wouldn’t be Yale without him, let alone the United States. Find out why and read these books.